“So contemporary neuroscientists seem to have confirmed what Montaigne intuited – that humans have an inbuilt empathetic capacity and that the strength of this capability depends on proximity:
No wisdom is so highly formed as to be able to imagine a cause of grief so vivid and so complete that it will not be increased by the actual presence, when the eyes and ears have a share in it. Montaigne went further, rejecting the idea that this capacity is species-dependent. In one of his most famous passages he asks: When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?
Presumption is our natural and original disease. The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch, with animals of the worst condition of the three; and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the heavens under his feet. ‘Tis by the same vanity of imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit. How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals?—from what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.
The key to Montaigne’s outlook was his hatred of cruelty and his visceral rapport with others. Speaking to the Brazilian Indians, it was their idea of men as halves of one another – Frenchmen feasting while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep – that struck him deeply. For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things. Even if animals were less like us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive:
There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation. […] I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.” Michel de Montaigne’-
•Born: Feb 28, 1533 · Chateau de Montaigne
•Died: Sep 13, 1592 · Chateau de Montaigne