Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Little Montaigne Inspired Rant

Montaigne's essay "On Bad Means to a Good End" arose, according to the editor's note, mainly from his reading of Jean Bodin. I knew the name because he wrote a book against sorcery and witchcraft that was used during the witch craze to send people, mainly women, to their death. Montaigne doesn't seem the kind of guy to go in for the witch burning thing, so I had to do a little research. Bodin (1530-1596) who was a lawyer by profession, was also, one could say, an economist. One of his books, Quantity Theory of Money, details the relationship between money supply and prices. What Montaigne probably read, judging from the essay he wrote, is Bodin's Six Books of the Commonwealth in which he lays out a philosophy of history, his theory on the effect of climate on society and government and his theory of progress which he later developed further into the beginnings of a treatise on free trade. Montaigne's essay, much as I want to read it otherwise, is a musing on how the ends justify the means even if the means are morally wrong. Montaigne uses the not uncommon metaphor of the state being like the human body: "The maladies and the characteristics of our bodies can also be found in States and politics; like us, kingdoms and republics are born, flourish and fade into decrepitude." States, like humans, can suffer from a "surfeit of humours" which is harmful. Even if those humours are good, when health is perfect, they need to be tamed. The humours are not stable and too perfect health could leave you to "suddenly collapse in disorder." That is why, according to Montaigne, doctors prescribe purgations and bleedings for athletes in order to "draw off that superabundance of health." As the body goes, so goes the state. Therefore, even in times of abundance and wealth, the state must take steps ensure that health by purging and bleeding. That is why it is okay, especially when the state is ailing, to purge itself of certain people. The people that are purged are not the ones the state needs. It is the undesirables who are "given leave to seek better conditions elsewhere, to some other nation's detriment." I don't think "given leave" is the correct choice of words here, but Montaigne has shown that he is a master of spin. As for the bleeding, well, it is necessary to keep young men with lots of energy busy and to keep the army trained and in good form, so if sometimes a state deliberately keeps up wars with some of their enemies, well, it benefits the whole society to keep those hot-blooded young men from being bored and making trouble in their towns and villages or from troubling the status quo. Montaigne says that he does not "believe that God would look favourably on so wicked an enterprise as our attacking and quarrelling with a neighbor simply for our own convenience." But Man's condition is so "wretched" that we are often driven by necessity to "using evil means to a good end." And besides, "if we really must indulge in depravity, we are more to be excused if we do so for the good of the soul than for the good of the body." Fortunately for us, our knowledge of medicine has come a long way since Montaigne's time. Unfortunately for us, too many people still believe that the means justify the ends, that it is okay to pass discriminatory laws and torture and kill people if it's going to save us from another 9/11 or Tube bombing. It's okay to pay workers in third world countries $1 a day to make your clothes because it makes your clothes affordable. It's okay to pay your retail store workers only minimum wage and not give them health insurance because it allows you to advertise "every day low prices." Besides, that's what Medicare and food stamps are for. The government will provide. Only the government cuts back funding to those programs and then what happens? Gotta purge all those unwanted people, so let's invent a reason to invade a foreign country, get those people to join up, and then tell them we're fighting to preserve "our way of life" against people who hate us. Oh yeah, and while those people are preserving "our way of life" we'll cut their benefits and give tax breaks to the wealthiest of the wealthy. I don't see how "bad means to good ends" can ever be justified. Seems to me those who say they can be justified are the ones who benefit from the "good ends." Maybe next week's Montaigne essay, "On the Greatness of Rome," will be a little less incendiary.