Montaigne : Self – Consciousness (Part I) – R. Kuppusamy

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The story of self-consciousness is very long. It is in fact, as ancient as humankind. For the unique and special characteristic of humans is their self – consciousness. Man was the only animal who turned his gaze inside and saw his own self, mind and ideas. This reflective consciousness was the cause for the birth and development of language and later writing. And writing made possible human culture and civilization.

In India, the seers of the Upanishads and Buddha had fully developed the science of self – consciousness and its farthest stage of objective, cosmic consciousness or divine knowledge. In the west, Socrates turned the plates of scientific quest for the knowledge of nature and universal knowledge of the pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales and replaced it with morality and particularly focused on self inquiry and self – consciousness. The outer quest was ousted by the inner quest.

Some three centuries after Socrates came Jesus Christ. He emphasized as the first virtue and sign of wisdom for humans in Solomon’s injunction.  The fear of god is the beginning of wisdom. Christ replaced human self – knowledge with faith in god as his Jewish forefathers had said in their old Testament. Though in one place, he mentioned that ‘the kingdom of god is within you’, he did not emphasize the idea nor showed the way how one could go inside and see it nor live in it. Just have faith in Christ. That will take you to the kingdom of god. For Christ was the only begotten son of god, sent into the world for the redemption of mankind. This new mythology created around the figure of Jesus by Saint Paul and Christianity dominated the western world for some fifteen centuries. The story of faith as an instrument for human salvation had its rise full growth along with the decline of the Roman empire.

With the decline and fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the movements of Renaissance and enlightenment, faith and its god Christianity also started to decline and fall. Faith could not withstand the onslaught of reason and the sword of individualistic self-consciousness discovered and promulgated by Socrates. The Renaissance brought back all the ancient classical literature texts of science and the treasure house of Greek philosophy. Ficino, under the advice and patron-ship of Medici, translated both Hermes and Plato. And the voice of Socrates that announced famously, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’, sounded once again all over Europe. Hermes in his “Emerald Tablets” went beyond Socrates and offered the teaching of attaining immortality of not only the soul but of the body also. What was reserved for Christ alone, the underlying science of Resurrection was revealed to all by Hermes. This twin barreled gun shot at the blind faith of Christianity. And it never stopped firing to this day, that saw ‘god delusion’ by the world famous scientist Richard Dawkins and his late colleague Stephen Hawking’s final conviction in his ‘Grand Design’.

The first full blast was given by Montaigne in his ‘Essays’. On the one side with his skepticism, he clearly stated that with man’s defective limited senses and reason, humans can never understand fully and properly either nature or human nature, let alone divine nature. By this stroke he felled the large tree of theology that was grown for full fifteen centuries by intellectual giants like Origen, Clement, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and other noted ones. Humans cannot and should not talk about god’s word, revelation, the Bible, and thus he argued forcibly for secular knowledge. By belittling himself as an ignorant fellow, he never talked except once about Christ in his 1500 page Essays. But he quoted Socrates more than 500 times. It proves without doubt where and in which direction he wanted to take his audience; to the way of Socrates, to the way of self-knowledge through self-consciousness. The whole book is nothing but a detailed and elaborate exercise in self-consciousness. He showed how to apply it in all walks of life, in all situations in life.

When Socrates taught his discovery to philosophers, his student and French Counterpart taught the yoga of self-consciousness to one and all. That was the reason why one lady fan of Montaigne said, “Throw away all the philosophers into fire except Montaigne. Because he is the father of all”. He had a large female following. She was right. Montaigne in his pedestrian way had brought down philosophy to the common man which was the reserved domain of the elite. And, after the introduction of analytical philosophy in the twentieth century by George Moore, Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein and the abstruse German philosophical systems by Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and their likes, philosophy has flown away beyond the reach of the public.

Sophia must be brought down once again. More Relevant today is Montaigne than ever.

“In my subject, i.e myself, I am supreme. There is none other like me”, he congratulated himself in one of his essays. He was telling the truth. The book shows the reader all the stages and steps in the art of self-consciousness.

How many steps or stages are there in the yoga of self-consciousness? Hegel rightly understood Montaigne and lists out some seven stages in the development of self-consciousness. He saw the entire history of homo-sapiens in these 7 stages, in his famous chapter on the ‘Development of self-consciousness’, in his remarkable and epoch-making philosophical masterpiece, ‘The phenomenology of spirit’.

