Part II: Montaigne – Sense and Sensibility (Political Action)

Adam Gopnik, in a 2017 essay, claimed that Montaigne was the inventor of liberalism. What is more, he did so in a time of enormous conflict and violence as well as enormous changes. To the west, Hernán Cortés had conquered New Spain. From the east, Suleiman the Magnificent brought the Ottoman Empire almost to Vienna. Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots lost their heads. There were martyrs galore in a century of turmoil and upheaval. Tyndale died for his Bible. Bruno died for questioning the dogmatic interpretations of the Bible.

But the central conflict was the war between Protestants and Roman Catholics for supremacy. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain assembled an enormous 130-ship naval fleet with the intention removing Protestant Queen Elizabeth from the throne and restoring the Roman Catholic faith in England..

Like Machiavelli, Montaigne lived through a period of tumultuous politics but on a national rather than municipal level. The religious wars between Catholics and Protestants began in the 16th century but continued in one form of another for another two centuries, though by the 17th century, power conflicts, revolts by subject peoples and struggles over land led to odd alliances. In The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), with Protestants as allies, Catholic France fought against the Catholic Hapsburg monarchy. Though class revolts by the guardian class of knights and by peasants may have set the stage in the early part of the 16th century, the counter-Reformation by the Roman Catholic Church initiated in 1545 raised the level and extent of violence to a pan-European war.

In his civil service career, Montaigne became the ambassador to the Parisian court representing the Parliament of Bordeaux. As a mediator, Pyrrhonic scepticism generally served him in good stead, but not always as we shall see. It also meant that he could not remain passive. As his best friend and fellow diplomat, La Boétie, wrote in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, passivity is a kind of personal tyranny. The latter’s liberalism did not entail considering hate speech as free speech. It did not dictate inaction and non-intervention in a polity engaged in the brutal suppression of its own people because of absolute sovereignty. Further, engaging in politics was an effort to activate Bruno’s stress on prophecy and the use of the fictional imagination of possibilities rather than the cognitive imagination of Bruno’s subjectus. Montaigne’s imagination, however, was stimulated by what he saw, what he heard, what he thought and what he experienced rather than vast portraits of the cosmos.

Montaigne followed the example of La Boétie who had mediated the conflict between the Protestant uprising in Agen and the Catholic court. He was not a peacenik because of passivity, for he went into an enormous rage at the French imperial efforts, as its presuned moral duty, to civilize the savages. Montaigne was very wary of practices and thoughts determined by habit. Further, he claimed that knowledge of the devastating effects of vice would “excite an aversion to vicious habits.”

“Again with politics, statesmen are always praising the greatness of Empire, and preaching the moral duty of civilizing the savage. But look at the Spanish in Mexico. So many cities levelled to the ground, so many nations exterminated. . . and the richest and most beautiful part of the world [Asia?] turned upside down for the traffic of pearl and pepper! Mechanic victories!” Montaigne was what we would call today an empath. He extended his mind and heart, his friendship and his knowledge to all of humanity. (See “On the Education of Children.”)

“Among other vices I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and judg­ment, as the extreme of all vices. But it is to such a degree of softness that I cannot see a chicken’s neck slit without trouble, and I cannot bear to hear the cry of a hare beneath the teeth of my dogs, though the chase is a stirring pleasure.” Montaigne despised religious divisions, tribalism and global instability. His abstention from joining any political party was not a freedom from conviction, but from partisanship.

Montaigne despised psychopathic murderers. “I could hardly persuade myself, before I had seen it with my eyes, that there could be found men so monstrous who would wish to commit murder for the sole pleasure of it, would hack and lop off limbs of others, sharpen their wits to invent unusual torments and new kinds of deaths, without hatred, without profit, and for the sole end of enjoying the pleasant spectacle of the pitiful gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries of a man dying in anguish.” I read this and I cry. I remember counting the 17,000+ corpses removed from a mass grave in Rwanda and lined up on the benches of a technical school. The smell comes back every time I recall the experience. And it was after the genocide, not during it.

