Sunday, March 1, 2009

On Interpretation

The first quote is inspired by the comment in the last post:

And those men who think they can lessen and check our disputes by referring us to the actual words of the Bible are deluding themselves, since our mind finds just as wide a field for controverting other men's meanings as for delivering its own. (Michel de Montaigne, "On Experience," Essays 3.13; trans. J.M. Cohen)

This is a broad-side attack on the entire early Protestant mentality coined by Luther, sola scriptura. And Montaigne has been proven right--there are just as many readings of the biblical text as there are readers. It leads not to agreement, but to fragmentation. Perhaps that is partly beneficial and partly problematic. The problem in Montaigne's day was at a high pitch, since he lived during the wars of religion. He also gave a nice broadside attack on traditional commentary--commentaries of commentaries of commentaries of a text.

There is more trouble in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting the things themselves, and there are more books on books than on any other subject. We do nothing but write comments on one another. The whole world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth. (ibid.)

At first take, this contradicts the earlier quotation about getting back to the bible itself--since, indeed, shouldn't it be easier to interpret the book than interpret interpretations of the book? Yet the broader point that each of these quotes lead to is not about getting back to an original meaning of a book; it is not reading the Bible versus reading a commentary on the Bible or any other book. It is about experience. You can learn more about yourself, how do adjudicate yourself, and guide yourself through your own life's experiences rather than through reading the Bible, Cicero, etc. To truly know oneself, as the oracle at Delphi says, is to know the only thing you can possibly know:

I would rather understand myself well by self-study than by reading Cicero. In the experience that I have of myself I find enough to make me wise, if I were a good scholar. Anyone who recalls the violence of his past anger, and to what a pitch his excitement carried him, will see its ugliness better than in Aristotle, and will conceive a juster hatred for it. Anyone who remembers the ills he has undergone and those that have threatened him, and the trivial happenings that have brought him from one state to another, thereby prepares himself for future changes and for the understanding of his condition. (ibid.)

It takes great courage to analyze oneself this way, to extrapolate life's philosophy out of one's own life's experience, because the conclusion one must come to is difficult. It is rather similar to Socrates' "All I know is that I know nothing." Here is Montaigne's version:

To learn tha tone has said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing; one must learn that one is nothing but a fool, a much more comprehensive and important lesson. (ibid.)

Why is this an important lesson? It is important for the same reason that one cannot claim to know anything, including the original meaning, tone, etc., of any book or interpretation of a book--it leads to humility and flexibility. It removes dogmatism:

Assertion and dogmatism are postiive signs of stupidity. (ibid.)

And, it is quite clear that this assertion and dogmatism come in two basic forms in Montaigne's thought: religion and legal systems. Humility derived from acknowledging one's own foolishness (and society's foolishness), one's inability to know, the lack of rigidity from not concluding, remaining open-ended, appears to be the underlying dynamic of all interactions between people, with oneself, and with your text before you.

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