(58) Character: On the Inconstancy of Our Actions

I have mulled the question posed in this essay for nearly 10 years now and have yet to land on a completely satisfactory answer — how do we know another person, and can we have complete confidence that we actually know ourselves as well? In my original glimpse at this essay, I spent a good deal of time comparing and contrasting Montaigne and Shakespeare. But that’s too academic an approach. I’ve come to believe over time that the greatest challenge to our understanding of others — and perhaps even ourselves — lies in our intuition and the heuristics we create to help guide us towards better decision making.

A personal example: I have recently re-entered the dating pool, which is quite an interesting experience in COVID times. Becoming single for the first time in 25 years is a very odd condition to be in, never mind the strange social distancing at play that has turned the getting to know process into something akin to courting in fundamentalist religions.

Perhaps the go-slow approach is ideal for me right now, however, because I’m highly onguard for any signs that a potential mate reminds me of women from my past. Once you’ve gone through one heavy transference experience in life, you will be on the lookout for all of its forms forever.

Last weekend, I spent a very nice day on a couple of walks with a woman, and kept trying to process why I felt something was off. Was it moving too fast? Did she remind me of my ex? My mother? My sister? Or did she remind me of my own faults or even my shadow? It was impossible to pinpoint, but my intuition was telling me that this was not a good match. That’s too bad, because we had a very easy rapport and she seemed like someone I might like to be friends with.

If I were to try to explain candidly to this woman why I didn’t think it would work, I’d probably come off as an assuming jerk, projecting past relationship failures onto someone I barely know. But does that make the intuition wrong? Maybe not. But it is almost certainly something to keep to myself, there’s no useful insight lodged inside these gut feelings.

But to make the experience even stranger, I can easily imagine another circumstance where these same unconscious repulsions could flip into attractions. Perhaps the fact that she was clearly interested in me made me cast the unconscious in a more critical light. If she seemed more aloof or unattainable, these same feelings could have pushed me in a completely different direction. And that is what I think Montaigne is getting at in his opening paragraph:

Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.

Montaigne looks to the arts to see if books or plays could help us get a better grasp of this human puzzle, but finds only a major misunderstanding of humanity. It is not a contradiction for a person to react in wildly variable ways, it is the norm:

Even sound authors are wrong in stubbornly trying to weave us into one invariable and solid fabric …. They select one universal character, then, following that model, they classify and interpret all the actions of a great man; if they cannot twist them the way they want they accuse the man of insincerity.

This is something I notice quite frequently when I go back and read past efforts on this site. I do not doubt that I assay these subjects with complete sincerity in the moment, but it is more common than not that I return to past writing and cannot comprehend the emotional state that lead me to take positions I once staked. Just today I took down a piece entitled “Daydreaming” because I couldn’t comprehend why I ever wrote it — unless I had an odd desire for people to gaslight me:

Of Man I can believe nothing less easily than invariability: nothing more easily than variability. Whoever would judge a man in his detail, piece by piece, separately, would hit on the truth more often …. Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along. What we want is only in our thought for the instant that we want it: we are like that creature which takes on the colour of wherever you put it.

As I wrote in 2011, this closely matches what Montaigne believed about laws. He’s not in favor of changing the law frequently and especially not to affect changes in social behavior. Notice here the analogy about laws and human behavior:

If a man were to prescribe settled laws for a settled government established over his own brain, then we would see, shining throughout his whole life, a calm uniformity of conduct and a faultless interrelationship between his principles and his actions …. In our cases on the contrary every one of our actions requires to be judged on its own: the surest way in my opinion would be to refer each of them to its context, without looking farther and without drawing any firm inference from it.

Montaigne pivots back to religion next and posits that our extreme behavioral variability might account for the belief in angels and devils. Today, we would probably draw an analogy to a condition in psychology, but the religious analogy of his age was far more poetic:

The changes and contradictions seen in us are so flexible that some have imagined that we have two souls, others two angels who bear us company and trouble us each in his own way, one turning us towards good the other towards evil, since such sudden changes cannot be accommodated to one single entity.

He was smart enough not to take a firm stand on that theory, he probably had troubles enough from his discussions of fortune and prayer from the first volume of essays. Instead, Montaigne returns to the ancient Greeks, with a bow to Heraclitus:

Anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this face or that, depending upon which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal — I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate.

Montaigne then returns to his favorite subject – the importance of deeds. No person can truly be called brave unless he or she acts brave at every moment, which is basically impossible. So Montaigne argues that we shouldn’t celebrate people, we should celebrate deeds:

If he cannot bear slander but is resolute in poverty; if he cannot bear a barber-surgeon’s lancet but is unyielding against the swords of his adversaries, then it is not the man who deserves praise but the deed.

And in the spirit of this “greatest hits” essay, Montaigne now returns to the subject of chance:

Chance has so much power over us, since it is by chance that we live. Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly. It is impossible to put the pieces together if you do not have in your head the idea of the whole. What is the use of providing yourself with paints if you do not know what to paint?

You can tell that Montaigne’s confidence is brimming as he starts off volume 2, because he wouldn’t dare speak so boldly of chance the first time around. This is still a highly controversial subject with the church, but here Montaigne is arguing that unless a person becomes extraordinarily focused on an end in life, he or she will become a victim of chance. He reads quite a bit more in this essay like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, immersed in the sky-blue sea of bliss because he’s found a purposeful direction in life.

Towards the end of the essay, Montaigne writes something very striking that I’ve kicked around several times in several forms on this site:

We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people.

This is a fascinating thought that returns me to the matter of transference. As we form attachments with others, we are naturally susceptible to forming the strongest ones with the people who seem most familiar to us. But the one question we neglect to consider is whether we want to be in that relationship not only with the shadow of a former acquaintance, but that shadow of ourself.

The old relationship that we unconsciously attempt to recreate is one suited to another person and another time, so we should be on guard against it. However, it can also be true that the negative connotation raised by those past reminders can be equally ill fitting to this new person considering entry into the relationship.

It is, perhaps, even oddly possible that the person you reflexively reject for being too much like the partner you just left could in fact be ideal, not because you made a mistake in leaving that partner, but because you have changed enough as a result of the experience that a similar person with a completely clean slate might be well suited to you.

The best you can do is to try to better understand yourself in any moment, especially the ways, big and small, that you continue to evolve. It would also be nice to, in the process, try to give other people ample opportunity to prove your impossible-to-articulate hunches wrong.

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