Montaigne was thrust into the centre of the Catholic-Protestant wars in France, for he was one Catholic that the Protestants trusted. Further, in his own priorities, he refused to belong to any party or take part in theological debates that might presume that one party was absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong (which may explain why he preferred to continue as a Catholic rather than join his mother and two siblings in converting to Protestantism). For Montaigne, religious belief was purely customary. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgourdines or Germans.” Montaigne did believe, like Erasmus, that the question of how we ought to act, how we implement policy in practice and express our wisdom best, took precedence over his pursuit of small truths, even in the face of profound scepticism.

Montaigne played the role of introducing common sense when the French ruling political class sought to preserve the monarchy as Catholic and when the possibility of a Protestant heir, Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who married Charles IX’s sister in August 1572, loomed before them. The Huguenots had fought against the ruling regime of Catholic King Henry III.

As a brief background, in 1572, Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, a Huguenot, supported the uprising in the Netherlands against Spain to prevent any imminent resumption of civil war fostered by Charles IX of France (1550-1574). In that summer, in light of Admiral Coligny’s initiative, Catherine de Médici, Charles’ mother, who believed Coligny had too much influence over her son, planned his assassination (a previous attempt having failed) as well as that of a large contingent of Huguenots who had come to Paris for the royal wedding. The result – the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. On 23 August 1572, the massacre, approved by Charles IX, was put in place in the evening. The next day, in Paris, a wave of assassinations of Huguenots by Catholics began; Coligny was one of the first victims. It was Kristallnacht for the Huguenots; their homes and shops were pillaged, the occupants were brutally murdered and their bodies thrown in the Seine.

The 25th of August royal order to stop the killings was ignored and the massacres spread to Rouen and Lyon, Bordeaux and Orléans and other French cities. As usual, the Catholics played down the numbers killed – only 2,000 – while the Huguenot, Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, who barely escaped, claimed 70,000 had been killed. My own experience in doing counts of genocidal deaths suggests that the latter figure was much more likely to be closer to the truth.

There were a number of consequences. Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XII applauded the massacre and supported Charles IX’s false claim that the murders were a response to a Huguenot uprising. Second, many Huguenots turned to terrorism and gave up on John Calvin’s dictum that Protestants were to be loyal to the magistrate in power. Third, the first very large wave of refugees fled France to the German states and the exodus gave the name of “refugee” to those who flee persecution.

Montaigne was sent to mediate between Henry II and Henry of Navarre. The Protestants were the first to imprison him, suspecting he was a spy. Then the Catholics turned against him as his efforts to explain the position, fears and complaints of the Huguenots simply instilled distrust in his peace initiative. He was arrested and briefly placed in the Bastille until he could demonstrate without qualification that he was a believing and practicing Catholic. Sometimes, sympathy for the other can be hazardous to your health. His effort at peacemaking was a failure.

Nevertheless, I am a huge admirer of his peacenik efforts. But do I admire his admonitions against ambition and greed? Do I admire his love of freedom from family and the demands of one’s surroundings? I have 6 children, 12 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. I would not give that up for all the wealth of King Midas or for all the glory of Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors. Montaigne constantly asserted that he was lazy, feckless, and irresponsible. But his learning and his literary productivity tells a different story.

For Montaigne, the central question of freedom came in many variants: “How do I preserve my true self?” “How do I avoid losing my soul?” he asked. He no sooner wrote this, than he contradicted himself to insist that there was no “true” self, but many selves. And he queried the nature of the soul. He was concerned with not giving offence while feeling free to express himself. “How do I ensure that I go no further in my speech or actions than I think is right?” Then he wrote about his joy at fucking a cripple. Although he asked above all: “How do I remain free?” he was aware that freedom entailed boundaries and had to be given direction by a sense of responsibility.  

I do not believe I have a true self but many selves and I try to push some and limit others as I choose among both possibilities and demands. Further, I have a terrible habit of not limiting my speech; as a Canadian ambassador once told me while we were working together on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, “Howard, you will never make a diplomat. You want clear and distinct ideas whereas the art of diplomacy is based on equivocation.” I have, however, never thought of Montaigne as an equivocator, though he certainly made great efforts not to give offence. Finally, I have never feared losing my soul. Perhaps, that is my deepest failing.

