Do you ask me whence comes the custom of blessing those who sneeze? We produce three sorts of wind; that which comes from below is too foul; that which comes through the mouth implies some reproach of gluttony; the third is sneezing, and, because it comes from the head and is blameless, we give it this honourable greeting. Do not laugh at this conceit; it is, they say, Aristotle’s.
☛ The Essays of Michel de Montaigne Parts Two and Three, tr. by George B. Ives, Kessinger Publishing, 2005, Book III, c. VI, p. 1220.
Although Montaigne did not mention where Aristotle could have discussed the matter of sneezing, later editions sometimes include the reference (it’s the case with the one I quote above). In an essay titled “Problems connected with the nostrils” included in his Problems, Aristotle provide this explanation:
Why do we consider that sneezing is of divine origin, but not coughing or running at the nose? Is it because it arises from the most divine part of us ―the head, whence reasoning comes? Or is it because the other symptoms arise from disease, but this does not? (Problems, tr. by Walter Stanley Hett, Harvard University Press, 1957, §7, Book XXXIII, p. 215)
Below one can find another English translation of Montaigne’s essay as well as the original French version for this specific excerpt. Proper references to Aristole’s comment on sneezing are also provided along with the original Greek version. But first, three short observations to help interpret Montaigne seemingly candid remarks on sneezing.
First, Montaigne seems to be quoting Aristotle in a very loose way. Not only Aristotle’s text ―the authenticity of which is still subject of debate― makes no mention of wind “from bellow” nor of belching (unless one accepts to confuse βηχα with belching), but he asks questions rather than he asserts facts. Montaigne was quite familiar with the work of Aristotle, why would he caricature the explanation on sneezing to such a degree? As we will see later, it may have been a deliberate strategy by the French writer.
Second, the quote from Montaigne comes from an essay titled “On Coaches” which opens on the following remarks about the value of some causal arguments:
It is very easy to verify that the great authors, when writing of causes, take account not only of those which they think are true causes, but also of those which they do not believe, provided that these have some novelty or some beauty. They speak truly and profitably enough if they speak sagaciously. ( tr. by George B. Ives, Kessinger Publishing, 2005, p. 1220)
Aristotle’s essay “Problems connected with the nostrils” provides many formidable examples for Montaigne’s remarks. Consider the explanation for the reason sneezes come in pair:
Why does one generally sneeze twice and neither once nor a large number of times? Is it because we have two nostrils? So the channel through which the air passes is divided into two. (tr. by W.S. Hett, Harvard University Press, 1957, p. 213)
The explanation is indeed very convenient, although it’s medical value is somehow dubious. We’ll come back to this point at the end of the next observation.
Last but not least, the following analysis by Tom Conley of Montaigne’s comment on sneezing shed an entirely different light on the problem. While reading the following excerpt, one is invited to keep in mind that Montaigne is widely regarded as a humanist. He’s also known to be the author of unconventional essays where there’s more to the text than meets the eye (think of the reverse perspective in “Of Cannibals”).
In the guarded diction people who sneeze (estrenuent) are precisely those people who traffic in estres nus, nude beings or slaves brought from overseas by virtue of wind, the force propelling the vessels carrying the human commodities and a common figure of the economy of the world. Sneezing (estrenuement) is blessed because it comes from higher regions of the mind. In the context of his virulent attack on Spain’s inhuman treatment of Amerindians in the rest of the essay the words infer that sneezing is a portmanteau word for slaving. Trade in estres nus (nude beings) is implicitly blessed among higher authorities. In this instance they are both Aristotle, who is mentioned, and pope Alexander VI, a figure having an allusive presence in the essay. (“The Essays and the New World” by Tom Conley, in The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, edited by Ullrich Langer, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 86-87)
If one is to accept Tom Conley’s reading, then the very last remark made by Montaigne concerning Aristotle takes another meaning. It is no laughing matter (“Ne vous moquez pas de cette subtilité”) that such a highly regarded thinker such as Aristotle thought that “sneezing” is “blameless”, i.e. slavery is acceptable. Aristotle, indeed, supported such views:
But we must next consider whether or not anyone exists who is by nature of this character, and whether it is advantageous and just for anyone to be a slave, or whether on the contrary all slavery is against nature. And it is not difficult either to discern the answer by theory or to learn it empirically. Authority and subordination are conditions not only inevitable but also expedient; in some cases things are marked out from the moment of birth to rule or to be ruled. (see Politics, Book I, section V, 1254a17-23)
Remember how Montaigne opened his essay “On Coaches”? Even “great authors” can make fallacious arguments simply because they believe them to be convenient or nice. The French writer is basically telling his readers that Aristotle’s views on slavery shouldn’t be endorse on the sole basis of his reputation. From this point of view, the liberties Montaigne takes with Aristotle’s original explanation also gain a new meaning. Maybe it was not a loose paraphrase after all. When Montaigne transforms Aristotle’s cough and running nose into flatulence and eruction, he’s basically performing a “reduction to absurdity” (reductio ad absurdum) on the convenient but dubious reasoning behind the “divine” nature of sneezing (i.e. showing how absurd it is by making a caricature of it). The story behind the tradition of following a sneeze with a blessing makes for a nice story, but it has no rational foundation whatsoever.
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Below is the original French text from the “B” edition (1588) of Montaigne’s Essays followed by a digital image of from the original “Bordeaux Copy” (1580). All this material is hosted and presented by The Montaigne Project at University of Chicago. This seems to be the definitive online tool for anyone interested in exploring the Essays.
Me demandez vous d’où vient cette coustume de benire ceux qui estrenuent? Nous produisons trois sortes de vent: celuy qui sort par embas est trop sale; celuy qui sort par la bouche porte quelque reproche de gourmandise; le troisiesme est l’estrenuement; et, parce qu’il vient de la teste et est sans blasme, nous luy faisons cet honneste recueil. Ne vous moquez pas de cette subtilité; elle est (dict-on) d’Aristote. (Villey edition of the Essays, 1580, Book III, Chap. VI, p. 899).
French and English bilingual editions (with the original Greek text) of Aristotle’s Problems are available online at Archive.org The English edition comes from The Loeb Classical Library (tr. by W.S. Hett, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957). The French edition is from Hachette (tr. Jules Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, Paris, 1851, p. 387). Below is an image of the original greek text where Aristotle discusses the “divine” nature of sneezing (i.e. section 7 of Book XXXIII):
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I was reminded of Montaigne’s comment regarding Aristotle’s view on sneezing via Pheezy In Wonderland who reblogged a photo originally uploaded and commented by Clive Thomson on Instagram (see pomeranian99).