I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recognize that Montaigne is not discussing racial equality when he writes:
We praise a greyhound for its speed not for its neck-band; a hawk, for its wing not for its bells and its leg-straps. So why do we not similarly value a man for qualities which are really his?
And I also recognize that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves when he wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Words have great power, beyond their obvious context. Montaigne is not writing about democracy or human dignity in this essay, but he is discussing that elusive concept King raises: the content of character. What is it? How can we judge our own, never mind another’s?
And once you disrobe the royals and declare that their titles prove nothing, that a peasant could have greater intelligence, strength or courage …
Such things are only so much paint: they do not make for differences of essence. For as you see actors in plays imitating on the trestles dukes or emperors, only to return suddenly to their original natural position of wretched valets and drudges: so too with that Emperor whose pomp in public dazzles you.
… then how can you stem the tide of humanistic worth, dignity and, inevitably, democracy? Montaigne is famously viewed as a conservative monarchist, but at the core of his believes — the content of his character, if you will — is a deep affection for the worth of every human being.
I suspect that having known from personal experience what a great burden it is to live in the public eye, Montaigne did not support monarchy because he viewed royal blood as superior, but rather because he felt that anyone compelled, for whatever reason, to rule should be given all the trappings of power necessary to carry the burden. A good example is this:
Every man loathes being spied on and having his actions recorded: but kings are spied on, down to their facial expressions and their thoughts, the entire people reckoning that they have the right and privilege of making judgements upon them. The higher and brighter the spot, the bigger the stain: a mole or wart on your forehead shows up more than a scar does elsewhere.
Montaigne, in fact, viewed the man of “medium means” who limits his power to his own estate to be the truly free man:
The man who is content to squat by his hearth and who knows how to govern his household without squabbles or law-suits is as free as the Duke of Venice. Slavery holds on to few: many hold on to it.
The worst part of attaining any high standing in life — power, wealth or fame — is the isolation it creates. Along with losing all privacy, as mentioned above, true friendship of equals disappears too:
Hieron regrets above all that he finds himself deprived of mutual friendship and companionship, in which consists the most perfect and the sweetest fruit of human life: ‘For what proof of love or affection can I draw from a man who, whether he wants to or not, owes me everything in his power?’
When you pull in Montaigne’s other recent essays, an ethos begins to emerge. Montaigne is saying that fame is a fool’s errand; power doesn’t prove your worth and it brings you rewards that you cannot fully enjoy; not only is the moderate life the most sensible, a moderate amount of success is the route to happiness.
Which brings me back to the content of character, because Montaigne raises the question without giving a satisfactory answer, not yet anyway. Yes, he tells us which part in the great play of life to pursue … be the supporting player. But that’s an empty shell — the question of character still looms. Who is he and who are we? What defines us?
On a daily basis, America hears the existentialist point of view about character more than any other. Hollywood likes to borrow from Sartre and Camus especially for answers about identity and personal meaning. The wonderful new movie “Rango” begins with the lead character asking himself who he is, other than an actor … he then sets him off on a quest, which may very well take place only in his mind, all to prove that Rango’s existence precedes his essence, than the content of his character is revealed in action.
It’s not surprising that Hollywood would find existentialism to be a perfect vessel for revealing meaning because the process is very much like what an actor goes through, from film to film, to find the motivation of characters. If the screenwriter has failed to develop the role with the requisite identity crisis, quest for meaning and cathartic resolution, actors struggle to understand their characters and very often the audience is unsatisfied.
Montaigne is not a proto-existentialist, his mission is actually quite a bit bolder. Instead of pursuing that life-defining mission, Montaigne suggests withdrawing and letting go of grand ambition, finding what we really desire in life when all the grand goals are stripped away. I’ll close with this highly revealing anecdote — which has a certain air of 20th century psychiatry — about King Pyrrhus, who is best known today as the father of the “Pyrrhic victory”:
When King Pyrrhus was planning to cross over into Italy his wise counsellor Cyneas, wishing to make him realize the inanity of his ambition, asked him, ‘Well now, Sire, what end do you propose in planning this great project?’ – ‘To make myself master of Italy,’ came his swift reply. ‘And when that is done?’ – ‘I will cross into Gaul and Spain.’ – ‘And then?’ – ‘I will go and subjugate Africa.’ – ‘And in the end?’ – ‘When I have brought the whole world under my subjection, I shall seek my repose, living happily at my ease.’ Cyneas then returned to the attack: ‘Then by God tell me, Sire, if that is what you want, what is keeping you from doing it at once? Why do you not place yourself now where you say you aspire to be, and so spare yourself all the toil and risk that you are putting between you and it?