95 Quixote: On the Useful and the Honorable

I’m a great admirer of “Don Quixote,” especially the chapter where the Knight Errant gives Sancho Panza advice on being a virtuous governor. Quixote offers up some surprisingly wise thoughts such as:

Take pride in being a humble and virtuous man rather than a lofty and sinful one …. if you make virtue your method, and you take pride in doing virtuous deeds, you will not have to envy those descended from lords and noblemen; because blood is inherited, and virtue is acquired, and virtue has in itself a value that blood lacks.

When you have to judge a case involving one of your enemies, forget all about your grievances and concentrate on the facts of the matter. Do not let your own feelings blind you to others’ claims; for most of the mistakes that you make will not be reversible, and if they are it will be at the cost of your reputation or even of your pocket.

If you are going to have a man punished with deeds, do not batter him with words, because the suffering that the wretch is to undergo is enough, without the addition of any vilification.

It turns out to be great advice — and Panza becomes a surprisingly effective governor for a short while. And while I don’t know for sure if Cervantes ever read Montaigne or was in anyway influenced by it, this chapter is filled with similar advice for public servants that seems very much in line with Cervantes. Central to both of their ways of thinking is the concept that virtue must be at the center of effective rule … but Montaigne also has some interesting ideas about those who feel obliged to engage in real politic:

If vicious deeds should become excusable insofar as we have need of them, necessity effacing their true qualities, we must leave that role to be played by citizens who are more vigorous and less timorous, those prepared to sacrifice their honour and their consciences, as men of yore once sacrificed their lives: for the well-being of their country.

Later on Montaigne notes that acting without honor in the public interest will never lead to rewards — only a full understanding of the character involved in those actions, even by the person who benefits most from the acts:

Even if it should happen that you do get a reward so as not to deprive raison d’état of so extreme and desperate a remedy, the one who rewards you will not fail to regard you as a man accursed and abominable – unless that is he is one himself. And he will think you a bigger traitor than does the man you betrayed; for he proves the malevolence of your heart at the touchstone of your hands, with no possible denial or objection. He exploits you just as we do those degraded men, Public Executioners of High Justice – an office as useful as it is shameful.

This is a fairly common trope in political stories, the morally-compromised aide who becomes ever more loyal to his leader the more treacherous he becomes. Instead of dwelling on this negative picture, Montaigne offers another way to serve the public honorably. The first principle of such service is speaking truth to power:

Frank speech is less suspect or offensive in men who are not working for some private gain and who can with truth make the reply that Hyperides made to the Athenians who complained of his blunt way of speaking: ‘Gentlemen, do not consider only my frankness but that I am frank without having anything to gain, without restoring my own fortunes.’ My own frankness, by its vigor, has quickly freed me too from suspicion of deceitfulness (since I do not spare men anything, however hurtful or oppressive, which could be put worse behind their backs); and also by showing my frankness to be simple and unbiased.

What I find interesting is that, today, truth to power is a concept that has been hijacked by ideologues. It’s meaning has been distorted to be indicative of a certain ideological purity. But as Montaigne points out, often the most effective public servant has no ideology at all … and this lack of bias makes for more loyal servitude:

I feel, by the way, no driving passion about the great of the land, neither love nor hatred: nor has my will in this matter been throttled by private injury or obligation. I think of our Kings with the simple loyal affection of a subject, neither encouraged nor discouraged by personal interest. I feel pleased with myself over that. I am only moderately devoted to public affairs, and only dispassionately to just ones.

Along those lines, Montaigne then counsels everyone who becomes interested and involved in politics to keep a certain personal distance from it … it’s completely understandable for political rivals to dislike one another, but it makes no sense for supporter of one leader to adopt that personal animus:

I hold that it is the property of kings alone to feel animosity towards other kings, and I laugh at the types of mind which gaily volunteer for quarrels which are so disproportionate: for a man has no private quarrel with a prince when he marches openly and courageously against him, honorably doing his duty. He may not love that great person but he does something better: he esteems him. And there is always this in favor of the cause of legitimacy, of the defense of the traditional institution: the very ones who disturb it for their personal ends can excuse those who defend it, even though they do not honor them.

We should hold a certain esteem for public servants … and I do realize that in the age of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, that seems harder than ever. But if one side of the political battle wishes to turn politics into a game of personal destruction, they succeed in demeaning our democracy when you give in to them. Trump, for example, has never held a political office and rarely even votes. He’s simply not qualified to be President of the United States and has earned none of the attention that he receives. He deserves our silent contempt, nothing more:

Nothing stops us from behaving properly even when among mutual enemies – nor loyally either. Comport yourself among them not with an equal good-will (for good-will can allow of varying degrees) but at least with a temperate one, so that you do not become so involved with one of those mutual enemies that he can demand of you your all. Be satisfied too with a modest degree of their favor: do not fish in troubled waters, glide through them!

Montaigne is not naive when it comes to politics — he understands the value of political strategy:

I do not want to deprive wiliness of its rank: that would be to misunderstand the world. I know that it has often proved profitable and that it feeds and maintains most of the avocations of men. Some vices are legal, just as some deeds are good or pardonable yet illegal. That justice which of itself is natural and universal is ordered differently and more nobly than that other sort of justice, which is particular to one nation and  confined by our political necessities.

But building on his praise for Epaminondas two chapters ago, now uses him as an example of how a virtuous leader can shape his nation and posterity:

I have already placed Epaminondas among the foremost ranks of outstanding men and I have no wish to unsay what I said. How far would he go, out of consideration for his private duty? He never killed a man he had vanquished; he scrupled to kill, without due form of law, a tyrant or his accomplices, even for the inestimable good of restoring freedom to his country; he thought it wicked of a man, no matter how good a citizen he might be, if he did not spare his friend and host among his enemies even in battle.

Montaigne is especially impressed that a man of war can have such a gentle spirit:

Truly that man was genuinely in command of War when he compelled her mouth to answer to the bit of his kindness at the highest point of her most blazing ardor, all enflamed as she was and foaming with frenzy and slaughter. It is a miracle to bring even the image of Justice into actions such as that: to the righteous Epaminondas alone it belonged to bring in mildness, most gentle-mannered benevolence and pure innocence.

He closes with a thought very similar to Cervantes — that virtuous rule can help change human behavior. This is an unusually optimistic thought from Montaigne, especially so because it closes the essay:

Let us deprive wicked treacherous natures, a thirst for blood, of such a pretext of justification. Let us cast aside such abnormal and insane justice and cling to models which are more humane. Think what examples can do over time!

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