Saturday, September 25, 2004

Flip Flop

Montaigne, in his essay, "On the Inconstancy of our Actions," surprised me. I thought for sure he'd be squarely on the side of the need for constancy, but no. He in fact finds "it strange to find men of understanding sometimes taking such trouble to match up the pieces, seeing that vacillation seems to me to be the most common and blatant defect of our nature." He even quotes Publius: "It's a bad resolution which can never be changed!" Far from believing constancy to be the goal, Montaigne, while recognizing the virtue in it, realizes the near impossibility of it:

We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people. 'Let me convince you that it is a hard task to be always the same man' [Seneca].
We follow our inclinations and our appetites. What we decide today will be different next week. Montaigne insists we should not worry or be surprised if the man who was brave in battle yesterday is a coward today. It all depends on circumstances. Our human natures are so inconstant that we are even "brought by vice itself to 'do good.'" But, warns Montainge, we should judge 'doing good' only by our intentions. We can say a man that does a good deed for the wrong reasons did a good act but we cannot say the man himself is good. This is why "one courageous action must not be taken as proof that a man really is brave; a man who is truly brave will always be brave on all occasions." I should think that the few people who are truly constant can't be very interesting. They are the ones who never change their minds even when there is overwhelming evidence against them. They harbor no doubts and therefore cannot change and grow. I think Montaigne is right in this essay. No one should be surprised about anyone's inconstancy, it should be expected. And so what? "It is not the act of a settled judgment to judge us simply by our outward deeds: we must probe right down inside and find out what principles make things move; but since this is a deep and chancy undertaking, I would that fewer people would concern themselves with it." Next week's Montaigne essay, in honor of the presidential debates: "On a Ready or Hesitant Delivery"