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?