I live from day to day, and am content with having sufficient for present and ordinary needs; for the extraordinary all the provision in the world will not suffice. And it is madness to expect that Fortune could ever sufficiently arm us against herself. With our own arms must we fight her.
– Montaigne (Essays, ‘That the taste of good and evil depends, for a good part, upon the idea we form of them’)
One of the running heads for the essay advises the reader: ‘study your soul!’ The essay as a whole is not so bold: rather, it hesitates towards the notion that it’s no good to prepare for the unknown – precisely because it is unknown and probably unknowable. It illustrates this oddly, with (among other examples) condemned men offered reprieve if they marry a girl at the gallows – and refuse because the proffered girl has a limp or puffy cheeks and a sharp nose. One wonders what the girl with puffy cheeks and a sharp nose thought of the matter as they watched the execution.
Now for the ladies! Who has not heard tell of the lady in Paris who, solely to acquire a fresher complexion and a new skin, had herself flayed? … How many examples we may see in this sex of contempt of pain! What are they not capable of, what do they fear, as long as they have any hope of improving their beauty?
Yet the girl with the limp or the puffy cheeks – they have not brutalized themselves for beauty. At least they have the chance to know the finer, more soul-fortifying pain of humiliation. How nice.1
- Yes, they were probably chosen to humiliate the condemned man, too; perhaps these women were amused by the business – Montaigne doesn’t consider their opinion so it’s impossible to say.