Montaigne’s Paradox: How Moderation Can Be Radical

Two days ago, I wrote about Montaigne’s eloquent call for taking the middle path in life and avoiding the edges and boundaries. Today I want to dig a bit deeper into what Montaigne means by moderation, because there’s a fascinating oxymoron within it — Montaigne is a moderation zealot.

By that I mean, if you take his ideas about moderation to their natural conclusion — and he does, very specifically — you end up endorsing behaviors that seem nothing like the accepted mainstream. But let me ease into that point at Montaigne’s speed.  Here again is his main thesis:

I like natures which are temperate and moderate. Even when an immoderate zeal for the good does not offend me it still stuns me and makes it difficult for me to give it a Christian name. Neither Pausanias’ mother (who made the first accusation against her son and who brought the first stone to wall him up for his death) nor Posthumius (the Dictator who had his own son put to death because he had been carried away by youthful ardour and had fought – successfully – slightly ahead of his unit) seem ‘just’ to me: they seem odd. I neither like to advise nor to imitate a virtue so savage and so costly: the archer who shoots beyond his target misses it just as much as the one who falls short; my eyes trouble me as much when I suddenly come up into a strong light as when I plunge into darkness.

This is all very easy to understand. Extreme actions, even when backed by virtuous goals, are troubling to Montaigne. He sees philosophy itself, when taken too literally, as equally dangerous

(T)aken in moderation philosophy is pleasant and useful, but it can eventually lead to a man’s becoming vicious and savage, contemptuous of religion and of the accepted laws, an enemy of social intercourse, an enemy of our human pleasures, useless at governing cities, at helping others or even at helping himself – a man whose ears you could box with impunity …. in its excesses philosophy enslaves our native freedom and with untimely subtleties makes us stray from that beautiful and easy path that Nature has traced for us.

But what is that beautiful and easy path that nature traces? Here is where Montaigne gets radical. He believes that the moral and legal constraints of marriage are a setup and if we actually follow the rules, we do grave harm to ourselves and our spouses:

I want to teach husbands the following – if, that is, there are any who are still too eager:  even those very pleasures which they enjoy when lying with their wives are reproved if not kept within moderation; you can fall into license and excess in this as in matters unlawful. All those shameless caresses which our first ardor suggests to us in our sex-play are not only unbecoming to our wives but harmful to them when practiced on them. At least let them learn shamelessness from some other hand! They are always wide enough awake when we need them. Where this is concerned what I have taught has been natural and uncomplicated.

Maybe we need a proxy debate between Montaigne and Esther Perel. Montaigne seems to be endorsing Perel’s “mating in captivity” thesis, while rejecting her prescription for breaking out of it. He certainly would not agree that spouses should look to bring eroticism into long-term relationships and says so explicitly:

Marriage is a bond both religious and devout: that is why the pleasure we derive from it must be serious, restrained and intermingled with some gravity; its sensuousness should be somewhat wise and dutiful. Its chief end is procreation, so there are those who doubt whether it is right to seek intercourse when we have no hope of conception, as when the woman is pregnant or too old. For Plato that constitutes a kind of of homicide. There are whole peoples, including the Mahometans, who abominate intercourse with women who are pregnant, and others still during monthly periods. Zenobia admitted her husband for a single discharge; once that was over she let him run wild throughout her pregnancy, giving him permission to begin again only once it was over. There was a fine and noble-hearted marriage for you!

I am less interested here in the alternative lifestyle angle that Montaigne is suggesting here (which actually puts him more in line with Perel’s most recent work than the previous paragraph suggests) and more interested in how all of this thought springs from Montaigne’s embrace of moderation. When we think of moderation in contemporary terms, we think of social norms, splitting the difference and taming our most aggressive impulses.  But Montaigne isn’t saying that at all. He argues that there are irrational and animal forces within us that inevitably push us towards act of folly. Pretending that they can be channeled in a socially acceptable way, for Montaigne, is just as immoderate as acting out on those passions in explicitly disallowed ways. And just in case you don’t get his point, he cites some historical examples, such as this one:

The kings of Persia did invite their wives as guests to their festivities, but once the wine had seriously inflamed them so that they had to let their lust gallop free, they packed them off to their quarters so as not to make them accomplices of their immoderate appetites, sending instead for other women whom they were not bound to respect.

Montaigne uses these illustrations to argue against literal marital law and ethics, but he is not explicitly endorsing the actions of the Persian kings.  Here is how he wraps up the point:

In short there is no pleasure, however proper, which does not become a matter of reproach when excessive and intemperate. But, seriously though, is not Man a wretched creature? Because of his natural attributes he is hardly able to taste one single pleasure pure and entire: yet he has to go and curtail even that by arguments; he is not wretched enough until he has increased his wretchedness by art and assiduity. “The wretched paths of Fortune we make worse by art.” — Propertius Human wisdom is stupidly clever when used to diminish the number and sweetness of such pleasures as do belong to us, just as she employs her arts with diligence and fitness when she brings comb and cosmetics to our ills and makes us feel them less. If I had founded a school of philosophy I would have taken another route – a more natural one, that is to say a true, convenient and inviolate one; and I might have made myself strong enough to know when to stop.

That last note is important, because Montaigne is not suggesting that we freely give in to these wild forces and animal pleasures, he’s actually suggesting that we train ourselves to know when to stop, even if we have already created an ethos that would make those actions permissible.

It is difficult to follow Montaigne’s path and still lead a passionate, fulfilling life. Maybe it is not a path anyone under a certain age should attempt, it could be purely for those taking the final turn in life.  I will have more to say on that subject in the next essay.