Essay: Beware the Imagination

Beware the Imagination

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate studies; originally written for Humanities 530 Spring 2015}

The French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, takes a new approach with expository writing in the form of the essay. His tone is unlike other philosophers in the sense that the writing itself is very casual and easy to read. Faculties of thought are expressed in his Essays, and Montaigne’s initial perspective of the imagination is that it is a tremendously powerful thing – if one perceives the imagination to be true, it may conjure a new reality. By his empathetic nature, Montaigne notes his avoidance of his imagination as much as he can as: “…the very sight of another’s pain materially pains me, and I often usurp the sensations of another person” (364). Empathy, or understanding another person’s grief so truly that it resonates inside the self, to Montaigne is a wonder of the imagination. He recommends keeping the imagination in check so as not to arrive at a misfortunate end.

Too much authority is awarded by the imagination. In Gallus Vibius’ case, his fascination with madness drove him out of his mind, and he was known to be lost to wisdom (366). The capabilities of the imagination appear limitless, according to Montaigne’s stories, as long as one fully gives over to the power of internal thought or awkward mishap. Mary Germain underwent serious physiological changes due to a robust leap – she became a he. Mary Germain was a girl from her birth till her twenty-second year; Montaigne met with Germain who was: “…very full of beard, old, and not married. He told us, that by straining himself in a leap his male organs came out; and the girls of that place have, to this day, a song, wherein they advise one another not to take too great strides, for fear of being turned into men, as Mary Germain was” (368). Biology was not understood fully in the Renaissance, but the altering of one sex to another seems a bit extreme for a power of thought. If manliness were related to exertion alone, then all women – in wanting to maintain their sex – would avoid leaping about in fear of physical activity encouraging the growth of male organs.

Montaigne is leery of the imagination in which he charges passion with violent causation – to give into the illusion of the imagination is to give it grounds to grow into an accepted reality. The power of the mind and the human conception of reality are subjected to various weaknesses of fancy, and mankind must keep their emotions in check: “Neither is this disaster to be feared, but in adventures, where the soul is overextended with desire or respect, and, especially, where the opportunity is of an unforeseen and pressing nature; in those cases, there is no means for a man to defend himself from such a surprise, as shall put him altogether out of sorts” (372-73). Care should be taken, in regards to passionate thought, so as to cement the minds of men in realistic reason over imagination.

Montaigne’s credibility is rooted in reason. The anecdotes he shares in Chapter XX, to expound on the powers of imagination, do not belong to him: “…for the tales I borrow I charge upon the consciences of those from whom I have them. The discourses are my own, and found themselves upon the proofs of reason, not of experience; … if I do not apply them well, let some other do it for me” (391). The importance of his stories is not in the absolute truth of the happenings but more concerned with the plausibility of thought. Montaigne concerns himself with what may happen, and given that the power of imagination resides inside all of mankind, he urges caution to the avenues of adventurous thoughts.

Works Cited

Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, Complete. Trans. Charles

Cotton. Ed. William Carew Hazlitt. Ebook #3600: Project Gutenberg, 2012

Picture c/o:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Michel_de_Montaigne_1.jpg

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