43. On Sumptuary Laws

This essay mostly picks up where the last one left of, specifically on the question of the things we own and whether there should be laws limiting what people should consume. Those types of laws—knowns as sumptuary laws—seem crazy in our consumerist era, but were common in Montaigne’s France.

Montaigne doesn’t argue in favor of lavish lifestyles or even the freedom to accumulate what possessions you’d like, rather he says that people need to reach the decision to live a less possession-focused life on their own, that working through the meaninglessness of those possessions is necessary to reach a stage of wisdom and virtue.

He does not believe in laws that enforce such virtue on people and even considers them counterproductive. As noted in a previous essay, Montaigne believed custom should bring that social change about, not by law. He stays true to that principle here:

The way our laws make an assay at limiting insane and inane expenditure on table and clothing seems to run contrary to their end. The right way would be to engender in men a contempt for gold and silk as things vain and useless: we increase their honor and esteem, which is a most inappropriate way of putting people off them.

It is wonderful how quickly and easily custom plants her authoritative foothold in matters so indifferent…. Let our kings start giving up spending money on such things and it would be all over in a month, without edict or ordinance: we will all follow suit.

Today, no politician would think of passing laws to limit consumption—our economy depends on people spending more than they can afford. Like most people in our culture, I feel this occasional drive to own the shiny new thing—although certainly feel it less often as I age. But what is that so?

In his 1976 book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” Julian Jaynes speculated that until sometime around the creation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, humans had no consciousness as we know it today. Their actions were driven by auditory hallucinations—“the voices of gods.” Jaynes believed humans did not understand that thoughts were interior actions—that the gods in The Iliad were not representation, but the literal description of what humans heard heads while these events were taking place, as written by “Homer,” whoever he, she or they may have been.

It’s not an entirely convincing argument, but an adaptation of the idea, where consciousness shifted radically after the proliferation of the written word, seems plausible to me. But if this is the case—if the evolution of consciousness is this new — you might suspect that human susceptibility to suggestion is still hard wired into us.

Maybe we no longer think gods are whispering in our ears, telling us what to do, but we come to trust certain people and institutions to where they become near-gods to us. We are more likely to buy a book that Amazon.com recommends to us, because their algorithm has worked in the past, leading us towards books we enjoyed. We’re even ok with Spotify basically stealing our personal data and determining our mood just to give us better song recommendations.

The gods of Homer were semi-human. They walked the earth with the mortals. So do the semi-humans of our era. The Supreme Court defines corporations as “people” and entitled to the same rights. I’ll refrain from a judgment here about whether that status is a good or bad thing. But I believe it tells us something important about contemporary American life. There are a multitude of voices speaking to us every day. Regardless of our religious beliefs, we elevate people, organizations and corporations—even fictional characters—to the level of gods. We are highly susceptible to their suggestions.

It makes sense that, from time to time, people and cultures need to have garage sales. We need to sell off the junk that we don’t need—and on an intellectual or metaphysical level, free ourselves of influences that weigh us down or have become destructive. So while Montaigne’s views about cutting back on consumption seem out of place in contemporary America, his ideas about learning to live with less are timely.

Montaigne, in fact, believed in using public shame and embarrassment to change public attitudes. I’ll let this quote close the essay out—and leave readers to consider whether this form of public persuasion actually leaves people the proper space to discover virtue, as Montaigne suggested was necessary in that last essay:

Zeleucus reformed the debauched customs of the Locrians as follows: ‘That no free-born woman be attended by more than one chambermaid, except when she be drunk; That no woman leave the city by night or wear any golden jewelry about her person nor any richly embroidered dress, unless she be a public prostitute; That except for such as live on immoral earnings, no man shall wear gold rings on his fingers nor any elegant robes such as those tailored from cloth woven in Miletus.’ Thus, with those shaming exceptions, he cleverly diverted the inhabitants of his city away from pernicious superfluities and luxuries. That was a most useful way to bring men to obedience by honor and ambition

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