Selections from the Essays of Montaigne
On Which Cannibal? The Clever Rhetoric of Montaigne’s “On the Cannibals”
“What does sadden me is that, while judging correctly of their wrong-doings we should be so blind to our own” (235).
Montaigne’s essay “On the Cannibals” is a criticism on how the ‘civilized’ man passes judgment too harshly upon others while disregarding their own actions. This is especially apparent, as he has read the accounts by the conquests in the New World. He expresses this idea through his presentation and use of evidence, rhetoric, and thoughtful structure of his essay. Known for his idiosyncratic examples and anecdotes, Montaigne also proves to be an adept rhetorician; in particular, he evinces an ability to anticipate his reader’s points of preconception or resistance, and to maneuver around these impediments to persuasion.
Montaigne always seems to place the correct evidence with the idea at hand in order to craft the reader’s mind toward his main idea. His brother lives on the coast and is facing a retreating coastline; this fact is crafted to fit Montaigne’s idea of changing boundaries affect how people interact and view each other, but how valid is the example? “The locals say that the sea has been thrusting so hard against them for some time now that they have lost four leagues of land.” This is not a concrete piece of evidence, but Montaigne recognizes when to use more subjective evidence to explain a topic and when to give factual information like the battle of the Spartans or the many wives of Jacob in the Bible. What this does though, is create a sense of security with the facts and information given by Montaigne so all examples that are given are held to the standard of its most supported example given. This evidence being an example from the Bible, the rest of the evidence is held to the same esteem. Not to say that is a bad thing. For his idea to come across as clear as he intended, you must “go along for the ride.” This ride being a sarcastic, skeptical, and cynical one through the human condition.
The tone of one’s work sets the mood for how well received it is by the reader. “I fear that our eyes are bigger than our bellies, our curiosity more than we can stomach. We grasp at everything but clasp nothing but wind” (229). Montaigne self-identifies with the group he is criticizing in an effort to bring the reader into the argument, assuming the people reading his work fit the bill of western European culture. A break in the text allows for a moment of reflection and impact that the reader will remember. Montaigne adds these to separate his main ideas and to add a little flair, be it publisher’s choice or not, the breaks are written in the original language in which they were intended. As noted by this publication with a [B], many of these quotes were written before his death in a revision of his essays. With the interruptions and frankness behind his work, a bit of comic relief helps keep the reader engaged. Montaigne’s casual nature can also be detrimental to his main idea. The predominant idea is that the western culture is too judgmental on new and different cultures that they cannot see the problems within their own society. He employs quotes from two natives brought back to Europe that he had spoken to, but prefaces the information with an apology for not remembering all three points the natives spoke about. This discredits Montaigne slightly as an accurate teller of information.
While Montaigne’s lack of solidarity in his interview with the natives is concerning, the way he approached it was quite unique. More often then not, writers would rather have a third idea splashed within the paper to satisfy rhetoric and their main thesis. This is not the case for Montaigne, and while it may slightly discredit the information he has given thus far, I think it helps “pack a punch” with the evidence he does bring forward. The frankness he holds is impressive and quite risky. Having brought up the fact that he should satisfy rhetoric in the rule of three and that the natives did, in fact, share more than memory serves draws the reader’s attention to the information that follows. Montaigne stopped the flow of his argument to point out he has forgotten a point to sort of ground the reader and draw his attention to the new topics he brings up. This is a powerful tool that Montaigne uses in his favor toward the end of his essay. Another rhetorical device he uses is the over-arching metaphor of the criticism on cannibalism being the same mindset western Europeans approach new societies in general. Taking a very grotesque and foreign example to headline his essay draws the reader in, continually keeping the example on their mind. Montaigne uses this as the basis for the rest of his argument against societal judgments. Marriage, battle, honor, daily life, and dress are all topics with the same division as cannibalism, both being present yet different in each society. Montaigne is a thoughtful writer, as he does not explain the cannibalism argument right away. There is a thoughtful structure behind his support.
At first, the reader is slightly confused as Montaigne talks about boundaries occurring between people, natural or artificial, and the validity of the accounts he has read about. The flow of consciousness is effortless though as Montaigne is a great writer when it comes to cognitive ideas leading to a well-developed thought. He keeps this line of thought fairly unbiased as we have identified his main idea, being that people judge others for things they themselves do and cannot see. His bias does take over slightly, but to his benefit. “Not at all bad, that. – Ah! But they wear no breeches . . .”(241). This is the quote that ends the essay. Up to that point, the majority of points Montaigne made could have supported either side toward being the “cannibal.” The balance within the essay is very well maintained, as Montaigne criticizes both sides to the same extent. Maybe not the same voice throughout, but most definitely in content. For example, the cannibalism, where the reaction from the European conquistadors who see the natives killing their own and roasting them like a pig for food, or similarly after a battle to signify the ultimate victory. The same practice is seen in the European camps to prisoners being burned alive and tortured. Also, it is seen again in the medical field where the dead are used to cure the living.
