Montaigne on virtue

I want to comment on a couple of quotes from Montaigne, both from his essay “On Vanity” (Essays III:9, M. A. Screech translation). Here’s the first one.

Human wisdom has never managed to live up to the duties which it has prescribed for itself; and if it had done so, it would have prescribed itself more, further beyond them still, towards which is could continue to strive and aspire, so hostile is our condition to immobility. Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault.

I thought this was a thought-provoking take on the idea of the inevitability of human sinfulness.

The usual idea is that the moral law is what it is, and that human behavior is defined as sinful because it falls short of that law. The moral law is absolutely moral — that is, moral in and of itself, without reference or comparison to anything else — because God wills that morality be thus defined. Actual human behavior is only relatively immoral — that is, it can be judged moral only with reference to absolute standard of the moral law, of which it falls woefully short.

In Montaigne’s intriguing reversal, it is actual human behavior which serves as the absolute point of reference. Human behavior is absolutely immoral — immoral in and of itself, without reference to a moral law or any other external standard — because man wills that immorality be thus defined. (“Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault.”) Human behavior is of course a moving point of reference, continually in flux, but it is no less absolute for that. (Absolute does not mean eternal and unchanging; it means non-relative, i.e., not defined in relation to or comparison with something else.) Actual human behavior, whatever it may happen to be, is to be considered immoral by definition — and morality is defined as whatever exceeds that.

Man’s quest to be moral could be compared to an athlete’s quest to break the world record. There’s no absolute standard, no such thing as “perfect” — only an absolute conviction that the current record, whatever it may happen to be, is inadequate and must be surpassed. And when it is surpassed and a new record set, that, too will be inadequate and in need of surpassing — by definition. The dog can never catch the car.

As dark and nihilistic a view of morality as that may seem to be, I think it captures something true about human psychology. Man loves progress and hates perfection. When there are no more worlds to conquer — that is, when his every goal has been reached and his every dream realized — he weeps. He literally cannot be satisfied with himself, because satisfaction is as such unsatisfactory to him. Satisfaction is bestial, ox-like, subhuman — not because as it happens things are not satisfactory and thus we ought not to be satisfied, but because satisfaction — with any conceivable state of affairs — is intrinsically base, attainable only by condescending to the subhuman level of the Nietzschean “Last Man.”

Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Mill presumably thought it went without saying that being Socrates satisfied would be the best state of affairs — but he may have unwittingly been laying out the only two choices there are.


Later in the same essay, Montaigne writes:

Anyone who, in an ailing time like ours, boasts that he can bring a naïve and pure virtue to the world’s service either has no idea what virtue is, since our opinions are corrupted along with our morals — indeed, just listen to them describing it; listen to most of them vaunting of their deeds and formulating their rules: instead of describing virtue they are describing pure injustice and vice, and they present it, thus falsified, in the education of princes — or else, if he does have some notion of it, he boasts wrongfully and, say what he will, does hundreds of things for which his conscience condemns him. . . . In such straits the most honourable mark of goodness consists in freely acknowledging your defects and those of others, while using your powers to resist and retard the slide towards evil, having to be dragged down that slope, while hoping for improvement and desiring improvement.

This reminds me of the advice Bruce Charlton is always giving about living in the modern world. (I can’t seem to find a specific post to link to, so you’ll have to be content with a passim.) We can’t fix the world, can’t drain the moral swamp we find ourselves in. You can’t even hope to stay personally clean in this dirty water we’ve been given to swim in. You can only do two things. First, keep your standards even as you are forced to break them. Sin if you must, but never cease to call it sin. Resist the pressure to call evil good and good evil. No matter how goddamn long you’ve been down, you can’t ever let it look like up to you. And second, drag your feet as much as possible. If you can’t resist actively, resist passively. If you can’t do that, do nothing. If you must serve evil, serve it incompetently. Do not go gentle into that good night.

(Dr. Charlton draws heavily on Pascal, who in turn drew heavily on Montaigne, so the similarity may be more than a coincidence. I don’t particularly remember anything on this theme in the Pensées, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.)

Combining this with the first quote, though, leads one to wonder whether Montaigne’s times — or our own — were really all that uniquely bad. (“Clear your mind of cant,” says Dr. Johnson. “You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times.”) If Montaigne had lived in ancient Rome, or Dr. Charlton in Byzantium, would they really have written any differently about the world and how to live in it? Perhaps there is at least some truth to the idea that these times are “ailing times” by definition — that the moral swamp can’t be drained because the current moral atmosphere is always, by definition, a swamp — that man commands the world, no less than himself, to be necessarily at fault.

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One response to “Montaigne on virtue

  1. Pingback: Comparison, not perfection, is primary « Bugs to fearen babes withall

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