Montaigne: The Depravity of Our Morals

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Montaigne“Our judgments follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay On Cato the Younger (Essay XXXVII, Book I, Screech translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). That’s quite a condemnation.*

Montaigne opens that essay by quietly commenting, “I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me.” Would that we all had his strength, not to judge others by what we think of ourselves. But he was born long before the age of selfies.

In our more narcissistic age of social media we are all too quick to judge, too quick to anger, too quick to take offence. We react first, strike back immediately, think long after. We treat anyone with different ideas or visions as intruders; trespassers on our internet. We disparage rather than discuss. We hurl invectives and insults rather than ask questions. We slough off civil debate in favour of personal attack.

(Yes, I’ve been reading The Essays again. I never seem to tire of Montaigne; there’s always something in his words to move me, inspire me and make me think. There’s nothing quite so comforting as sitting on the front porch in the late afternoon, under a clear, warm sky, Susan reading beside me, dogs at my feet, while I sip a glass of homemade wine and peruse Montaigne… well, him and a small pile of other books I am also currently reading. Would that these moments could be frozen in time and all afternoons be so comforting and civilized… as blogger J. D Taylor writes, “I will never finish reading Montaigne…”)

While his words were aimed at his contemporaries and their cavalier dismissal of the wisdom of those ancient sages Montaigne revered, they have an eerie resonance in today’s politics and public debate – especially local politics. Montaigne continued,

I note that the majority of ingenious men in my time are clever at besmirching the glory of the fair and great-souled actions of ancient times, foisting some base interpretation on them and devising frivolous causes and occasions for them.

Just change the words “ancient times” to “this council” and doesn’t that sound like what some candidates and local bloggers are doing to this past council and staff? Besmirching us? Foisting base interpretations on and devising frivolous reasons for our good actions?

Clever, of course, didn’t mean the same in Montaigne’s day as it does today. Back then it meant handy or dexterous. And I’m sure “ingenious men” was meant sarcastically or at least sardonically. Donald Frame translates this line as:

I see most of the wits of my time using their ingenuity to obscure the glory of the beautiful and noble actions of antiquity, giving them some vile interpretation and conjuring up vain occasions and and causes for them.

It drips with sarcasm, doesn’t it? Montaigne continued:

Why, show me the most excellent and purest deed there is and I can furnish fifty vicious but plausible motives for it! What a variety of concepts, God knows, can be foisted on to our inner wills if anyone wishes to work on them in detail!

Surely the good deeds of this council have been assigned “vicious” motives by those “ingenious” – but clearly self-serving – men. But more than that, outright lies have been made. What a variety of ill-imagined concepts, as Montaigne bemoaned, have been foisted on our decisions that were made in an open, democratic process!

Such men are clever in their denigration, yet not so much maliciously as heavily and clumsily.

Ah, here we disagree, Montaigne and me. Perhaps his use of the adjective “clever” is sarcastic. Those denigrations have been malicious in the extreme. Montaigne, evidently assumed the critics of goodness were just dull and slow of wit. Certainly the local attacks have been anything but clever. Heavy-handed and clumsy, yes. Outrageous and egregious, yes. Untrue, yes. But clever? Sadly, no.

Frame translated this as “In their calumny they play at ingenuity, not so much maliciously as clumsily and crudely.” Perhaps that is a better translation; again in Frame’s version Montaigne’s sarcasm outs itself. The naysayers are portrayed not as clever but simply playing at cleverness. Montaigne continued,

The same pains they take to detract from those great reputations I would readily lend a shoulder to enhance them… It is the duty of good men to depict virtue as beautiful as possible… What people do to the contrary they do, as I have just said, either out of malice or from that defect that reduces what they believe to what they can grasp, or else (as I am inclined to believe), because their perception is not strong and clear enough to comprehend the splendour of virtue in her native purity…

Cannot comprehend the goodness of others? Amen to that. It’s the mote versus the beam here. One feels Montaigne’s words were meant to parallel those in the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. Judge not, that ye be not judged.
  2. 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
  3. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
  4. Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
  5. Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.(Matthew 7, KJV version)

We have – the whole community included, for our collective reputation has been deliberately dragged through the mud – suffered the slings and arrows from those more attuned to find malice than goodness in others. We have all been hurt by those who prefer to detract and denigrate rather than uplift and celebrate.

Ah, but I expect this election we will see the goodness and the virtues rewarded. I don’t think these “clever” denigrations and attacks have as much traction with the public, who know better, than those “ingenious” folks believe. Thinking people don’t buy into base conspiracy theories.

