MONTAIGNE: Essays [Of Custom; Of Pedantry]

Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received

  • Custom subtly slips in her foot of authority; then, she becomes established overtime, so that her authority is peremptory.
  • Custom can condition a man to tremendous hardships such as lying outside all night in the snow, eating rodents and reptiles, etc.
  • Our greatest vices derive from our infancy. It is very dangerous to allow a child to cheat at a game or mistreat small animals because of the triviality of the subject because custom will condition these vices into the child, growing to become the odious tyranny, cruelty, greed, and treason of older men.
  • Custom has an even more profound impression on our minds, which can provide less resistance than our bodies. Custom can impose upon our judgments an opinions anything. For example, consider the divers modes of behavior and cultural values of people all over the world. Some people honor their dead family members by eating them, believing that they could not honor them with any greater sepulcher than their own bodies. The Greeks, on the other hand, shudder at this suggestion, believing that it is right to burn the bodies after death. Each civilization abhors the other’s practice, yet custom has established both principles as the correct mode of behavior in the two differing civilizations.
  • In some civilization, incest is socially accepted, even promoted. The same applies to promiscuity. Montaigne hopes to illustrate the prejudices of people who believe that their way of life is correct, and the only proper way to live. Montaigne argues that there exists no metaphysical justification for a certain people’s cultural values except mere custom.
  • The laws of conscience, which we suppose are derived from nature, are actually derived from custom. The principles and values of our society seem to us to be genuine and universal, and we strive to obey these customs, finding it tremendously difficult to depart from them.
  • Custom conceals the true aspect of things.
  • Montaigne argues that to subject a people to foreign laws is wrong. How can one expect a group of people who have no conception of marriage, property, etc. to conform to European laws?
  • The benefit, if there is any, from altering an existing law is insignificant when compared to the danger and inconvenience of altering it.
  • Montaigne argues that the revolutionary is presumptuous and narcissistic for wishing to establish his personal opinions at the expense of the safety and well-being of his country, which will inevitably be cast into civil war and other turmoil whenever a man attempts to overthrow the established law and order in favor for another
  • Montaigne believes that the customs of fashion in France are vain affectation, but he conforms with the fashion if he enters the public sphere. A man’s thoughts have nothing whatsoever to do with public society, but his actions, mode of dress, and his life must be conformed to established custom of the society. A man’s soul can withdraw from the crowd and there judge freely the common mode, but his body cannot subvert the common mode.

Usus efficacissimus rerum omnium magister. – Custom is the best master of all things.

Custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She, by little and little, slily and unperceived, slips in the foot of her authority, but having by this gentle and humble beginning, with the benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannic countenance, against which we have no more the courage or the power so much as to lift up our eyes. We see her, at every turn, forcing and violating the rules of nature.

Custom stupefies our senses.

But the effects of custom are much more manifest in the strange impressions she imprints in our minds, where she meets with less resistance. What has she not the power to impose upon our judgments and beliefs? Is there any so fantastic opinion that she has not planted and established for laws in those parts of the world upon which she has been pleased to exercise her power?

There is nothing, in my opinion, that she does not, or may not do; and therefore, with very good reason it is that Pindar calls her the ruler of the world.

But 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.

They who give the first shock to a state, are almost naturally the first overwhelmed in its ruin the fruits of public commotion are seldom enjoyed by him who was the first motor; he beats and disturbs the water for another’s net.

And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self-love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them, and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs, and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high concern, into the bowels of one’s own country.

All singular and particular fashions are rather marks of folly and vain affectation than of sound reason, and that a wise man, within, ought to withdraw and retire his soul from the crowd, and there keep it at liberty and in power to judge freely of things; but as to externals, absolutely to follow and conform himself to the fashion of the time. Public society has nothing to do with our thoughts, but the rest, as our actions, our labours, our fortunes, and our lives, we are to lend and abandon them to its service and to the common opinion, as did that good and great Socrates who refused to preserve his life by a disobedience to the magistrate, though a very wicked and unjust one for it is the rule of rules, the general law of laws, that every one observe those of the place wherein he lives.

