It seems highly appropriate, on the day when our third son was baptized, to take up a Montaigne essay dealing with moral philosophy. Incidentally, the Catholic mass prior to Quinn’s baptism featured a homily about Dostoevsky and, during the baptism ceremony itself, the priest said that St. Augustine “invented original sin.” If they offer such healthy servings of the humanities every Sunday, I might have to attend mass more often.
Moral philosophy is not to my taste in most cases. Perhaps I need to read Kant more deeply and to gain a greater appreciation for Rawls and Parfit … but my instinct is to believe that you’re either with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. Either you take the leap of faith and accept the moral structure it entails or you accept Nietzsche’s conclusion that we need to toss it all out and start over. The only thinker who’s made any headway convincing me of a compromise between these positions is Charles Taylor, but he hasn’t quite won me over yet.
Montaigne lived prior to the existential schism, so he readily embraces the moral structure of the church. But he still has a lot of interesting, unique things to say about that moral structure. In fact, two essays into volume 3, I’m impressed by how much deeper these new essays delve into the topics. The new essays aren’t just longer, they are dense and memorable. They’re also harder to highlight because nearly everything in them is worth quoting.
For example, Montaigne gets right to the heart of one of the great philosophical dilemmas of all time, the difference between being and becoming. Are humans ever atomic, unique beings or are we creatures that are in a constant state of change?
I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another (or, as the folk put it, from one seven-year period to the next) but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt this account of myself to the passing hour. I shall perhaps change soon, not accidentally but intentionally. This is a register of varied and changing occurrences, of ideas which are unresolved and, when needs be, contradictory, either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold of different attributes or aspects of my subjects. So I may happen to contradict myself but, as Demades said, I never contradict truth.
That’s a fascinating way of putting it … one who remains completely consistent through life might actually be less truthful than one who readily contradicts, because it takes a contradictory nature to accept change and the ways that life leaves it’s mark on us. From here, Montaigne makes numerous, memorable quotes defending his essays and his attempt to know himself. I could write a full essay on this subject alone, but it’s too much of a digression from the larger topic for me to cover at this time. He closes the section this way:
I speak as an ignorant questioning man: for solutions I purely and simply abide by the common lawful beliefs. I am not teaching, I am relating.
I like the way he put that — not teaching, but relating. I believe that’s the primary object of every writer, to relate a piece of the human condition to create understanding, not by converting or dominating the world of ideas, but by offering up how your perspective and experiences shape your particular opinion.
Back to the moral philosophy, Montaigne notes that there’s an unmistakable satisfaction in virtue. As a former Toyota Prius driver, I felt an odd sense of virtue whenever the car was running purely on electric power and the MPG rating topped 100:
There is no goodness which does not rejoice a well-born nature. There is an unutterable delight in acting well which makes us inwardly rejoice; a noble feeling of pride accompanies a good conscience. A soul courageous in its vice can perhaps furnish itself with composure but it can never provide such satisfaction and happiness with oneself.
Next, Montaigne ventures into Jimmy Carter territory, to note that true virtue lies with the one who doesn’t “lust in his heart” — who can remain virtuous even in moments when no one else would know the difference:
Rare is the life which remains ordinate even in privacy. Anyone can take part in a farce and act the honest man on the trestles: but to be right-ruled within, in your bosom, where anything is licit, where everything is hidden – that’s what matters.
Here, Montaigne makes a wise observation that fame grows dimmer the closer you get to home. It might not seem to be connected to this idea of inner virtue, but we’ll get there:
A man may appear to the world as a marvel: yet his wife and his manservant see nothing remarkable about him. Few men have been wonders to their families …. in my own climate of Gascony they find it funny to see me in print; I am valued the more the farther from home knowledge of me has spread. In Guienne I pay my printers: elsewhere, they pay me. That consideration is the motive of those who hide away when alive and present, so as to enjoy a reputation when they are dead and gone. I would rather have a lesser one: I throw myself upon the world for the one that I can enjoy now. Once I am gone I acquit the world of its debt.
This is true because those closest to home see you as an ordinary person, struggling with the same daily annoyances and temptations as everyone else:
To be ordinate is a glum and sombre virtue. Storming a breach, conducting an embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor belying yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare and more difficult. Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and as tense as those of other lives …. The soul’s value consists not in going high but in going ordinately. Its greatness is not displayed in great things but in the Mean.
Montaigne then returns to a familiar theme — how those who attempt to improve the morals of cultures by changing laws merely end up making surface changes, they never make a meaningful impact on the virtue of people:
Those who have sought in my time to improve the morals of the world with their new opinions reform the vices which show: the essential vices they leave us as they are – if they do not make them grow bigger. And such growth is to be feared: we are ready to take a holiday from all other good deeds on the strength of those uncertain surface reformations which cost us less and which gain us more esteem; and we thereby cheaply give satisfaction to our other vices: those which are inborn, of one substance with us and visceral.