The balance of ideas whether it be in quantity or breadth, Montaigne maintains very well. What makes his idea so strong though is the subtlety behind his stance. After long flowing paragraphs, wordy explanations, and seemingly irrelevant tangents, he states his idea with a sassy one-liner to cap off the essay. That is powerful. Indeed, Montaigne’s unusual delivery craftily expresses his criticism of Western European judgments being worse than those that, as he expresses, naturally follow divisions of people, whether naturally or artificially occurring.
Preparations and Actions: Thought on Life and Death in Montaigne’s Essays
Michel de Montaigne’s Essays are hailed as profound modern, and their style original. This type of personal essay writing is still found in many places, including today’s commonplace blogs. These pieces are political, they are social, they are philosophical, but they are all deeply eprsonal; they are all self-portraits. In his address to the reader, Montaigne says that this is a work which has been “dedicated…to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humors…I myself am the subject of my book” (lxiii). Despite this assertion that he alone is the subject of these works, Montaigne also acts on expanding his personal experiences to defining the human condition. His essays often deal on questions of existence, and the pieces “To philosophize is to learn how to die” and “On physiognomy”, in particular, ask about the relationship of death to life, and the relationship of life and death to how a man lives or how he views these things. The later work “On physiognomy” actually refutes or contradicts some claims made in the earlier “To philosophize is to learn how to die”; this also, in a larger scheme, threatens Montaigne’s claim that “You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted” (lxiii). The way Montaigne reaches his new, corrected position on death in relation to living, and how he transitions even within the selected passage, are central to the reader’s understanding of the entire work, and provides said readers with a way to reconcile major contradictions found in these essays.
In many places, Montaigne assumes a sort of royal “we,” and this selection of “On physiognomy” is no different; he says that “We confuse life with worries about death, and death with worries about life. [C] One torments us: the other terrifies us.” These descriptions are apparently respective, that the one which torments us is when we “confuse life with worries about death,” and the one which terrifies us is when we “confuse death with worries about life.” Why does one torment us, the other terrify? Is this simply a rhetorical differentiation? Furthermore, what does Montaigne mean by “confusing” life with worries about death or vice versa? Confusion implies a muddling, perhaps a tainting, that life is tainted with worries about death. Less clear is how people can we be worried about life when they are dead. Here, Montaigne seems to be appealing to the potential feeling of not being fulfilled when dying; he has asked himself, “Would I have died any the less happy before reading the Tusculan Disputations?” and answered, “I judge that I would not” (1176). Both possibilities proposed in this passage have the potential to terrify us and to torment us constantly.
He continues on to say that “We are not preparing ourselves to die: that is too momentary a matter. [C] A quarter of an hour of pain, without after-effects, without annoyance, has no need for precepts of its own. [B] To speak truly, we prepare ourselves against our preparations for death!” The beginning of this train of thought is rather confusing, as it does not offer context. When is this lack of “preparing ourselves to die” happening? What has happened so that we now have “to speak truly” about “prepar[ing] ourselves against our preparations for death?” This is unclear until the next couple of statements finish this paragraph, and even then, can only be fully understood when the earlier essay “To philosophize is to learn how to die” is revisited. In this essay, Montaigne seeks to remedy his melancholy, realizing that the constant presence of death is what has caused his depressive state. He puts forth that all men should learn to face and accept death, and only then, only after internalization of this inevitability, can they truly live. Philosophy apparent aids man in doing this, and so it is sensible when he says in “On physiognomy” that “Philosophy first commands us to have death ever before our eyes, to anticipate it and to consider it beforehand, and then she gives us rules and caveats in order to forestall our being hurt by our reflections and our foresight.” Montaigne wonders why philosophy would comfort such a painful topic, but only after actively bringing it up? He compares this to doctors who “tip us into illnesses in order that they may have the means of employing their drugs and their Art.” Philosophy is not simply preparing people to die or teaching them how to die, as Cicero said, but is a double negative which prepares people against their preparations for dying; it is the medicine for the self-induced sickness. This mention of doctors brings to mind an earlier line about doctors in “To philosophize is to learn how to die”: “Silly fool, you! Where your life is concerned, who has decided the term? You are relying on doctors’ tales; look at the facts and experience instead. As things usually go, you have been living for some time now by favour extraordinary.” The tone there and the tone here are markedly different.