In this essay, Montaigne addresses the power of custom, and also argues against revolutionary acts through fawning servile conformity to generally accepted laws and cultural norms. While I agree with Montaigne about the profound influence custom has over our behaviors and opinions, you can probably determine that I am less than enthusiastic about his argument that we should all be conformists.

First I will address the nature and power of custom. Montaigne writes about how custom can condition a man to endure all types of physical hardships – whether it be to lie out all night in the snow, subsist on relatively minimal food sources, endure lashings even unto death without showing any sign of suffering, etc. Furthermore, the mind, which can provide less resistance to custom than the body, is even more greatly influenced. To support his argument, Montaigne adduces the vast disparity in cultural norms and behaviors found throughout the world. One example is of the practice of the ancient Greeks to burn the bodies of the dead in order to honor their spirit. Another civilization is appealed at this notion because they believe that the best way to honor the dead is to eat them. Likewise, the Greeks are less than impressed with this mode of honoring the dead. A few other examples Montaigne cites are the acceptance vs. prohibition of incest, chastity as a virtue vs. chastity as a vice, and the various foods deemed delicious by one culture yet vomit inducing by another.

Regarding the second argument of this essay – that we should all conform to societal norms, and not attempt to subvert established laws and customs – Montaigne is entirely wrong. His support for this argument is that the benefits of getting rid of old laws an establishing new ones are insignificant compared to the afflictions the revolutionary imposes upon his country in the form of civil wars, unrest, and chaos accompanying such an endeavor. While I do agree with Montaigne that any type of revolution is often accompanied by violence and unrest – see the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc. – this does not mean that the goal or ends which the revolution attains or seeks to attain are not worthwhile or justify the violence. Montaigne argues that one man’s opinions, which are instable and solely personal, are not sufficient cause to engage his country in turmoil in order to bring about change. However, I would ask Montaigne, what if more than one man shared the same opinion about the tyranny or insufferable nature of current conditions in the country.

Montaigne attempts to offer a medium in which revolutionaries can exercise their tendencies without casting their country into turmoil. He says that a man can withdraw his soul away from the company of men, and there cast judgment freely upon the societal norms and laws. However, in all other manners of life, whether it be clothing, work, behavior, etc., one must conform to societal norms. Montaigne even states that he regards the current fashion as vain, yet conforms to the accepted and expected fashion whenever he enters the public sphere. As a citizen of the United States, and this is where my particular upbringing and social customs have influenced my opinions and behavior, I believe that one should be able to not only comment upon the frivolousness of current fashion trends, but also dress in a manner that he would prefer.

Of Pedantry

  • Montaigne noticed that the fool was often represented by a pedant in the Italian farces. He could not determine why a mind enriched by knowledge could possess so gross and vulgar an understanding. A friend of Montaigne suggested that in order to make room for
    the great ideas of other men, a man’s own brain must be squeezed into insignificance. Montaigne disagrees. He believes that the soul stretches and dilates itself proportionally as it fills.
  • The great philosophers are not pedants. They simply disdained the ordinary actions and offices of life. When challenged to engage in money-making, philosophers such as Thales demonstrated that they were quite capable of making substantial profits. However, pedants do not disdain ordinary activities, but are quite incapable of engaging in them.
  • Montaigne attributes this defect to the educational system, which aims at filling students’ minds with knowledge rather than judgment and virtue. Instead of inquiring whether a man knows Greek or Latin, we should inquire into a man’s understanding of virtue and justice.
  • The current educational system requires students to cull books for phrases that can be readily recited in a required situation, but the student does not understand the applicability or theory underlying these phrases.
  • Intelligence and understanding is independent of the traditional “art of letters,” as evidenced by the brilliance of some people of nations far removed from European culture.
  • We often assume the truth of another man’s opinion upon trust, which is an idle and superficial method of learning. We must make the assertions and propositions our own.
  • We rely so strongly upon others, that we lose our own strength and capabilities of reasoning.
  • A man must put his knowledge into practice for the benefit of himself and others. Students returning from studies today are unfit for employment, being furnished with knowledge yet lacking the understanding that should accompany it in order to use such knowledge correctly.
  • Judgment is more necessary than knowledge. Judgment can persevere without knowledge, but knowledge cannot without judgment.
  • Knowledge is injurious to the man who does not possess goodness and judgment too.
  • Montaigne admires the Persian educational system, which instructs students in virtue instead of letters. They taught their students by works and examples, rather than words and precepts memorized by rote. This deeply ingrained the concepts of justice, virtue, etc. into the students, more so than a superficial memorization of laws.
  • The study of letters softens and untempers the courage of men. Rome was more valiant before she became scholarly. When the Goths conquered Greece, they preserved the libraries because they believed that the books would divert the Grecians to a sedentary and lazy life rather than an active hostility towards the Goths.