From this point on, the essay deals mainly with sex. Well, not actually — but the issue of sex is always hovering above the rest of the essay because Montaigne wants to make clear that sexual vices aren’t the ones that either the Church or cultures should be focused on primarily when determining the most dangerous vices. First, Montaigne admits that he find sexual pleasure irresistible:
There are others – and I am one of that regiment – for whom vice does have some weight but who counterbalance it by the pleasure it gives or by some other factor; they put up with it and give themselves over to it, but at a definite price – viciously though and basely. Yet a vastly disproportionate measure could be imagined between the vice and the price, one where the pleasure could with justice compensate for the sin (as expediency is said to do) – not when the pleasure is incidental, forming no part of the sin, as in theft, but as in lying with women where the pleasure resides in performing the sin and where the drive is violent and, so it is said, irresistible.
Then, Montaigne begs to leave aside these kinds of violent drive sins and to be most concerned with those sins that are conceived in rationality and have become deeply rooted in our daily actions. These are the sins that have become such a part of our being that they might be beyond repentance:
There are sins which are violent, quick and sudden. Let us leave them aside. But as for those other sins, so often repeated, deliberated and meditated upon, those sins which are rooted in our complexions and, indeed in our professions or vocations, I cannot conceive that they could be rooted so long in one identical heart without the reason and conscience of him who is seized of them being constant in his willing and wanting them to be so; and the repentance which he boasts to come to him at a particular appointed instant is hard for me to imagine or conceive.
To repent honestly from these types of sins, a person would have to repudiate his or her entire life:
If you do not unburden yourself of the evil there has been no cure. If repentance weighed down the scales of the balance it would do away with the sin. I can find no quality so easy to counterfeit as devotion unless our morals and our lives are made to conform to it; its essence is hidden and secret: its external appearances are easy and ostentatious.
It is in these areas — in these deeply held character traits — where genuine repentance is found. We have to be completely honest with ourselves — returning again to the value of Montaigne’s project itself — and recognize the ways that our lives have been counterfeit and hypocritical. This is the only path to genuine repentance:
I do not flatter myself: in like circumstances I would still be thus. It is no spot but a universal stain which soils me. I do not know any surface repentance, mediocre and a matter of ceremony. Before I call it repentance it must touch me everywhere, grip my bowels and make them yearn – as deeply and as universally as God does see me.
Now that he has defined which types of vices require the greatest introspection and work towards repentance, Montaigne returns to sexual vices and deals with the timeless issue of old men and women punishing younger people for their sexual activity:
I loathe that consequential repenting which old age brings. That Ancient who said that he was obliged to the passing years for freeing him from sensual pleasures held quite a different opinion from mine: I could never be grateful to infirmity for any good it might do me …. Our appetites are few when we are old: and once they are over we are seized by a profound disgust. I can see nothing of conscience in that: chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue. We must not allow ourselves to be so borne away by natural degeneration that it bastardizes our judgement.
Montaigne admits that his sexual drives are depleting in old age … but that does not make him think differently about his youthful behavior or lead him to become a moralistic hypocrite towards younger people:
It is my conviction that what makes for human happiness is not, as Antisthenes said, dying happily but living happily. I have never striven to make a monster by sticking a philosopher’s tail on to the head and trunk of a forlorn man, nor to make my wretched end disavow and disclaim the more beautiful, more wholesome and longer part of my life. I want to show myself to have been uniform and to be seen as such. If I had to live again, I would live as I have done; I neither regret the past nor fear the future.
Of course, I love the proto-Nietzschean close to that quote … perhaps Montaigne helped plant the seed of eternal recurrence in Nietzsche’s head. Montaigne wants to make clear that he’s not advocating sexual licentiousness, he accepts the morality of the Church in this regard:
Sensual pleasure, of itself, is neither so pale nor so wan as to be perceived by bleared and troubled eyes. We must love temperance for its own sake and out of respect for God who has commanded it to us; and chastity too: what we are presented with by rheum, and what I owe to the grace of my colic paroxysms, are neither chastity nor temperance.
But fighting against the cliche that age always brings wisdom, Montaigne strikes out against the belief that elders should determine cultural morality:
It seems to me that our souls are subject in old age to ills and imperfections more insolent than those of youth. I said so when I was young, and they cast my beardless chin in my teeth. And I still say so now that my grey hair lends me credit. What we call wisdom is the moroseness of our humors and our distaste for things as they are now. But in truth we do not so much give up our vices as change them – for the worse, if you ask me.
Montaigne doesn’t break any ground in moral philosophy here, but he does make a compelling case for understanding our weaknesses and not confusing morality with bitterness and jealous resentment. I think modern political conservatives could learn a lot from his approach — he makes a case for maintaining a traditional moral structure while not demonizing human beings for acting human.