Montaigne the Multiculturalst

Habituation puts to sleep the eye of our judgment. This is from Montaigne’s essay Of Custom and not easily cahnging an accepted law. The point of the essay is that we don’t realize how much of what we do is a matter of custom. In the beginning, he seems to suggest that this is a bad thing, writing that

the principal effect of its power is, so to seize and ensnare us, that it is hardly in us to disengage ourselves from its gripe, or so to come to ourselves, as to consider of and to weigh the things it enjoins. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow on this track; and the common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine; from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is believed to be also off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably for the most part, God knows.

What follows is a litany of crazy customs from other lands. The lists include a lot about sex and eating. Then he turns to the Church. I thought to myself, “Wow, is this guy going to recognize the cultural impact on religion in the 1580’s?” Uh, no. On the Reformation he writes,

For my own part, I have a great aversion from novelty, what face or what pretence soever it may carry along with it, and have reason, having been an eyewitness of the great evils it has produced. For those which for so many years have lain so heavy upon us, it is not wholly accountable; but one may say, with color enough, that it has accidentally produced and begotten the mischiefs and ruin that have since happened, both without and against it; it, principally, we are to accuse for these disorders:—

He then further disappoints me with this interpretation of Christianity:

The Christian religion has all the marks of the utmost utility and justice: but none more manifest than the severe injunction it lays indifferently upon all to yield absolute obedience to the civil magistrate, and to maintain and defend the laws.

Absolute obedience to the civil magistrates don’t get you hung on cross, my friend.

So, Montaigne recognizes that so much of what we do and believe is the result of custom, and that it is difficult to change such things, even if we perceive them; but then he concludes that this is probably okay. In fact, he prefers to leave things alone, unlike those dirty Protestants. Fair enough.

UPDATE: English Major’s Junk Food also has some things to say about Montaigne. I think the words of an English major are infinitely more trustworthy than those of a lawyer.

Leave a Reply