Montaigne, Descartes, and Purple Fruit

by cheri block

This morning the West Wind, Zephyr, blew from the Pacific Ocean up our mountain side with ferocity.

Since I find solace and energy in the wind, I ventured out into the rain and up the road, the yellow dog tugging on her leash.

On my mind for the last several weeks have been two men who lived long ago: Michel Montaigne and Rene Descartes. In his fascinating book Cosmopolis, Stephen Toulmin suggests that  Montaigne and Descartes represent 16th Century humanism and 17th Century rationalism, respectively. He also says that modernity as we know it began in 1630.

Montaigne was a humanist; in other words, he lived and valued experience, spontaneity, reflection. He appreciated an empirical look at humanity.

Descartes was a rationalist; in other words, he supported patterns and modes, the scientific and the mathematical, and  abstract theory as  ways to understand Truth.

Unfortunately,  from 1630 to the present, humanity has sided with Descartes,  scripture and text.

How much spontaneity and human energy have been lost in this effort to concretize the order of things, as Descartes desired?

Could Descartes have known that by the 21st Century, the inherent goodness and warmth of the human experience would be lost to technology?

Humanists such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, who looked at the world through a broad glass, establishing the uniqueness of humanity (think the Wife of Bath and Lady Macbeth), asked a wonderful fundamental question: Isn’t it fun to be human?

Montaigne agreed with Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Toulmin postulates that Descartes, shaken by the murder of King Henri IV (Henry of Navarre) and traumatized by the Thirty Years’ War, offered his solution to the chaos: rationalism. No more of Montaigne’s touchy-feely tolerant approach to things.

Descartes’ ego-centric, existential look at humanity replaced the authenticity and human fallibility told by Montaigne in his anecdotal “Of Experience” in Essais.

And so, thinking about all of this stuff,  the dog and I walked up the road, staring at the cattle, the barbed wire, and the trees and trying to make sense of it all.

As  I evaluated my surroundings this rainy windy morning, everything around me seemed polarized. At opposites, really.

Montaigne or Descartes?

And then, I saw something odd in the distance. Luckily, I had my camera in a water-proof case.

A new piece of fruit. Puffy and purple.

A plastic plum growing from a poison oak tendril.

Mr. Descartes? Mr. Montaigne?

Can you explain this phenomenon?

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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28 Responses to Montaigne, Descartes, and Purple Fruit

  1. Maybe the thinking yellow dog could?

  2. Man of Roma says:

    Yes, I also hope the yellow dog will help us.

    No easy question.

    I’ll be back. I was left on foot (as usual) so I’ll have to walk 3 miles (which I love) and catch a train to the Tyrrhenian sea. Pls do keep the dog well fed in the meanwhile.

  3. andreaskluth says:

    Hurrah for humanism.

    But booh for Descartes.

    Not that I’ve tried to give the man his due recently — because I recall, from my philosophy classes all those years ago — that he was above all BORING.

    He also fooled himself. He always knew what he wanted to prove (eg, that he existed, or that God did) and then used rationalism to prove it.

    Nowadays, we know what was going on in his psyche: The “elephant” of his intention (his animal brain) was already stampeding off in whatever direction, leaving the “rider” (his prodigious neo-cortex) to confabulate a reason why he wanted to steer the elephant in that direction all along.

    Also, I stipulate that Cartesian dualism (mind/body) now looks primitive, and that we are in fact rediscovering a basic monism through modern science.

    That’s a lot of words, given that I no longer have the faintest clue what I’m talking about….

    • Cheri says:

      Double boo-hoo for boring.

      I am trying to be a diligent student and read each word assigned by my new professor.

      Here’s a small tidbit to take you back to those days in your philosophy class when you were rolling your eyes and stirring up dilatory activity:
      ” The first of these [laws] was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognize to be so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly, and distinctly that I could have no occasion to doubt it.” (Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, Amsterdam, 1637)

      Hooray for Experience and Humanism!

      Here is a snipit from Essais by Montaigne:

      “We exchange one word for another, and often for one less understood. I better know what man is than I know what Animal is, or Mortal, or Rational. To satisfy one doubt, they give me three; it is the Hydra’s head. Socrates asked Menon, what virtue was. ‘There is,’says Menon, ‘the virtue of a man and of a woman, of a magistrate and of a private person, of an old man and of a child.’ ‘Very fine,’cried Socrates, ‘we were in quest of one virtue, and you brought us a whole swarm,’ We put one question, and they return us a whole hive.”

      Where did you learn this stuff about the elephant and the rider?

  4. Peter G says:

    Mr. Descartes or Mr. Montaigne won’t be able to solve this.

    This is a case for Mr. Sherlock Holmes:

    Your report conspicuously lacks a denial of your complicity in appending the balloon to the twig. You merely say that upon reflecting upon the world views of Descartes vs. Montaigne, you “saw something odd in your distance.”

    You may have seen the odd object in the distance as you looked back on your own crime.

    • Cheri says:

      That piece of purple fruit affixed itself to the poison oak on its own accord. I would never set up a fake picture.

      Seeing purple fruit in a dark thicket of oak, bay, sycamore, and more oak is an odd experience.

      Criminal activities are not allowed in this house (for obvious reasons…)

      • Peter G says:

        That piece of purple fruit affixed itself to the poison oak on its own accord.

        This statement is neither right nor wrong. It is simply meaningless, as it refers to an item that never existed. There was no “piece of purple fruit.” There was only a purple balloon. Non-existent objects may well affix themselves to poison oaks as they may turn into galloping expresso machines.

        I would never set up a fake picture.

        Two problems:

        (1) No one accused you of setting up a fake picture. The picture you posted of a purple balloon hanging from a twig is clearly authentic, irrespective of who may have taken it. Defending oneself against charges that weren’t made is always suspicious.

