Sunday, August 15, 2004

Michel de Montaigne: Like a Bad Habit

Montaigne really pissed me off in his essay "On Habit: And on Never Easily Changing a Traditional Law." Sure things started off just fine, but then by the end I was yelling "asshole!" at him as well as all kinds of other things which if I told you about them at this point would make no sense to you. So back to the beginning. The editor's note tells us that Montaigne used the French word "coustume" translated into English as "custom." But "custom" for Montaigne meant a number of things which our modern day word does not mean. For Montaigne, "custom" was custom, usage, manner, habit. The editor assures the reader that in this particular essay Montaigne used the word in all of these senses but particularly in the sense of custom and habit. Clear as mud? The thing that is clear from both the editor and Montaigne during the course of the essay is that Montaigne believed that however arbitrary and senseless habit and custom may be, they are what holds a society together. Montaigne begins his essay discussing the power of habit, how "Habit is a violent and treacherous schoolteacher" that "gradually and stealthily slides her (why is habit a her?) authoritative foot into us" so gently and humbly that we don't even notice until it is too late and habit's "angry and tyrannous countenance" is revealed. Bad habits are easy to begin, hard to break. It seems like good habits are just the opposite though. Montaigne doesn't have anything to say about that. Habit "stuns our senses." How else can "those who dwell near cataracts of the Nile" put up with all the noise? How else can I sleep through the noise of the airplanes taking off and landing at the nearby airport? I must say that I am so used to the noise that when the airport was closed for several days after September 11th the sudden silence was eery. Then there is the custom of things like clothing and fashion which leads rational people to wear "the most monstrous clothes imaginable" like women's hats with long pleated velvet tails or fringes and men's codpieces "modeling a member which we cannot even decently call by name yet which we make a parade of, showing off in public." To this I'd like to add baby blue polyester leisure suits, bell bottoms, shoulder pads, Stretch denim, Daisy Dukes and skirts so short sitting down is indecent. And here is where Montaigne's essay takes a sudden turn. Suddenly he is talking about law and wondering whether or not "any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it." Montaigne then declares that he "abhors novelty, no matter what visage it presents" because he has "seen some of its disastrous effects." Here there is a helpful footnote to explain that the particular "novelty" to which Montaigne was referring was the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. I'd hardly call the Reformation a "novelty." But Montaigne abhors rabble rousers:

Those who shake the State are easily the first to be engulfed in its destruction. The fruits of dissension are not gathered by the one who began it: he stirs and troubles the waters for other men to fish in. Once the great structure of the monarchy is shaken by novelty and its interwoven bonds torn asunder--especially in its old age--the gates are opened as wide as you wish to similar attacks.
Yeah, attacks like, oh I don't know, democracy, an end to slavery, voting rights for all citizens including citizens of color and--gasp--women. A person against "novelty" is a person who has power in the current system, such a person naturally does not want the waters to be stirred and troubled. "Novelty" is a threat to his comfort. But such a person doesn't bother to stop and think about the people upon whose backs his comfort is built, doesn't wonder if they wouldn't like to have some "novelty." It's people like that who say things like "marriage has always been between a man and a woman and therefore it can never be any other way." Montaigne asks, "Is there any kind of vice more wicked than those which trouble the naturally recognized sense of community?" But he does not question why someone might not want to go along with the "recognized sense of community." Montaigne does concede that there are times when laws must be changed, but this time is only if there is a pressing need, like you aren't allowed to fight wars in the holy month of June and it's May 31st and Sparta is going to wipe out your armies if you don't change the name of the next month from June to a second May. To me Montaigne's reasoning fails here. This says to me that it's okay to change traditional law if it's expedient to do so for those in power. If that doesn't lead to tyranny than I don't know what does. I'll try to calm myself down for next week's essay: "On Moderation"