Of Vain Subtleties

I just scratched an entire rambling first paragraph; not something I normally do.  I try to be Mozart and have all the notes pour onto the page fully mature and organized.  I figured it was better for all of us (you and me included) not to be forced to witness my inner turmoil over whether I consider myself to be subtle or not.  First I was convinced that I was and that I was proud of it, and then I was convinced the other way, and then….well you get the point. 

What is shocking about the whole thing is that I was actually contemplating subtlety and where I fall on the spectrum early this morning, before I even had an inkling of a suspicion that the next of Montaigne’s Essays was “Of Vain Subtleties.”  In typical fashion, though, subtlety has little to do with his essay on subtlety.  Subtlety, the starting block, leads him to this rather interesting and utilitarian idea: “’Tis a strong evidence of a weak judgement when men approve of things for their being rare and new, or for their difficulty, where worth and usefulness are not conjoined to recommend them.”

Which, naturally, leads him to outline his theory of ignorance and understanding…

On one end of the spectrum of understanding…you have ignorance.  On the other end of the spectrum…you also have ignorance.  The way he describes it makes me think of Buddhist thought, or at least some sort of Eastern aesthetic: my understanding of Nirvana being a return to nothingness, and my understanding of Eastern art being a return to simplicity.  [Wow, nothing subtle about my facile reductionism there!]

Betwixt the two extremes of ignorance are the people who leave the first in pursuit of the second, and who believe inaccurately that they have attained the second.  “The simple peasants are good people,” he says, “and so are the philosophers, or whatever the present age calls them, men of strong and clear reason, and whose souls are enriched with an ample instruction of profitable sciences.  The mongrels who have disdained the first form of the ignorance of letters, and have not been able to attain to the other (sitting betwixt two stools, as I and a great many more of us do), are dangerous, foolish, and importunate; these are they that trouble the world.”  His next sentence is a humble and admirably self-deprecating one.  “And therefore it is that I, for my own part, retreat as much as I can towards the first and natural station, whence I so vainly attempted to advance.”

Is there a paradox here? Is it his very self-deprecation that elevates him to that second stool? 

And now, having identified the paradox (assuming you agree with me), are we ever able to parrot his words and believe them hard enough to elevate ourselves to the second stool? 

Yours importunately,

Mongrel J

5 thoughts on “Of Vain Subtleties

  1. Cody says:

    “men approve of things for their being rare and new, or for their difficulty, where worth and usefulness are not conjoined to recommend them”

    It often seems that school artificially forces learning to be difficult for the sake of difficulty, with little regard to its worth. Exceptions are rare. I don’t know why this is; it seems broken.

    • jamesrnelson says:

      However, there is a certain value of difficulty insofar as it improves ability and contributes towards comfort with and mastery of a subject. Practice and training are important, but perhaps in academia people are bedazzled by the abstruseness and difficulty of their practice to the point where they lose sight of what is important…?

      • Cody says:

        They also enjoy artificially exacerbating the difficulty via abstruse presentation when simpler, clearer explanations exist.

    • Kyle says:

      Are you still complaining about Utz’s class??

  2. jamesrnelson says:

    Greg Riobe commented via facebook, “What about your original spectrum of subtlety – how would you define the two extremes, and is it a quality to be subtle?”

    Here was my reply:

    Well Montaigne’s essay was a difficult one to address. As far as subtlety is concerned, I think my initial difficulty with it was that I was trying to place it irrevocably on the side of good or bad, when it is actually neither. My first thought was that I wasn’t subtle and that this was good because subtlety is actually a form of intellectual arrogance and selfishness. “I’m going to try and be barely understood so that I can feel smarter than people and so that no one else benefits from my smart comment.” But I think that as with many qualities that we can possess, whether it is good or bad depends on context. Speed, for example is good if you’re in a race, but it’s not good if in completing a project you sacrifice accuracy for it.

    Subtlety, then, is perhaps bad when it is used to foster feelings of elitism, but when employed in a musical structure or in solving a mathematical or philosophical quandary is very satisfying.

    As for the spectrum of ignorance, I was going to include Montaigne’s longest paragraph on it, but due to its length and number of compound-complex sentences (read: run-on sentences) I opted not to. Otherwise, you know, my section of quoted text would probably have been longer than my section of original text. I’ll share it with you here now though (and I’ll probably add these facebook comments as pertinent comments on essasimight as well):

    “A man may say with some colour of truth that there is an Abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it: an ignorance that knowledge creates and begets, at the same time that it despatches and destroys the first. Of mean understandings, little inquisitive, and little instructed, are made good Christians, who by reverence and obedience simply believe and are constant in their belief. In the average understandings and the middle sort of capacities, the error of opinion is begotten; they follow the appearance of the first impression, and have some colour of reason on their side to impute our walking on in the old beaten path to simplicity and stupidity, meaning us who have not informed ourselves by study. The higher and nobler souls, more solid and clear-sighted, make up another sort of true believers, who by a long and religious investigation of truth, have obtained a clearer and more penetrating light into the Scriptures, and have discovered the mysterious and divine secret of our ecclesiastical polity; and yet we see some, who by the middle step, have arrived at that supreme degree with marvellous fruit and confirmation, as to the utmost limit of Christian intelligence, and enjoy their victory with great spiritual consolation, humble acknowledgment of the divine favour, reformation of manners, and singular modesty. I do not intend with these to rank those others, who to clear themselves from all suspicion of their former errors and to satisfy us that they are sound and firm, render themselves extremely indiscreet and unjust, in the carrying on our cause, and blemish it with infinite reproaches of violence and oppression.”

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