        (2) Your claim that you “would never” do something doesn’t address whether you’ve done it in the past. I would never eat meatballs, but I certainly ate them prior to turning vegetarian.

        Seeing purple fruit in a dark thicket of oak, bay, sycamore, and more oak is an odd experience.

        Seeing a fleet of flying saucers land in Times Square is an odd experience, too. I do not claim to have seen any; only that it is an odd experience.

        Criminal activities are not allowed in this house.

        Just because something isn’t allowed doesn’t mean it isn’t going on. Otherwise, prisons and law enforcement would be unnecessary. Besides, littering is a misdemeanor, not a crime. I was just curious if you would zero in on the word “crime” and use it a semantic dodge in hopes it would come across as a de facto denial of your deed.

        Bottom line, you still haven’t flat-out denied anything.

  5. andreaskluth says:

    I got the “Elephant and his rider” here.

    Descartes: As I get older, I increasingly lose patience with boring writers, even if they are alleged to be worthy. Thus I get less patient with age. You seem to get more patient with age, which is commendable.

  6. Mr. Crotchety says:

    I heard on the radio that today is Descartes’ birthday. Does everyone else know this and you’re winking at each other through the haze of your Gauloises?

    Every lost balloon tells a story. (and it’s a sad one). Next you’re going to tell us that the yellow dog choked on the balloon.

    How’s this for rationalism; wet surfaces polarize light, so the appearance of everything was polarized in the rain. (yawn).

    • Cheri says:

      Yes I know it is RD’s birthday. ( I tend to read for detail…)

      Tonight is the first night of class with a new professor, so I’ll wait until the class gets going and then offer the trivia of the day (if some other insecure person doesn’t go for it first).

      Now regarding the fruit on the tree…luckily the yellow dog doesn’t like plums. She did choke on two tennis balls last week and a Kong last year.
      You are right about the inherent sadness in lost and wayward balloons. Perhaps I’ll write a short essay about them.

  7. Cheri says:

    I feel as though I have been on the witness stand. It’s a familiar feeling.

  8. Peter G says:

    You’re not on the witness stand this time.

    You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.

    Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?

  9. One can imagine that the blue ballon had been inflated with helium and given to a child from whom it sadly escaped. The child cried and her or his mom told him the balloon had become a bird and was flying away toward balloon heaven.
    Then the helium filling weakened and the balloon went down and got caught in that tree for the yellow dog and Cheri to find him and take a picture.
    The guilty party is Eolus. As my University professor son would say:”Until proven false, it can be true”.

    • I agree. My first thought was a deflated balloon.

      This picture, and especially Paul’s description of its history show the inevitable tension between humanism and rationalism–they child’s cried because the laws of science took the balloon away. Now if we can only figure out how to manage that tension.

  10. Cheri says:

    Oh what a lovely image you have created here!
    Thank you!!

    You must be proud of your son.

  11. I’m proud of my three kids for varying reasons, each doing well his or her thing.

  12. Man of Roma says:

    So glad to hear that of your 3 kids Paul.

    Cheri, after my train and three miles on foot to reach back home last night at 12 while opening our apt door I heard cries all over the place: our 15-year-old dog was terribly sick! So we rushed to the veterinary and spent the night there. She finally got uterus ablation and as for now she is still alive. Sorry to grieve you all people but Descartes, Montaigne, they go over my head now. Hope your dog was wonderfully fed Cheri. Dogs deserve all possibly joy.

    • Cheri says:

      I am so sorry to hear this story about your dog and hope that she recovers. You all must have taken very good care of her over fifteen years, truly a long life for a canine.

      Let us know how she is doing, OK?

  13. Funny how those four legged and furry creatures end up being family. Hope The roman lassie gets better despite her age and that the yellow dog keeps straining on or at the leash.

  14. andreaskluth says:

    This might be a good time to clarify another thing that has always confused me:

    The “west wind” or the “east wind” etc:

    I always thought that referred to which way the wind was blowing, but obviously I’ve got that upside down. It makes less sense to me this way, but it appears to mean whence the wind is blowing. COrrect?

    • Cheri says:

      Oh gosh, Andreas. This might be a good question for the Weather Channel.

      All I know is that a West Wind blows from the ocean, across the bay, and up to my house. Since I am referring to the Pacific Ocean in this case, this wind (Zephyr) is blowing from west to east. That’s the west wind.

      Up at Lake Tahoe, as you know, there is a place called Zephyr Cove on the east side of the lake. The winds blow from Rubicon and Meeks Bays across into the cove, from west to east.

      Whence? From the source? How do you have this upside down?

      • Cheri says:


        Let me add, here, that the four winds– Zephyr, Boreas, Notus, and Eurus–all commandeered by Aeolus should be part of your next book.

        The child in me loves thinking about the winds, how they operate, how they argue, etc.

        When the book hits the big time, I’d like a small dedication before the chapter on winds whence you tell the story of Zephyr, my favorite wind and one who propels me up my hill often.


    • I’m no expert but I think a compass direction when applied to wind always refers to where it is coming from. So the prevailing westerlies come out of the west and a Nor’easter comes from the northeast.

      Andreas, if you write about winds, don’t forget to tell the story of the Sirocco that dipped into Mt. Etna on the way to the Battle of Cannae to burn the Romans’ eyes!

      • andreaskluth says:

        Thanks, both of you, for that explanation.

        You see how my ‘common’ sense totally deceived me (ie, was uncommon).

        Oh, and yes, I’ve got the winds down for the next bestseller, with both of you as characters.

  15. Cheri says:

    Great. I dibs Zephyr.

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