Sunday, January 01, 2006

Just the Facts M'am

Montaigne's essay "On the Lame" takes it's title from, as Montaigne describes it, a common Italian proverb: "he who has not lain with a lame woman does not know Venus in her sweet perfection." But the essay is not about sex, it's about peoples' willingness to believe just about anything. Montaigne is a man who wants the facts. But he doesn't want made up and imagined facts. He wants facts that are provable, a Renaissance man, he would have fit in well with the Enlightenment too. He complains that we let "our reasons often run ahead of the facts and enjoy such an infinitely wide jurisdiction that they are used to make judgements about the very void and nonentity." The imaginations, inventive powers and idle fancies of humans do us a disservice. Take, for example, miracles. Everyone loves a good miracle. The people who first see the alleged miracle, which amounts, in Montaigne's opinion, to something the witnesses just didn't understand, spread the story. Those who hear the story pick it up and embellish it and spread it and so on and so on and so on because "whoever believes anything reckons that it is a work of charity to convince someone else of it; and to do this he is not at all afraid to add, out of his own invention, whatever his story needs to overcome the resistance and the defects which he thinks there are in the other man's ability to grasp it." And it's not just miracles, it's this whole witch thing too. Montaigne lived during the beginnings of the European witch craze. He was a good Catholic and so believes in Church doctrine that says there are witches. However, he questions the methods and judgments by which men determine whether or not someone is a witch. Montaigne suggests that if there were a witch among them, God Himself would let them know and since He has not done this, then the whole witch thing is matter of opinion. "It is," he writes, "to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them." It was not uncommon for those who protested witch burnings to be accused and burned as a witch. Montaigne knows that: "I am well aware that folks get angry and forbid me to have any doubts about witches on pain of fearsome retribution. A new form or persuasion! Thanks be to God my credo is not to be managed by thumps from anyone's fists." The problem with things like miracles and witches is that when you confront someone about it and ask them for the facts, "they spend more time finding reasons for them than finding out whether they are true. They ignore the whats and expiate on the whys". If he had sons to bring up, Montaigne asserts that he would teach them when venturing an opinion to say such things as "perhaps," "some," "they say," and "I think." He would also teach them, when hearing someone else's opinion, especially if it is given as a fact, to ask things like "what does this mean?" "I do not understand that," and "is that true?" Everyone likes to have an opinion and some of the most celebrated opinions are born from "vain beginnings and trivial causes" (WMDs anyone?). These beginnings are why it makes it so difficult to inquire into them, "for while we are looking for powerful causes and weighty ends worthy of such great fame we lose the real ones: they are so tiny that they escape our view. And indeed for such investigations we need a very wise, diligent and subtle investigator, who is neither partial nor prejudiced." It is difficult to "stiffen your judgement against widely held opinions." Who hasn't at one time or other been swayed by the unfounded opinion of others, only to come to your senses later wondering, "what was I thinking?" It is especially difficult to "stiffen your judgement" when those who have the means to enforce their opinions do so "by commands, force, fire and sword." This makes speaking out or even asking a question, a dangerous thing to do. You're either with us or against us. And if you're against us, that must mean you are a witch or a communist or a terrorist. Montaigne wrote, "it is wretched to be reduced to the point where the best touchstone of truth has become the multitude of believers, at a time when the fools in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise." Wretched indeed. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Physiognomy"