Sunday, October 30, 2005

A Lesson Proper to Our Own Times

I usually do the Montaigne thing on Saturday but raking the leaves and doing a bit of winter preparations in the garden left me too tired to think. So it is that Montaigne spills into Sunday. I don't know why Montaigne continues to amaze me with his relevance. Maybe it's because I'd like to think that humans have evolved somewhat since the supposedly more brutal days of the Renaissance. But I am beginning to realize that while our technology has evolved, humans have not. We are, essentially, still the same; we've just gotten better at hiding that fact. In Montaigne's essay "On the Useful and the Honourable" he examines the clash between public and private interest from a moral perspective. In Montaigne's time "useful" included notions of what is profitable to the individual or the state and in every sort of public and private interest. At times the state demands we give up our private interests as well as our personal integrity because it deems an action useful. However, "we wrongly adduce the honour and beauty of an activity from its usefulness, and our conclusion is wrong if we reckon that all are bound to perform it, and that it is honourable for each to do so, provided it be useful." Even the Law can be wrong and place a person in a difficult situation, "some vices are legal, just as some deeds are good or pardonable yet illegal." One may find one's personal integrity compromised by venerating and supporting the Law under which "many vicious deeds are done not merely with Law's permission but at its instigation." Montaigne reminds us that "not all things are legitimate to a man of honour at the service of his king or the cause of the commonwealth and its laws. The claims of our country are not paramount over all other duties: it is good for it to have citizens who are dutiful to their kindred." Montaigne recognizes that sometimes the public interest requires "men to betray, to tell lies and to massacre," but he says, "let us assign that commission to such as are more obedient and more pliant." There can usually be found those who are willing to "sacrifice their honour and their consciences...for the well-being of their country." But while this may be necessary, Montaigne asserts that "each of us ought to have sworn to himself the oath which the kings of Egypt made their judges solemnly swear: that as judges they would never stray from their conscience for any command which even they their kings might give." Still, there are plenty who stray because humans are diseased with passion, ambition, jealousy, envy, and vengeance. But those who engage in politics and perpetrate acts of betrayal because they deem it useful for themselves had better be careful, "there are cases when the very one who ordered the deed has exacted rigorous revenge on the man whom he employed to do it, disclaiming to have had such authority and power and disowning so abandoned a servility and so cowardly an obedience." I think of Oliver North and Iran-Contra. I think of Scooter Libby. I wonder if Mr. Libby is wishing he hadn't followed through on his boss's idea to leak Valerie Plame's name? I wonder if he still thinks that he'll be protected, that strings will be pulled, that he won't be found guilty and go to jail? Or, I wonder if he is beginning to see the wagons circling but not for him? Is he starting to understand that "apart from the baseness of such commissions, there is the prostitution of your conscience" that must be dealt with? Montaigne writes:

There you have a lesson proper to our own times. It is enough that the ironplate of our armour should give us calloused shoulders: there is no need to allow it to make our minds callous as well; it is enough to plunge our pens in ink without plunging them in blood.
Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse"