Imagine a fairly common phenomenon: you’re rushing to get to work on time, hurrying through your bedroom to pick up your charged cellphone, and you stub your toe on a dresser. Next to your phone is one of your child’s harmless, guiltless plastic toy super heroes. Could anyone blame you for grabbing the Green Lantern and flinging him against the wall?
Well, actually Montaigne would. Montaigne had no use for these irrational bursts of choler:
the soul … loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless it is given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon.
What will we not attack, rightly or wrongly, rather than go without something to skirmish against?
But these irrational outbursts call to mind another human phenomenon that Montaigne insightful believes may be linked. This time, instead of imagining your in-the-moment desire to revenge your stubbed toe, picture yourself watching TV or wasting time on the Internet at work on a slow afternoon.
And instead of the same old domestic political spat, you find yourself watching images of prayers being interrupted by water canons and government buildings being set on fire. Without getting into the particular details of the Egyptian uprising, for most Americans, scenes like these are riveting.
Even if the end result is more akin to the Iranian Revolution than the American, there’s something about these events that scratch an itch for Westerners. For those on the political left, they sing a song of liberation; for those in the right, they strike a blow against the big bad State.
But what drives these emotional responses? It’s certainly not a deep understanding of Egyptian politics. Are most Americans even aware of the fact that we send the Mubarak government nearly $2 billion a year? Or could they tell you whether the average Egyptian has more or less civil liberties than the average Saudi?
Montaigne, who lived in an age of relentless religious warfare, hints that it’s our day to day powerlessness that leads us to feel kinship with revolutionaries. If a powerful world leader can be brought to his knees by a disorganized, leaderless protest, who’s to say your parking tickets won’t miraculously disappear someday.
But Montaigne doesn’t hold out much hope for revolutionary optimism and suggests that we work solving the issues that torment us instead of projecting them onto the political stage. He closes his essay this way:
as that old poet says in Plutarch: “There is no point in getting angry against events: they are indifferent to our wrath.” But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.