In the movie that takes place in Toulouse, The Return of Martin Guerre, Michel de Montaigne is an observer of the trial of Martin Guerre or of a man who pretended to be Martin Guerre. He actually attended the proceedings in reality and not just in the movie. In his essay, “Of the Lame,” he wrote about the need in trials, especially of people accused of capital crimes, to provide evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not write about the treatment delivered to women accused of infidelity when there was neither any evidence nor witnesses as I discussed in a recent biblical commentary. However, based on the case of Martin Guerre, he did argue that witches should not be burned because it is impossible to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that someone is a witch. It is too bad that the Puritans in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693, over a century later, never likely read Montaigne. They would have gained so much by so doing. Of course, those condemned as witches would have realized the largest gains.

Humility and scepticism were the proper qualities of a judge and jury at such a trial. Giordano Bruno would have benefitted from precisely such an approach. In the excellent movie Indian Horse about the residential school system in Canada to which our indigenous peoples were subjected for well over a century to enforce assimilation and which only relatively recently were closed, the last one in 1996, we witness a system of cultural genocide implemented by Canadian church officials, priests and nuns, purportedly of good will, to eliminate parental involvement in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual development of their children.

In the film, the narrator proved false the premise that the church was out to exorcise pride from the spirit of a people. The narrator observed that when we are attentive to the absolute vastness and beauty and bounty of nature, then and only then can we be humble. The church was obsessed with its own dogmas and the individuals with their own disciplinarian and even “loving” ways. The sin of pride was to be found in the Church, not in the children.

150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were literally abducted from their parents, forced to attend these “schools” of indoctrination where the children were forbidden, at the cost of corporal punishment, from speaking their own native languages. The systemic racism was intended to “kill the Indian in the child.” Montaigne incisively recognized that the war on pride and the celebration of humility was really intended to foster a false and destructive pride and to squash genuine humility.

“When the present doesn’t recognize the wrongs of the past, the future takes its revenge. For that reason, we must never turn away from the opportunity of confronting our history together – the opportunity to right an historical wrong.” Governor General Michaëlle Jean, 15 October 2009.

The reason: sensibility and reason are both flawed. “Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances…Wee beholde them with one same eye.” That is why a principle of modern science is falsifiability, namely that one tries to create experiments to prove a hypothesis false in order to establish the truth.

In the time of Donald Trump, the conclusions of La Boétie that influenced Montaigne so much are relevant. La Boétie contended that average people cannot apprehend their own interests and easily develop a crush on a strong leader. As Bakewell put it, “La Boétie believes that tyrants somehow hypnotize their people,” and they love and follow him when his “qualities they should not love, since he is savage and inhuman towards them.”

Lest one think that this is only a problem in America today, in France, mistreatment of Jews is coming from below. There are many examples. I cite only one, that of the famous French-Jewish philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut. Believe it or not, he is now afraid to leave his home. At a recent rally in Paris, marchers yelled at him: “F*** off, you dirty piece of s*** Zionist”. A Salafist shouted: “France belongs to us! You racist! You hater! You’re going to die!” “In 2016, Finkielkraut was violently ejected from a public gathering in Paris. He was heckled by protesters shouting ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ at a rally organized by the Nuit Debout, or White Night.”

It is not just Muslim extremists. The intolerance has infected the Left in both France and Britain. “Alain Finkielkraut spread hatred in France, against young people in the suburbs, against Muslims, against national education,” tweeted Thomas Guénolé, a leftist political scientist close to Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Former president Hollande’s lawyer, Jean-Pierre Mignard, said that “Finkielkraut is an apologist for the conflict.” It is not as if Finkielkraut is the only one. Robert Redeker and Éric Zemmour, both Jewish Conservative intellectuals, have been attacked.

The circumstances may have changed, but intolerance and hatred continue to be pervasive in France today. Reading Montaigne in the French school system is totally insufficient. One should learn to essay Montaigne.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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