What does it mean to be virtuous? And if philosophy has any connection to wisdom, shouldn’t it point a path towards virtuous behavior — help us in our darkest hours and answer the “to be or not to be” questions?
Montaigne struggled with the question of virtue throughout his essays, most obviously in this chapter, where he starts off with one definition, then abruptly abandons it for another about one-fifth of the way in. His audible is a solid metaphor for philosophy’s quest to find virtue throughout history.
If Nietzsche is correct that all philosophy is autobiography, then every philosopher’s definition of virtue is an attempt to put himself squarely in the middle of that sea of splendor. Montaigne has some very interesting theories about virtue, which I’ll get to in a minute, but first I want to survey the path of this quest in major thinkers and philosophers who followed his wake.
Shakespeare came first and Hamlet redefined the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
The modern view of Shakespeare is to view this as an existential question, but in Shakespeare’s age, I think it’s more appropriate to see it as a test of Stoic philosophy. Montaigne himself voiced admiration in this essay for people who can face great misfortune and not respond with vengeance … you could almost call that a tentative definition of virtue from Montaigne.
But Shakespeare put Montaigne’s definition to the test in “Hamlet,” and the result wasn’t pretty. Even while outsmarting everyone in Elsinore, Hamlet could not escape his role and his destiny. His attempts to circumlocute the obvious confrontation leads to more death and the eventual fall of the kingdom.
Jump ahead to the 19th century and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great admirer of both Montaigne and Shakespeare. He redefines virtue as self-reliance: standing up to the crowd, having a unique voice and having the courage of your convictions, even if those convictions change day by day.
Nietzsche, an avid reader of Emerson, takes the idea of self-reliance a step further — he redefines virtue as having the courage to create and live entirely new values, to recognize that our entire conception of good and evil is based on fallacy.
Then move into the 20th century and Jean Paul Sartre takes the virtue merry go round all the way back to the Greeks by agreeing with the 19th century philosophers that human beings have no essence, we create it ourselves — but he then defines virtue as knowing oneself, living in good faith, taking up a self definition and accepting responsibility for your ability to live the role.
While there are few Sartrean existentialists left in philosophy departments, his worldview has met with much greater success in Hollywood, where most films since World War II have followed a plot formula: Act One, a character faces an existential crisis; Act Two, he or she takes action; and Act Three, the protagonist is forever changed as a result of this quest. It’s ironic, existentialism was abandoned because it’s too hard to live by, the heavy burden of responsibility weighs down every choice in life. But while failing as a philosophy, it’s gone on to become the centerpiece of happily-ever-after movie plots. But I digress.
So let’s get back to Montaigne. He starts this essay with a thesis that, to me at least, seems sensible and holds great potential:
It seems to me that virtue is something other, something nobler, than those tendencies towards the Good which are born in us …. Virtue has a ring about it which implies something greater and more active than allowing ourselves to be gently and quietly led in reason’s train by some fortunate complexion.
Notice the word “active” … it might have helped Montaigne shield himself against Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” hypothesis test if he had reached a definition of virtue that required greatness and action in the protagonist rather than something buried within.
And then Montaigne describes a situation much like Hamlet’s:
A man who, stung to the quick and ravished by an injury, could arm himself with the arms of reason against a frenzied yearning for vengeance, finally mastering it after a great struggle, would undoubtedly be doing very much more …. Virtue presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without a struggle. That is doubtless why we can call God good, mighty, bountiful and just, but we cannot call him virtuous: his works are his properties and cost him no struggle.
In other words, if Hamlet’s first instinct was to avenge swiftly and brutally, but he was slowly and painfully brought around to the idea that the right thing to do is nothing, we get an entirely different play and one where Hamlet can escape his destiny based on reason. To reach this form of virtue, the protagonist must struggle mightily with it:
Virtue rejects ease as a companion, and that the gentle easy slope up which are guided the measured steps of a good natural disposition is not the path of real virtue. Virtue demands a rough and thorny road: she wants either external difficulties to struggle against (which was the way of Metellus) by means of which Fortune is pleased to break up the directness of her course for her, or else inward difficulties furnished by the disordered passions and imperfections of our condition.
So Montaigne is on the brink of embracing a definition of virtue that is much closer to Emerson and Nietzsche, one where reason creates freedom and allows us to break out of destructive patterns that can seem like destiny. But just as he reached this very interesting terrain, he abandons it … in the most maddening fashion possible:
By the end of the above argument the thought occurs to me that the soul of Socrates, which is the most perfect to have come to my knowledge, would be by my reckoning with little to commend it, for I cannot conceive in that great man any onslaught from vicious desires. I cannot imagine any difficulty or any constraint in the progress of his virtue; I know that his reason was so powerful and sovereign within him that it would never have even let a vicious desire be born in him.
Maybe this is a personal bias and I just have to get over it, but changing your definition of virtue based on the premise that Socrates was the most virtuous man who ever lived is just the kind of annoying, arguable syllogism that Socrates himself deployed constantly to bully himself to debate victories.
Every time I read Plato I come away thinking that Socrates was an insufferable ass — someone who refused to participate in a debate unless he could define the ground rules, someone who relied on Ed McMahon-like toadies to accept and echo every word out of his mouth and someone whose unfortunate end distorts our ability to rationally analyze everything that came before it.
But, if Montaigne is determined to use Socrates as his exemplar of virtue, there’s nothing we can do about it now to change his mind. So where does this new definition lead him?
Fortunately, Montaigne is a subtle thinker, so even from this shaky premise he reaches some interesting ideas. The most valuable thought is that when people are acting most virtuously, there’s an odd, almost indefinable pleasure that results from the action.
Here’s how Montaigne describes the martyr-like end of Cato the Younger, but the description seems even more apt, in my opinion, to Socrates:
He felt voluptuous pleasure in so noble a deed and that he delighted in it more than in anything else he did in his life: He quitted this life, rejoicing that he had obtained a pretext for dying. I am so convinced by this that I begin to doubt whether he would have wished the opportunity for so fine an exploit to be taken from him. And, if that goodness which led him to embrace public interests rather than his own did not rein me back, I would readily concur with the opinion that he was grateful to Fortune for having put his virtue to so fine a proof and for having favoured that brigand who was to trample the ancient freedom of his country underfoot.
Montaigne later discusses what he considers to be the worst of all vices — cruelty, and in describing the dark joy that some people take in inflicting cruelty, I found a certain similarity to the way that he described the “voluptuous pleasure” in doing good deeds.
So if we go back to Hamlet now, we can think of his “to be or not to be” moment not as a crisis of torment, but one where his reason has come under attack from this odd instinct to virtue. Hamlet’s desire to be superior to humanity puts him in league with martyrs … but could it be that this desire is really nothing more than a form of self cruelty and the “voluptuous pleasure” that results from it is more akin to hunting defenseless animals than taking a stand for the good?
Montaigne never spells it out this way, but given the direction he’s about to take in his epic next essay — his view that we owe gentle kindness to all living creatures — is it such a leap to say that we also owe it to ourselves?
There is a kind of respect and a duty in man as a genus which link us not merely to the beasts, which have life and feelings, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men: and to the other creatures who are able to receive them we owe gentleness and kindness.