See how Montaigne remains relevant today?

~~~~~
* From the original essay as published on the University of Chicago website:

Nos jugemens sont encores malades, et suyvent la depravation de nos meurs. Je voy la pluspart des esprits de mon temps faire les ingenieux à obscurcir la gloire des belles et genereuses actions anciennes, leur donnant quelque interpretation vile, et leur controuvant des occasions et des causes vaines. Grande subtilité! Qu’on me donne l’action la plus excellente et pure, je m’en vois y fournir vraysemblablement cinquante vitieuses intentions. Dieu sçait, à qui les veut estendre, quelle diversité d’images ne souffre nostre interne volonté. Ils ne font pas tant malitieusement que lourdement et grossierement les ingenieux à tout leur mesdisance. La mesme peine qu’on prent à detracter de ces grands noms, et la mesme licence, je la prendroye volontiers à leur prester quelque tour d’espaule à les hausser. Ces rares figures, et triées pour l’exemple du monde par le consentement des sages, je ne me feinderoy pas de les recharger d’honneur, autant que mon invention pourroit en interpretation et favorable circonstance. Mais il faut croire que les efforts de nostre conception sont loing au-dessous de leur merite. C’est l’office des gens de bien de peindre la vertu la plus belle qui se puisse; et ne nous messieroit pas, quand la passion nous transporteroit à la faveur de si sainctes formes. Ce que ceux-cy font au contraire, ils le font ou par malice, ou par ce vice de ramener leur creance à leur portée, dequoy je viens de parler, ou, comme je pense plustost, pour n’avoir pas la veue assez forte et assez nette pour concevoir la splendeur de la vertu en sa pureté naifve, ny dressée à cela: comme Plutarque dict que, de son temps, aucuns attribuoient la cause de la mort du jeune Caton à la crainte qu’il avoit eu de Caesar: dequoy il se picque avecques raison; et peut on juger par là combien il se fut encore plus offencé de ceux qui l’ont attribuée à l’ambition. Sottes gens! Il eut bien faict une belle action, genereuse et juste, plus tost aveq ignominie, que pour la gloire. Ce personnage là fut veritablement un patron que nature choisit pour montrer jusques où l’humaine vertu et fermeté pouvoit atteindre. Mais je ne suis pas icy à mesmes pour traicter ce riche argument. Je veux seulement faire luiter ensemble les traits de cinq poetes Latins sur la louange de Caton, et pour l’interest de Caton, et, par incident, pour le leur aussi. Or devra l’enfant bien nourry trouver, au pris des autres, les deux premiers trainans, le troisiesme plus verd, mais qui s’est abattu par l’extravagance de sa force; estimer que là il y auroit place à un ou deux degrez d’invention encore pour arriver au quatriesme, sur le point duquel il joindra ses mains par admiration. Au dernier, premier de quelque espace, mais laquelle espace il jurera ne pouvoir estre remplie par nul esprit humain, il s’estonnera, il se transira. Voicy merveille: nous avons bien plus de poetes, que de juges et interpretes de poesie. Il est plus aisé de la faire, que de la cognoistre. A certaine mesure basse, on la peut juger par les preceptes et par art. Mais la bonne, l’excessive, la divine est audessus des regles et de la raison. Quiconque en discerne la beauté d’une veue ferme et rassise, il ne la void pas, non plus que la splendeur.

The Florio translation (1603 – the version Shakespeare would have read) has this rendering:

Our judgements are yet sicke, and follow the depravations of our customes. I see the greatest part of our spirits to affect wit, and to shew themselves ingenious, by obscuring and detracting from the glorie of famous and generall ancient actions, giving them some base and malicious interpetation, fondly and enviously charging them with vaine causes and frivolous occasions. A subtill invention no doubt. Let any man present me with the most excellent and blameless action, and I will oppose it with fiftie vicious and bad intentions, all which shall carrie a face of likelihood. God knowes (to him that will extend them) what diversitie of images our internal will doth suffer: They doe not so maliciously as grosely and rudely endeavour to be ingenious with all their railing and detraction. The same paine a man taketh to detract from these noble and famous names, and the verie same libertie would I as willingly take to lend them my shoulders to extoll and magnifie them. I would endevour to charge these rare and choise figures, selected by the consent of wise men for the worlds examples as much and as high as my invention would give me leave with honour, in a plausible interpretation and favourable circumstance. And a man must thinke that the diligent labours of our invention are farre beyond their merit. It is the part of honest minded men to pourtray vertue as faire as possible faire may be.

And the Cotton/Hazlitt 1870 version reads thus:

Our judgments are yet sick, and obey the humour of our depraved manners. I observe most of the wits of these times pretend to ingenuity, by endeavouring to blemish and darken the glory of the bravest and most generous actions of former ages, putting one vile interpretation or another upon them, and forging and supposing vain causes and motives for the noble things they did: a mighty subtlety indeed! Give me the greatest and most unblemished action that ever the day beheld, and I will contrive a hundred plausible drifts and ends to obscure it. God knows, whoever will stretch them out to the full, what diversity of images our internal wills suffer under. They do not so maliciously play the censurers, as they do it ignorantly and rudely in all their detractions.
The same pains and licence that others take to blemish and bespatter these illustrious names, I would willingly undergo to lend them a shoulder to raise them higher. These rare forms, that are culled out by the consent of the wisest men of all ages, for the world’s example, I should not stick to augment in honour, as far as my invention would permit, in all the circumstances of favourable interpretation; and we may well believe that the force of our invention is infinitely short of their merit. ‘Tis the duty of good men to portray virtue as beautiful as they can, and there would be nothing wrong should our passion a little transport us in favour of so sacred a form. What these people do, on the contrary, they either do out of malice, or by the vice of confining their belief to their own capacity; or, which I am more inclined to think, for not having their sight strong, clear, and elevated enough to conceive the splendour of virtue in her native purity: as Plutarch complains, that in his time some attributed the cause of the younger Cato’s death to his fear of Caesar, at which he seems very angry, and with good reason; and by this a man may guess how much more he would have been offended with those who have attributed it to ambition. Senseless people! He would rather have performed a noble, just, and generous action, and to have had ignominy for his reward, than for glory. That man was in truth a pattern that nature chose out to show to what height human virtue and constancy could arrive.

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