The earliest man. like an animal, like an infant could perceive only objects in the external world. Give the baby anything and it will touch it and explore it in all possible ways by the sense of touch. According to Hegel, it wants not only to know the object but to conquer it. The struggle for life and the instrument for survival is inborn. Humans like other beings are born with it. This urge is known as the first sign of life and consciousness. But it is not self-consciousness yet. Its gaze has not turned inside yet. It sees mother’s breast and mother’s face only as objects like any other. It does not know the difference between living and non-living things. This instinct for survival is both positive and negative, negative in the sense, it wants to destroy all other objects except itself. It wants life at the cost of death of other objects both inanimate and animate. The constant eternal struggle between life and death has already started. It wants to kill small ants, crush objects like toys, Hegel argues.

If life was the thesis, death or negation of life was the anti-thesis it produced. Hegel saw everything in nature as a tripartite dialectic: i) Thesis ii) Anti-thesis iii) Synthesis. For him, life is thesis, death is anti-thesis and becoming is synthesis.

Montaigne writes: “I love life, then cultivate it such as god has been pleased to bestow it on us”  He quotes Seneca: “The wise man thirsts for the bounty of Nature.”

Like plants and animals, the baby is always asleep even during wakefulness. In the words of Montaigne: “Others enjoy pleasures as they do sleep without knowing it.” How did Montaigne, the master of self-consciousness enjoy his pleasures and sleep? We will narrate them later when we deal with higher stages of self-consciousness of a yogi.

Most of the human populace are still at this infantile stage. They want to master objects i.e gadgets – mechanical and electronic. A Small kid desires to play with a small toy-car and adult with a big one, a Mercedes, a BMW, a continental. Its extreme form we find manifested in consumerism. Unless consumerism is consciously understood and transcended, there is no hope for humanity. Until then, the talk about self-consciousness and philosophy will be like the noise blown by a conch into the ears of a man who is stone deaf.

Pascal had seen through Montaigne. He had understood the perverse aim and deep and powerful methodology of the Essays of the modern Socrates, against blind faith offered to the masses as a way of salvation. For the same reason the religionists of Athens had poisoned Socrates. Pascal was not blind to the subtle but casual attack on his religious belief in the name of skepticism and drawing one’s own portrait with his bald pate and all. See the wrath of the Christian apologist against the Essays: “The idiotic idea of painting his own portrait.” Your enemy knows you better than you. Because he understands by his instinct for survival. Pascal wanted to destroy the enemy and wrote two books against the skeptic, taking care to excel him in writing style. The style was beautiful and appreciated but the message it contained could no longer stand against the trend and geist of the times. Times had changed.

Go through the history of the world. Philosophy has changed the course of history. To put it in a nutshell, it is self- knowledge versus religious faith. In the west, Socrates initiated the movement. It was checked and curtailed in the name of religious faith. Montaigne renewed the concept and method of self-consciousness though in his own vulgar way, as Pascal put it. Rene Descartes understood the importance of self-consciousness by reading Montaigne. He also understood that Montaigne was half-hearted and afraid to declare it openly like Socrates. He did not want to become a martyr like the Greek master. So he stopped short with his skepticism.

But Descartes was bold enough to declare that his very being was determined and made certain by his thinking. ‘I think therefore I am (Cogito ergo sum). I have certain knowledge and only one of its kind in the world in my thinking or self-consciousness. Even god was relegated to the second position by him. For my thinking or awareness, I am able to comprehend god.’

Spinoza took the cue from him and completed the task from where Descartes had left it off. He dared to tell the world that human reason had all the capacity to understand god and his infinity. The finite mind of man could be extended to infinity. There are no limitations for human reason. Newton proved Spinoza’s declaration. He discovered the mechanism of the cosmos and revealed to the world how it functioned. The idea of possibility of attaining knowledge of infinity by human reason gained momentum. Calculus was invented by both Newton and Leibniz. The mathematics of infinity was revealed to the world by Ramanujan. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin proved that Homo-sapiens arose as a species with the advent of self-consciousness in evolution. Once again, an obstacle was placed against the march of reason by Immanuel Kant in his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’.

He wanted to prove that with human mind that has an in-built mechanism of the twelve filters which he called ‘categories’ could not understand things in-themselves. Only appearance of things, it could understand.

Hegel came forward with his monumental system of philosophy whose famous premise was “Reason is the real, the real is the rational.” He was a mystic by nature. Also he had read all the mystics of the world such as Lao-Tse of China, Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme of Germany and Buddha and Upanishadic seers of India. He mentions and summarizes their teachings in the ‘History of philosophy’. He refuted the arrangements of Kant about the limitations of human rational capabilities. He called god as absolute spirit and history as ‘the march of that world spirit’. The world had come a full circle. What Hermes, some three or five thousands of years ago, had said, was repeated by Hegel. As above, so below; As the macrocosm is so, is the microcosm, which means man is a potential god. “Aham Brahmasmi”, the Upanishadic seer had said.

(To be Continued)