04 November 2011

And How Shall I Presume

I take ‘presumption’ to mean an untoward, rude or false assumption of privilege or knowledge. Prufrock asks, “So how should I presume” to engage in life, to be at all a presence even in this superficial and meaningless world of façade and appearance. Prufrock is no more than a shadow.
To presume means to assume some authority. My daughters presume to know everything I clearly don’t know. They have authority, and I do not possess it. Away from my daughters, I often presume a familiarity with others and things that I ought not to assume. Presumption is not unproblematic.
In his wonderful essay “On Presumption” Montaigne seems to define the term as “an assumption, a belief, a guess or hypothesis.” In this essay Montaigne offers his idea concerning two vainglorious stances that he describes as “presumption.” The first stance concerns how we esteem ourselves too highly: “It is an unreasoning affection, by which we cherish ourselves, which represents us to ourselves as other than we are.” The second presumption concerns how we do not esteem others highly enough. Mea culpa. This essay is confessional, and concerns mostly his sense of his own inadequacies—how little he presumes. “It seems to me that the nursing mother of the falsest opinions, public and private, is the over-good opinion man has of himself.” Alas, he has little to say positive about himself (“When things happen, I bear myself like a man; in conducting them, like a child”) but unlike Prufrock, it is not for lack of trying. Indeed, the trying is the delight and joy of his life.
In an essay criticizing so many of his traits (Montaigne notes that he is ugly and too short, and that though he can behave like a stoic, he often acts like a fool) in fact Montaigne expresses content with himself and his life. Acknowledging his many faults, he minimizes them. Montaigne never complains or bemoans his fate. Like Prufrock, he seems lost, but unlike Prufrock, Montaigne seems not at all to care; he portrays himself as a happy man. “For I have come to the point where except for health and life, there is nothing for which I am willing to bite my nails, nothing that I am willing to buy at the price of mental torment and constraint . . .” Quite content with the life he has constructed from the things that Fortune has offered him. Montaigne lives a full and productive existence. “The only ability I have needed is the ability to content myself with my lot, which, however, if you take it rightly, requires a well-ordered state of mind, equally difficult in every kind of fortune, and which we see by experience is more readily found in want than in abundance . . . as with our other passions, hunger for riches is sharpened more by the use of them than by the lack of them, and because the virtue of moderation is rare than that of patience.” It is the lesson Thoreau will learn in the cabin at Walden Pond: to front the essentials of life so that when it came time to die he would not discover that he had not lived.
            Montaigne. Spinoza. Thoreau. Even Dylan: I’ve got nothing, ma, to live up to. Montaigne says, “I think my opinions are good and sound . . .,” and offers as proof of the soundness of his opinions the low esteem he holds for himself. And that will suffice.


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