Montaigne on Friendship, Liars and Politics

Sisyphus“I am seeking the companionship and society of such men as we call honourable and talented,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay, On the Three Kinds of Social Intercourse (Book III, 3). “It is, when you reflect on it, the rarest of all our forms…”

Montaigne was musing in his essay and others on the nature of not simply friendship, but on what attracted people to work, converse and share at the highest levels. To bond without some ulterior motive such as work, politics or profit. What, after all, is true friendship? Once stripped of necessity is it pure or will it prove simply a convenience?

Montaigne disliked pointless social chit-chat and small talk (he would fumed over Facebook and Twitter). He wanted to engage in conversations with depth, to debate, to examine, to explore ideas, to argue and converse, not simply rehash the shallow and the trivial. He treasured civil debate most (I suspect he would have greatly disliked our modern, divisive and fragmented social media).

Montaigne mulled over the nature of friendship in several essays. In his essay on Friendship (Book I, 27, also known as On Affectionate Relationships in Screech’s version), Montaigne wrote (Cotton translation):

There is nothing to which nature seems so much to have inclined us, as to society; and Aristotle says that the good legislators had more respect to friendship than to justice. Now the most supreme point of its perfection is this: for, generally, all those that pleasure, profit, public or private interest create and nourish, are so much the less beautiful and generous, and so much the less friendships, by how much they mix another cause, and design, and fruit in friendship, than itself. Neither do the four ancient kinds, natural, social, hospitable, venereal, either separately or jointly, make up a true and perfect friendship.

“Good lawgivers have shown more concern for friendship than for justice.” That’s how Screech translates the line. He goes on: “Within a fellowship, the peak of perfection consists in friendship, for all forms of it which are forged or fostered by pleasure or profit or by public or private necessity are so much the less beautiful and noble – and therefore so much the less “friendship” – in that they bring in some purpose, end or fruition other than the friendship itself. nor do the four ancient species of love conform to it: the natural, the social, the hospitable and the erotic.”

Montaigne continued:

For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined.

Friendship of that exalted sort Montaigne valued most is rare. He called his ideal “how remote a thing such a friendship is from the common practice.” Rarer still, it seems, in politics and law.

He discounted “friendships” created by some need or goal as merely temporary. He quotes Cicero on the nature of long-term friendship:

“Omnino amicitiae, corroboratis jam confirmatisque, et ingeniis, et aetatibus, judicandae sunt.” (“Those are only to be reputed friendships that are fortified and confirmed by judgement and the length of time.” –Cicero, De Amicit., c. 20.)

Friendship – Montaigne’s idea of real friendship, not one born of necessity or advantage – is also a sign of personal success. It is an achievement that transcends business, politics and time. Those other “friendships,” he warned, are fragile: vulnerable to external events, personal needs and private goals. In fact, they are not friendship at all, as Montaigne defined it.

“Let no one, therefore, rank other common friendships with such a one as this,” Montaigne wrote of his own true friendship. “In those other ordinary friendships, you are to walk with bridle in your hand, with prudence and circumspection, for in them the knot is not so sure that a man may not half suspect it will slip.”

Scattered about in this essay On Friendship are some other quotable lines to underscore his belief in what makes a true friendship versus those built from necessity;

… friendship is nourished by communication…
…correspondence of manners, parts, and inclinations, which begets the true and perfect friendships…
…friendship has no manner of business or traffic with aught but itself.
… In this noble commerce, good offices, presents, and benefits, by which other friendships are supported and maintained, do not deserve so much as to be mentioned…

Montaigne knew too that there were polarizing factions in politics, who were not friends, when he also wrote in the essay on Social Intercourse:

… there is no good without ill.

Certainly this council has learned there is no good effort made without an ill will emanating from our critics. Voters have subsequently learned this election they had a choice between the positive and the negative candidates for the next four years.*

Despite the negativity, some of us persevere against the critics and challenge their falsehoods. Montaigne would have appreciated our Sisyphus-like efforts to push the positive rock up the hill of negativity. To present facts over egregious falsehoods. He preferred the positive approach to life.**

Montaigne also valued truth. He found lying and liars contemptible. He scorned liars in several essays:

Our intelligence being by no other way communicable to one another but by a particular word, he who falsifies that betrays public society. ‘Tis the only way by which we communicate our thoughts and wills; ’tis the interpreter of the soul, and if it deceive us, we no longer know nor have further tie upon one another; if that deceive us, it breaks all our correspondence, and dissolves all the ties of government. (on Taking the Lie: Book II, 19)

If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit. (On Liars, Book I, 9)

…the definition of the word to lie in Latin, from which our French is taken, is to tell a thing which we know in our conscience to be untrue… (ibid)

…it is of this last sort of liars only that I now speak. Now, these do either wholly contrive and invent the untruths they utter, or so alter and disguise a true story that it ends in a lie. When they disguise and often alter the same story, according to their own fancy, ’tis very hard for them, at one time or another, to escape being trapped, by reason that the real truth of the thing, having first taken possession of the memory, and being there lodged impressed by the medium of knowledge and science, it will be difficult that it should not represent itself to the imagination, and shoulder out falsehood… (ibid)

… how much less sociable is false speaking than silence? (ibid)

Montaigne considered lying the worst of crimes because he valued a person’s word so greatly as the cement that held society together. Liars threatened the very basis of civilization because their word was worthless. He would have had all liars punished severely:

…lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes. (ibid)

One wonders what he would have thought of today’s angry bloggers and their litany of insults and falsehoods. He would not have held them highly, I suspect. Nor would he have been friends with those he considered liars: they would not fit his notion of honourable men.

