In the second installment of our FS Bar series (see here for the first), philosophers Montaigne and Descartes discuss the utility of experience, what kind of knowledge we should seek, and sex on the beach. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.
The door to the FS Bar opens and Montaigne enters. He takes a seat at the bar as Kit finishes slicing a bucketful of limes. As Kit will tell us later, never, ever eat bar limes because no one ever washes them.
Montaigne: (Taking a seat) What a lovely evening.
Kit: That it is. I walked in today, and it was so great. What can I get you?
Montaigne: May I see a menu please?
(Kit hands him one)
Montaigne: It is truly amazing, the variety of drinks one can make. (After a bit of flipping) What do you recommend?
Kit: What do you like?
Montaigne: Something I’ve never had before. Something surprising.
Kit: (Smiles) How about a Sex on the Beach?
Montaigne: (Chuckles) If it’s anything like the real thing, then it’s likely a lot better in theory than in practice.
Kit: Aren’t most things? I make mine with blackcurrant liqueur. It’s gorgeous.
Montaigne: Let’s give it a whirl then.
(Pause while Kit begins to prepare the drink. Just as she’s placing it in front of Montaigne, the door opens and Descartes walks in. As he reaches the bar he notices Montaigne and quickly turns his head, hoping not to be noticed.)
Montaigne: Ah Rene, my old friend. What brings you out on this beautiful spring evening? Don’t tell me you felt the urge to enjoy the weather?
Descartes: (Resigning himself to sitting with Montaigne) Just taking a break. My brain needs a rest.
Kit: Evening. What can I get you to drink?
Descartes : A glass of red wine. A Merlot or a Syrah, please. Old vines. No tannins.
Montaigne: You should have what I’m having. It’s sublime.
Descartes: It’s lurid. How many colors are in that glass?
Montaigne: It’s sex on the beach.
Descartes: (Raises a brow) It’s not my thing.
Montaigne: Of course not. I imagine it would be quite difficult to ignore the sensations produced by all those grains of sand.
Descartes: (Rolls his eyes) You always deliberately misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with experience, I just don’t pretend that my life should stand for the life.
Montaigne: I was just pointing out that the physical experience of sex on a beach might produce some knowledge. Certainly you would learn if there is any relation between one’s propensity to be amorous and the perceived comfort of the execution. Some grain of truth as it were. (Chuckles to himself)
Descartes: Truth only for me. Who am I to say what other people would enjoy? I have seen enough in my travels to think that there is little in sexual encounters that one could consider to be absolutely standard. At least I wouldn’t leave to posterity my ramblings about how my passions were affected by the rhythm of the waves or some such nonsense.
Montaigne: Ah, this is always where you and I disagree. Human experiences need not be universal to teach us something worth knowing.
Descartes: To give us ideas, maybe. But in terms of knowledge we can rely on, experiences are essentially useless.
(There is a pause. Descartes gulps down about a third of his wine while Montaigne continues to sip his drink.)
Montaigne: (To Kit) My friend here is quite famous. Have you ever heard “I think therefore I am?”
Kit: (Looks at Descartes) You said that?
Descartes: (A touch uncomfortable) Yes. I mean, it has a specific context. It was the one thing I could think that proved I existed. The only thing I could not doubt was that I could doubt.
Montaigne: Unfortunately he doubted away everything else, including his body. (Shakes his head)
Descartes: Which you think is ridiculous.
Montaigne: Which I think is nonsensical. You could be a brain in a vat, but to what end? It doesn’t stop you from feeling sadness, or make your farts smell any less.
Descartes: And is that really the point of philosophical inquiry? To validate the functions of the body?
Montaigne: No. It’s to make sense of ourselves, and through that to try to understand what we are a part of. But things don’t have to be unchanging in order to be true.
Descartes: (Looking more than a little wistful) All I wanted was to find the foundation. The things we know so that the rest could stand on something secure. What good is claiming knowledge if it can be easily torn down by logic or the next scientific discovery?
Montaigne: So if you can’t know everything you might as well know nothing?
Descartes: No. But the subjective distracts us. We can’t hope to know anything if we don’t put some objective rigour around it. (Pause) Didn’t you notice, when you were in school, that eventually everything seemed to contradict something else you’d learned? Look at all those ridiculous aphorisms people are always throwing out there. One day they’ll tell you that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ then the next it’s ‘the early bird gets the worm’. It’s empty, situation-specific nonsense. And people fall for it. Every damn day. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a few bits of knowledge that, no matter who you were or what situation you were faced with, you could always count on to be true?
Montaigne: (Sighs) Maybe Socrates is the only one who got it right when he hinted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.
Descartes: (Shakes his head) I don’t accept that. We come into this world vulnerable and ignorant, dependent on the needs of our bodies and the teachings of those around us. But at some point, surely we can turn our brains to filtering what we have taken in, being honest about the junk, and letting go of needing anything other than knowledge.
Montaigne: Ah my friend, this I’m not sure we can do. We are not only shaped by our experiences, we are our experiences. We contemplate love through the lenses of our hurts, and life through the lenses of our losses.
Kit: It’s an amazing idea though. To be able to understand life the same way as math. To know that one plus one will always equal two.
Descartes: (Running his finger around the rim of his glass) That is the goal.
Montaigne: Well, you proved your own existence. That is something.
Kit: So, if we know we’re alive, at least we know we’re all going through it together.
Descartes: (Looks miserable) Actually, I only know that I exist. You could be a robot.
Kit: But if you know you exist, can’t I use the same logic to know that I exist?
Descartes: Yes. But we can only know this about ourselves. Not those around us.
Kit: It sounds lonely.
Montaigne: And no way to live. Imagine that your lover, your best friend, your children, are robots. When I do I feel only a profound isolation—and seriously question the point of living.
Descartes: Like I said, the goal was to get on a foundation that couldn’t be shaken. No matter what.
Montaigne: But what good is a foundation if you can’t build anything on it?
Descartes: (Looking like he doesn’t really want to get into it) Why don’t you enlighten us with one of your pithy observations? You can tell our lovely bartender here your theory about the effects of reducing drunkenness.
Montaigne: It is a good theory. (He turns to Kit) We drink less, which according to health professionals and moral arbitrators, is a social victory. But the effect of this is more sex. We obviously can’t get by without any vices, so the less we drink the more we lust.
Kit: (Looking a little surprised) I’ve never thought of it that way.
Montaigne: (Shrugs) We seek pleasure. There is nothing surprising about that. And as far as pleasures go, good sex is infinitely preferable to good wine. Drunkenness, really, is not so great. In extreme, you lose knowledge and control of yourself.
Descartes: Sex doesn’t exactly lead to clarity of mind. As Shakespeare said of lust, “enjoyed no sooner but despised straight.” Getting it doesn’t stop the wanting.
Montaigne: Which is why it’s so important to be just as careful in choosing your vices as anything else. But although they are equally vices, they are not equal vices [i].
Descartes: And you think I’m nuts for wanting some knowledge that I can count on every day.
Montaigne: (Raises his glass) Cheers then, to trying to figure it out. Regardless of the outcome, it is certainly something worth striving for.
(Descartes smiles and accepts the salute. Fade out.)
[i] Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics). M. A. Screech, tr. London: Penguin UK, 2004.