Our soul stretches and dilates itself proportionally as it fills.

The cares and expense our parents are at in our education, point at nothing, but to furnish our heads with knowledge; but not a word of judgment and virtue. Cry out, of one that passes by, to the people: “O, what a learned man!” and of another, “O, what a good man!”—[Translated from Seneca, Ep., 88.]—they will not fail to turn their eyes, and address their respect to the former. There should then be a third crier, “O, the blockheads!” Men are apt presently to inquire, does such a one understand Greek or Latin? Is he a poet? or does he write in prose? But whether he be grown better or more discreet, which are qualities of principal concern, these are never thought of. We should rather examine, who is better learned, than who is more learned.

We only labour to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void. Like birds who fly abroad to forage for grain, and bring it home in the beak, without tasting it themselves, to feed their young; so our pedants go picking knowledge here and there, out of books, and hold it at the tongue’s end, only to spit it out and distribute it abroad.

We can say, Cicero says thus; these were the manners of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle: but what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? A parrot would say as much as that.

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We suffer ourselves to lean and rely so strongly upon the arm of another, that we destroy our own strength and vigour.

Knowledge is not so absolutely necessary as judgment; the last may make shift without the other, but the other never without this.

Examples have demonstrated to us that in military affairs, and all others of the like active nature, the study of sciences more softens and untempers the courage of men than it in any way fortifies and excites them. I find Rome was more valiant before she grew so learned. When the Goths overran Greece, the only thing that preserved all the libraries from the fire was, that some one possessed them with an opinion that they were to leave this kind of furniture entire to the enemy, as being most proper to divert them from the exercise of arms, and to fix them to a lazy and sedentary life.

In this essay, Montaigne denounces the European method of education – i.e. furnishing the students’ minds with knowledge through rote, but not instructing them in such a manner as to bestow an understanding of the underlying theories required to properly use such knowledge. Indeed, pedants often appear to be nothing more than a parrot, who recites verbatim what he has heard, but lacks the understanding about how such knowledge can be applied to benefit himself or others. Therefore, Montaigne concludes that knowledge without judgment can be injurious. Judgment is more necessary than knowledge. In fact, traditional knowledge of letters in the European framework of education, is not required to possess intelligence, virtue, good judgment, etc., as evidenced by the brilliant works of people of different cultures.

Montaigne also praises the Persians for instructing their students in virtue rather than letters, and also lauds the method of education – i.e. instructing the students through works and examples rather than words and precepts memorized by rote repetition. The Persian method of instruction compels the knowledge to become a part of the student, something that superficial memorization of precepts and laws cannot accomplish.

Montaigne also argues that the study of letters harms the courage of men, inclining them to a sedentary and lazy life. When the Goths overran the Greeks, they preserved the libraries because they believed that the Greeks would be diverted from retaliating by the study of letters.

I agree with Montaigne that the most effective method of instructing students is to teach them through examples and practical applications, rather than memorization exercises and little theoretical practice.  The type of knowledge attained through this instruction does become part of the student, and a student can apply that knowledge to different applicable scenarios in life. I also agree that the concepts of virtue and justice are much more important topics than knowledge about letters, such as knowledge about how many labors Hercules undertook, how many ships sailed to Troy, etc. However, I believe that knowledge about virtue and justice can be gleaned from these literary works, and that memorization often helps a student better understand a fundamental theme because they can recite and mull over the phrases at their leisure, providing themselves with the opportunity to consider the theme from various angles.

Montaigne: Essays

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