In his essay, Of the Affection of Fathers For Their Children (Book II, 8), Montaigne quotes Terrence commenting on how a good government based on friendship is longer-lasting than based on force or authority:

“Et errat longe mea quidem sententia
Qui imperium credat esse gravius, aut stabilius,
Vi quod fit, quam illud, quod amicitia adjungitur.”
“He wanders far from the truth, in my opinion, who thinks that government more absolute and durable which is acquired by force than that which is attached to friendship.”—Terence, Adelph., i. I, 40.

(Virginia Woolf, writing about Montaigne, noted that Montaigne was reserved in his criticism of those who might later prove to be his own critics, and he wrote in a way that only the wiser few would fully understand and appreciate, while the critics would miss his inferences:

To communicate is our chief business; society and friendship our chief delights; and reading, not to acquire knowledge, not to earn a living, but to extend our intercourse beyond our own time and province. Such wonders there are in the world; halcyons and undiscovered lands, men with dogs’ heads and eyes in their chests, and laws and customs, it may well be, far superior to our own. Possibly we are asleep in this world; possibly there is some other which is apparent to beings with a sense which we now lack.
…one does not say everything; there are some things which at present it is advisable only to hint. One writes for a very few people, who understand.

One wonders how well the covert message was received.)

But he persevered and pursued positive, effective connections. And communications matter. As noted above, he wrote that “friendship is nourished by communication.” It has nourished friendships among some councillors, this term.

Montaigne knew from experience that forming strong, intellectual and creative bonds with your colleagues is important for any politician. He served as the mayor of Bordeaux and in the French Parlement for 13 years, where he learned how to maneuver in the political realm.. He understood not simply the necessity of working with colleagues, but of forming lasting and deep relationships with those he felt shared common beliefs and goals. And, he knew, of the wisdom of ignoring those who professed knowledge but lacked it:

“It is to act like a fool to claim to be in the know amidst those who are not.”

Montaigne was wise. He knew that many people always claim to be “in the know” – especially during an election campaign when falsehoods swarm like gnats. Some even convince a few gullible folks through those falsehoods that they actually know what’s going on. But Montaigne  knew – as we do today – that these outsiders are bereft of factual knowledge. He saw through them. These self-professed “pundits” are simply fools, as he warned.

To which I would add, look to those who know the facts, look to those who are the experts (like the town’s auditors). Don’t be mislead by angry but misinformed bloggers or self-serving candidates, he might have said (if he even deigned to recognize them). Those who lie are not looking to build an effective future government, simply to further their own agendas.

As for the sort of friendships Montaigne imagined were superior: this term of council, I have formed bonds with several of my colleagues along Montaigne’s lines; among the honourable and talented people I serve with. Deputy Mayor Lloyd and Councillor Kevin Lloyd (no relation) have proven invaluable sources of knowledge, wisdom, advice and ideas. From Councillor Sandy Cunningham I have learned to respect for his straightforward and honourable stance on issues.

I value all of these men for their belief in the greater good, in the community and in our collective future. I respect them for their honesty, their selflessness, their generosity and their tireless efforts on the community’s behalf. And I fervently hope they all get re-elected to council rather than any of the negativists.

I suspect the bloggers are jealous of such friendships we have formed this term because they represent, as Montaigne realized, a personal, intellectual and moral success. And they come on top of all of council’s great, collective accomplishments this term. Good friends and good deeds.

I suppose I should try to find it in my heart to forgive their envy. After all, can these naysayers ever lay claim to any such actual achievements in their own, sorry lives?


* Who to believe, you ask? The “honourable” men and women who claim no good has been done this term, or the incumbents who point to a wealth of accomplishments as their legacy to the greater good? One cannot help but think back to Marc Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar (Act III, Sc. 2), replete with cynicism about those “honourable” folk who dismissed the good Caesar had done his city:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

And, of course, we have several of our own Brutuses in this campaign.

** I should thank the angry bloggers for driving some traffic to my site. How else would their readers learn the truth and see the actual financial numbers, after reading those misleading and negative comments? One day last week, for example, they managed to direct to my site almost a fifteenth of the total hits I got. So I really should thank them for the 40 or so viewers they directed my way that one day. For the other 98-99% of the views I got the rest of the week, I owe thanks to Google and other search engines.

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