86 Montaigne’s Philosophy: On Virtue

Most admirers of Montaigne see him as an innovator of form: a stylist and a sage. He is all of these things, but I think that there’s also a neglected social and political philosophy spread out across his 107 essays. You have to take pieces of it from here and there, but there’s consistency in his thought and what emerges in the end has relevance to political discussions today.

I’m going to fast forward to contemporary politics by way of David Foster Wallace’s new novel “The Pale King.” The book touches lightly on politics for the most part, but in Chapter 19, we get Wallace’s clearest exposition of his political views in one place. Here he talks about a favorite topic of Montaigne’s – the power of cultural mores to guide civic behavior:

I’m wary about doing the old-fart move of saying people aren’t civic-minded like they were in the good old days and the country’s going to shit. But it seems like citizens—whether on taxes or littering, you name it—did feel like they were part of Everything, that the huge Everybody Else that determined policy and taste and the common good was in fact made up of a whole lot of individuals just like them, that they were in fact part of Everything, and that they had to hold up their end and pull their weight and assume what they did made some difference the same way Everybody Else did, if the country was going to stay a nice place to live.’

When did these good old days actually exist? If there’s a grand vision of civic America, it was described by Alexis de Tocqueville, and Wallace describes how America ‘fell’ from these lofty heights:

It was in the 1830s and ’40s that states started granting charters of incorporation to larger and regulated companies. And it was 1840 or ’41 that de Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community, of having real true fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his. This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers.’

So what’s the end result of all this? An infantilized polity:

Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.

I think Wallace describes the current situation in terms that Montaigne would understand completely. Throughout his essays, Montaigne warns about using law to shape human behavior – he thinks it’s at least a waste of time and potentially an oppressive ethos. But where Montaigne would break from Wallace is in finding a solution. Think back to the Wallace commencement address at Kenyon College, because his advice to graduates carries over to the readers of “The Pale King.” Wallace suggests that personal responsibility – or virtue – is the key to overcoming solipsistic navel gazing.

Montaigne, on the other hand, doesn’t think human beings are capable of such constant virtue:

I find from experience that there is a difference between the leaps and sallies of the soul and a settled constant habit: and I am well aware that there is nothing we cannot do (indeed, even surpassing the Divinity, as somebody once said, since it is a greater thing to make oneself impassible than to be so as a property of one’s being) even combining the frailty of Man with the resolution and assurance of God. But only spasmodically. Sometimes there is in the lives of those heroes in Ancient times miraculous flashes which appear far to exceed our natural powers: but, truly, flashes they are; it is hard to believe that we can so steep and dye our soul in such elevated attributes that they become ordinary and natural to her.

We’re all capable of flashes of great, virtuous acts, but we cannot live our lives this way. And Montaigne is absolutely right to say that pulling off this feat would be tantamount to surpassing gods, because we’d be overcoming our being. Philosophies that depend on deep personal responsibility – Sartre’s existentialism being the most obvious – are terrible guides to live by. None of us have the strength to take on the weight of the world. Montaigne continues:

Once that whirlwind is over, we can see that she spontaneously relaxes and comes down, not perhaps down to the lowest stage of all but at least to less than she was, so that we can be moved to anger more or less like any ordinary man by the loss of a hawk or by a broken glass …. The wise men say that to judge a man we properly we must principally look at his routine activities and surprise him in his everyday dress.

Montaigne is not suggesting that people should abandon personal philosophies – to the contrary, he finds them useful and necessary. But he also believes that we need to temper our expectations:

Now it is one thing to bring your soul to accept such ideas: it is quite another to combine theory and practice. Yet it is not impossible. But what is virtually incredible is that you should combine them with such perseverance and constancy as to make it your regular routine in actions so far from common custom.

From here, Montaigne gets into tricky questions of God and free will. It seems like a strange turn, but it fits with the theme because it goes to the question of interpreting signs of destiny. If we cannot shape the world purely by force of will, then perhaps we should just surrender to the tidal forces of life. Montaigne first challenges the notion that we’re passive observers of life, not participants:

What we see happen is happening: but it could have happened otherwise. And God, in the book of the causes of events which he has in his foreknowledge, also includes such causes as we term fortuitous and voluntary, those which depend on the liberty which he has given to our free-will: he knows that we will go astray because we shall have willed to do so.

So we are destined in a way to stray – but that’s not due to larger forces controlling us, it’s just part of who we are. We can – and must – fight against these worst impulses and we cannot give in to the fiction that everything just happens to us. If you have the faith of Montaigne, it all makes logical sense … man is fallen, philosophy cannot make him whole and law cannot make him virtuous.

But where does that leave us in this secular age? Montaigne wants social mores to be shaped by custom – and as I mentioned in a previous chapter, Martin Heidegger has taken up this call as well. Even Heidegger, however, eventually surrendered to the idea that “only the gods can save us.” Heidegger didn’t mean by that a return to a theocratic culture. What exactly he did mean, scholars still debate today.

Taking a bit from Montaigne and Wallace, I’d like to suggest that there might be another route. Let’s assume that Wallace’s reading of de Tocqueville was correct, America once had a more vibrant civic culture. This culture has seen periodic revivals since then, most notably during the Second World War. It is possible for Americans to put aside the selfishness and rally for a greater good.

But you can’t legislate your way to it – and the capitalist market will not magically bring you to that place either. I would also suggest that our quadrennial efforts to find this new civic spirit through political campaigns is a waste of time, America will never find civic unity through the ballot box, it’s how we express our democratic diversity.

The culture can be changed, however, and it shifts in small ways every day. Two weeks ago the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that one year old children remain in backwards-facing car seats. Already parents are being judged based on their decisions whether to flip around the car seats or not. No law was required, only a well publicized study.

We misunderstand the power of cultural mores to alter our day to day decisions. It doesn’t necessary take the gods … or laws … or market-based solutions. It just takes new habits and human beings are remarkably adaptable to these tides of change.

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