17 Democracy: The Doings of Certain Ambassadors

I observe the following practice: always to bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know best.

For the reverse usually happens, everyone choosing to orate about another’s job rather than his own, reckoning to increase his reputation by so doing; witness the reproof Archidamus gave to Periander: that he was abandoning an excellent reputation as a good doctor to acquire the reputation of a bad poet.

This quote from Montaigne reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who abandoned an excellent reputation as a bad actor to acquire the reputation of a terrible governor. Of course, before going to Hollywood, Schwarzenegger abandoned a legendary reputation as a champion bodybuilder, raising the obvious question of what’s next: destroying the bad memory of his Governator years by becoming an even-worse talk show host?

Much of Montaigne’s essay was devoted to the argument that experts should stick to their areas of expertise – and you can use much of the advice to educate a celebrity interviewer; please don’t ask actors about politics, because no one cares and look what happened the last time you took those opinions too seriously.

But the advice raises an obvious question: why should we care what Montaigne has to write about the variety of subjects he assays? Despite the ring of truth in Montaigne’s argument, we now live in a democratic age, where all citizens are expected to be well-versed on issues. We cannot surrender economic policy to the economists or military strategy to generals; all Americans have a stake in questions of war and peace. Our collective opinions and values matter – so we would be wise to follow what Montaigne does, not what he says in this particular essay.

Later on in the essay, Montaigne moves on to his unquestioned area of expertise, diplomacy. Montaigne was particularly annoyed by ambassadors (or any government aide in the modern era) who “should have the power to choose what he should tell his sovereign.” In other words, if your job is to keep a ruler informed so he or she can make good decisions, you better have the courage to speak truth to power and the good sense to understand that it’s not your place to make decisions in the ruler’s place:

Under some pretext or other we are always ready to withdraw our obedience and to usurp the mastery. Everyone so naturally aspires to freedom and authority that, to a superior, no quality should be dearer in those who serve him than simple, straightforward obedience.

There are limits to this, of course, best defined by the Nuremberg Trials. A follower who goes along with the evil doings of a leader becomes responsibility for that immorality. Montaigne, ever the admirer of the Stoics, might have used Seneca as an example here. While Seneca’s tutelage of Nero helped the young Emperor rise to power, it was the murder of Nero’s mother – backed by Seneca – that consolidated that power. And while Seneca became the Dick Cheney of his day, ruling Rome while Nero learned on the job, eventually Nero gained enough confidence to inflict his madness on the empire. Seneca fell from favor and eventually committed suicide.

Somehow I doubt that Montaigne would consider straightforward obedience to Nero as a wise or noble act.

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