58 Character: On the Inconstancy of Our Actions

How do we know another person? I don’t mean recognize or even like, but to really know someone, feel that we understand that person’s motivations and can accurately predict how that person will act in a given circumstance? And never mind another person, can you ever really know yourself and be completely comfortable with your own decisions and actions?

It’s a huge subject – pretty much the core question of psychology. Characterization was Shakespeare’s great gift – and I think you could make a good case that this Montaigne essay helped inform the Bard’s depth and appreciation for the complexity of human behavior. I’m not a Bardologist –or a Montaigne scholar for that matter – but I see quite a bit of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in Montaigne’s musings. For example, take a look at Montaigne’s opening paragraph and notice Hamlet lurking in the corner:

Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.

Montaigne never had the pleasure of reading Shakespeare himself, so he missed the characterization revolution in drama altogether. The literature and drama of Montaigne’s day didn’t measure up:

Even sound authors are wrong in stubbornly trying to weave us into one invariable and solid fabric …. They select one universal character, then, following that model, they classify and interpret all the actions of a great man; if they cannot twist them the way they want they accuse the man of insincerity.

Variability is the key word for Montaigne – he finds it impossible for humans to keep to a consistent path throughout a lifetime. As Hamlet was mad North-By-Northwest, so too is most of humanity:

Of Man I can believe nothing less easily than invariability: nothing more easily than variability. Whoever would judge a man in his detail, piece by piece, separately, would hit on the truth more often …. Our normal fashion is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along. What we want is only in our thought for the instant that we want it: we are like that creature which takes on the colour of wherever you put it.

Remember in the first volume of essays what Montaigne believed about laws. He’s not in favor of changing the law frequently and especially not to affect changes in social behavior. Notice here the analogy about laws and human behavior:

If a man were to prescribe settled laws for a settled government established over his own brain, then we would see, shining throughout his whole life, a calm uniformity of conduct and a faultless interrelationship between his principles and his actions …. In our cases on the contrary every one of our actions requires to be judged on its own: the surest way in my opinion would be to refer each of them to its context, without looking farther and without drawing any firm inference from it.

Which is interesting because Montaigne obviously believes it is not possible to impose that kind of uniform behavior on an individual. It makes me wonder whether he believes that externally-enforced and administered laws can actually work on the body politic either. But that’s for another essay. Montaigne pivots back to religion next and posits that our extreme behavioral variability might account for the belief in angels and devils:

The changes and contradictions seen in us are so flexible that some have imagined that we have two souls, others two angels who bear us company and trouble us each in his own way, one turning us towards good the other towards evil, since such sudden changes cannot be accommodated to one single entity.

He was smart enough not to take a firm stand on that theory, he probably had troubles enough from his discussions of fortune and prayer from the first volume of essays. Instead, Montaigne returns to the ancient Greeks, with a bow to Heraclitus:

Anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this face or that, depending upon which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal — I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate.

This whole question about who is a person — given the variability of actions and motivations from moment to moment — has become a major issue in contemporary moral philosophy. Derek Parfit wrote extensively on the subject in “Reasons and Persons,” but alas, I haven’t had time to delve into that work yet … it’s on my Kindle, awaiting some spare time. Perhaps Montaigne will give me the chance to revisit the idea later.

Montaigne then returns to his favorite subject – the importance of deeds. No person can truly be called brave unless he or she acts brave at every moment, which is basically impossible. So Montaigne argues that we shouldn’t celebrate people, we should celebrate deeds:

If he cannot bear slander but is resolute in poverty; if he cannot bear a barber-surgeon’s lancet but is unyielding against the swords of his adversaries, then it is not the man who deserves praise but the deed.

And in the spirit of this “greatest hits” essay, Montaigne now returns to the subject of chance:

Chance has so much power over us, since it is by chance that we live. Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly. It is impossible to put the pieces together if you do not have in your head the idea of the whole. What is the use of providing yourself with paints if you do not know what to paint?

You can tell that Montaigne’s confidence is brimming as he starts off volume 2, because he wouldn’t dare speak so boldly of chance the first time around. This is still a highly controversial subject with the church, but here Montaigne is arguing that unless a person becomes extraordinarily focused on an end in life, he or she will become a victim of chance. He reads quite a bit more in this essay like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, immersed in the sky-blue sea of bliss because he’s found a purposeful direction in life.

Towards the end of the essay, Montaigne writes something that’s so striking that I can’t decide whether it’s profound or nonsense. Judge for yourself:

We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people.

I’m not sure what to make of that – there’s as much difference between our various personae as there is between us and other people. If true, the entire idea of individuality is a myth. I’m no more “me” at this moment than I am you; I am just transitioning through “me” to reach another and another, none of whom is the actual “me” any more than you are. If that’s true, do you have to reject the Montaigne/Zarathustra idea that you can find fulfillment and happiness in life by focusing on an end, making yourself instrumental? Maybe not. Maybe the idea is that by becoming a cog in a human mechanism, you find your purpose and happiness … it’s by striving to become a fully comprehensible, atomic “me” that leads to hopelessness and despair.

Montaigne doesn’t reach any ultimate truths in this essay and suggests that the process he mentions is a “deep and chancy undertaking.” I would go beyond that – it’s also a lonely undertaking. Good luck finding, for example, a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist capable of leading you down this highly intellectual path. You almost, by necessity, have to travel this road alone.

In the end, is it worthwhile? That’s another question to explore in the essays ahead.

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