42. On the Inequality between Us

In this recent batch of essays, there’s a growing self awareness in Montaigne about the body of work he’s producing and he’s putting it all into context. First, he tells his readers don’t judge me by the style of my writing, judge me by my ideas. Then he says, if these essays make me famous, don’t judge me by that either. We can’t help ourselves from seeking fame, but in the end, it means nothing. Look deeper. And here he’s ready for his boldest statement yet—that he’s found the secret to living a purposeful, meaningful life. But it’s not just in the ideas he’s promoting, it’s in the work itself.

But to get to that point, readers need some distance from this essay, so let’s first take it at face value. As Montaigne notes, we often judge people by their surface qualities—their wealth, possessions, social standing or fame. He points out that we never judge animals by things that adorn them, but a horse by how fast it runs and a cat by its own coat:

So why do we not similarly value a man for qualities which are really his? He may have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace, great influence and a large income: all that may surround him but it is not in him.

Montaigne believes people are not equal—and that it’s essential to recognize and appreciate value differences in them—but we value people in all the wrong ways, putting excessive weight on factors external to them:

Why do you judge a man when he is all wrapped up like a parcel? He is letting us see only such attributes as do not belong to him while hiding the only ones which enable us to judge his real worth. You are trying to find out the quality of the sword not of the scabbard: strip it of its sheath and perhaps you would not give twopence for it. You must judge him not by his finery but by his own self.

The mental image created here is of men and women being judged by their naked selves, which in a sense seems like an even cruder way of determining value than evaluating their dress. But Montaigne isn’t interested in naked bodies. He wants us to evaluate bare souls. So, returning to my point above, think about what Montaigne is doing in his overall project—he is stripping himself naked, not writing as someone with inherited wealth, a representative of a race or social group or one who holds a particular authority on anything but himself, and he is exposing all of his quirks and odd mannerisms. He chose in these essays to open himself up to honest judgment.

What should be the criteria, then, for judging this fully exposed human being? Montaigne quotes Horace on the qualities that make up the most worthy people:

[Is he] wise, lord of himself, not terrified of death, poverty or shackles? Is he a man who stoutly defies his passions, who scorns ambition? Is he entirely self-sufficient? Is he like a smooth round sphere which no foreign object can adhere to and which maims Fortune herself if she attacks him? That kind of man is miles above kingdoms and dukedoms. He is an empire unto himself.

This is a highly stoic version of the Ubermensch, to be sure. Montaigne compares this exemplary person with the typical human being of his time (and probably ours as well:)

Compare with him the mass of men nowadays, senseless, base, servile, unstable, continually bobbing about in a storm of conflicting passions which drive them hither and thither, men totally dependent upon others: they are farther apart than earth and sky. But so blind are our habitual ways that we take little or no account of such things; when we come to consider a peasant or a monarch, a nobleman or a commoner, a statesman or a private citizen, a rich man or a poor man, we find therefore an immense disparity between men who, it could be said, differ only by their breeches.

Montaigne firmly believes in nobility, he just believes that peasants can be noble too. But again, his focus in the essays is always upon idols and there simply aren’t many peasant idols to draw upon for his examples. So instead he turns back to the rich, famous, and powerful in history, showing that none of the trappings of success mean anything unless you’ve become that empire onto yourself.

He’s also making a case—as he has in other essays — for stepping away from power and opulence. Here, he argues that having such abundance makes enjoying it impossible:

Moreover I believe that the splendour of greatness brings quite a few impediments to the enjoyment of even the sweetest pleasures; they are too brightly illuminated, too much on show.

And then Montaigne highlights all the things that one loses when they attain power.

But let us get back to Hieron. He tells of all the inconveniences he experiences in his royal state arising from the impossibility of going freely about on his travels (which makes him a prisoner within the frontiers of his own country) and from always being hemmed in by a troublesome crowd. Indeed when seeing our own monarchs sitting alone at their tables, besieged by so many unknown talkers and gazers, I have often felt more pity for them than envy.

From my professional life, I have witnessed this often. Every profession has its own type of celebrity and leaders aspire to join the inner circle at wherever they work or spend their free time. But then they almost always complain about the demands being made on their time because of this status. Even worse, those who show friendship and affection in these times often do so insincerely or transactionally:

But 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? Can I attach importance to his humble address and his courteous respect, seeing that he cannot refuse them to me? The honour we receive from those who fear us is not honour at all: their respect is due to my royal state not to myself:’

Montaigne makes the argument that anyone of “moderate wealth” has all she or he needs to attain, as much happiness as the wealthiest and most powerful, that everything attained above that comes at such a high cost that it’s not worth having. His argument is that our ultimate aim is to live a happy, harmonious life, so why adorn it with luxury and power that merely distracts us from that pursuit? He closes by quoting Erasmus: “Each man’s morals shape his destiny.”

When you pull back from this essay, you see Montaigne is making a rather narcissistic claim, that not only has he figured out the secret formula for life (outlined in that quote from Horace), he’s also determined the only way to attain it. You must withdraw from the ways of the world and reveal yourself fully and honestly. Don’t worry if you don’t write well, because style is just adornment. Neither concern yourself with the size of your audience, because wealth and fame are not goals of the virtuous.

Be like me, Montaigne is saying, and let the world freely revolve around you. Judge your success by your virtue – and let that virtue spring from how honestly and completely you live by your principles and reveal yourself truthfully

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