Thursday, January 27, 2005

Montaigne on Chess

Why shall I not judge Alexander at table, talking and drinking to excess, or when he is fingering the chess-men? What chord of his mind is not touched and kept employed by this silly and puerile game? I hate it and avoid it because it is not play enough, and because it is too serious as an amusement, being ashamed to give it the attention which would suffice for some good thing. He was never more busy in directing his glorious expedition to the Indies; nor is this other man in unravelling a passage on which depends the salvation of the human race. See how our mind swells and magnifies this ridiculous amusement; how it strains all its nerves over it! How fully does this game enable every one to know and form a right opinion of himself! In no other situation do I see and test myself more thoroughly than in this. What passion is not stirred up by this game: anger [the clock-banger!] spite [the spite check!], impatience [the hasty move!], and a vehement ambition to win in a thing in which an ambition to be beaten would be more excusable! For a rare pre-eminence, above the common, in a frivolous matter, is unbefitting a man of honour. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every occupation of a man betrays him and shows him up as well as any other. (Essays, Chapter 50, tr. Trechmann, p. 295)

Applying what Montaigne himself says in his final sentence to his writing of this essay, we may hazard the guess that he was much enamoured of the game, but not very good at it, and so here takes his revenge upon it, its goddess Caissa, and her acolytes. You will notice how onesided his portrayal is. He displayed the same defect yesterday in his remarks on clothing. But he is a Frenchman and so more concerned with witty phrasings than with the sober truth. The essay is delightfully brilliant nonetheless.