However, the concept of “means” brings into question the idea of “ends.” Every means goes towards an end. This is what Montaigne then goes into in his next section. First, he transitions by discussing how “If we have not known how to live, it is not right to teach us how to die, making the form of the end incongruous with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and calmly we shall know how to die the same way.” In his earlier essay, Montaigne used death to define life. He believed that knowing death or thinking of death made life more meaningful by giving it a clear and present end. This kind of thinking defined life negatively, that is, by what it is not. Here, Montaigne realizes that his former thinking was in the reverse order. Instead, knowing how to live is a prerequisite which should be acquired before learning how to die. He says that if we know how to “live steadfastly and calmly” then we will already know how to die in the same way. He takes a quick aside to criticize those of his old thinking, calling those who say that “the entire life of philosophers is a preparation for death” as people who can “bluster as much as they like.” He now has the opinion that, “death is indeed the ending of life, but not therefore its End”; although it is the physical termination of life, death is the End of life which life as a means works towards. “It puts an end to it,” he repeats, “it is its ultimate point; but it is not its objective.” What is the objective of life, then? Instead of death being involved at all, Montaigne says that “Life must be its own objective, its own purpose. Its right concern is to rule itself, govern itself, put up with itself.”
Lastly, these sections are closed off with a flourish: “Numbered among its [life’s] other duties included under the general and principal heading, How to live, there is the subsection, How to die.” Life has many concerns, and dying is only a small one of these. However, it still seems important and fools many people, Montaigne himself originally included, into believing it is a bigger matter than it really is. This is because of fear; “If our fears did not lend it weight, dying would be one of our lighter duties.”
The views espoused in “On physiognomy”, in this passage, are substantially different from the thinking in “To philosophize is to die.” Are there any ways to reconcile these two seemingly disparate outlooks? An easy way to do so is to reconsider Montaigne’s purpose in “To the Reader”; that this work is a self-portrait which incorporates an element of time. He himself says, later, that it is difficult for him to pin down the subject or subjects of his writing, and his prose often stumbles around, almost drunkenly.
However, besides this general explanation, this particular passage also lends itself to a reconciliatory purpose between these two essays. Although the views put forth in both the first and second paragraphs of this “On physiognomy” selection directly contradict the general feelings expressed in “To philosophize is to die,” the transition from the first paragraph to the second is of particular interest. In the first section the author is discussing the idea of preparing to die; in doing so he must talk about philosophy and address it directly, just as he did so in the first essay. However, in the second he is addressing the knowledge of living, of life, of life’s purpose. One way to understand the transition is the separation between preparations and the action itself. The first section itself even seems like a set-up for the second, building up the passage with analogies such as the one about the doctor who instills illnesses into his patients in order to heal them. Once specifics like these have been touched upon, Montaigne moves into more sweeping statements which concern life as a whole.
In the end, physiognomy in itself explains much about this passage. Physiognomy as a scientific practice seeks for connections between disparate subjects and disconnected spheres; in doing so, its unique position brings together the discrete subjects which populate Montaigne’s Complete Essays. In the same way that the transition between preparations—even preparations against preparations—to the actual act, the deed, the doing of life, requires temporality but is still constant, these passages connect “On physiognomy” to preceding essays, but does so continually. “To philosophize is to learn how to die” came before “On physiognomy” chronologically, or at least has been placed, by the author, in such an order for it to be read first, but their relationship deep and complex. It is beyond, simply, a while ago, Montaigne believed this, and later he changed his views. The relationship between contradictions in Montaigne’s work reflect the uncertainty of his self-portrait making, the constantly shifting perspectives in his mind, and the fleeting nature of his own ability to pen these perspectives. Above this, or perhaps alongside it, there is a also an apparent disparity between the set-up of life, or living, and the execution of it. How does one transition into the other? Montaigne has his ideas. He supports changing outlook and perhaps completely reversing our order of thinking. Either way, preparations for life or even its negative definition, death, are certainly not the same as living it.
Montaigne, Michel De. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.
Ontological Freedom in Montaigne’s Selections from the Essays
For many readers, Montaigne’s Selections from the Essays at first seems scattered both in rhetorical structure and topic. However, as one reads through the individual works, there is one concept that the diverse text consistently refers to: man’s need to strive for freedom. Yet Montaigne did not seek to write an instructional philosophical work, like many other Renaissance writers; rather, he sought to utilize a unique writing style and reflective anecdotes to indirectly convey his message. Montaigne seeks to reveal to his readers, though his own eyes, how personal experience and reflection can lead to a higher degree of ontological freedom. One of the first and most crucial steps towards achieving a greater state of freedom is to realize that humans are significantly limited in scope and are not free when they are tangled in worldly affairs. In the scheme of life, a mere human being is practically nothing. In Montaigne’s words, man is “the most vulnerable and frail of all creatures” (59), one that is “neither above nor below the rest” (60). This conclusion is based on the empirical instances of man’s limitations and instability, and an experienced man should recognize his own meager existence. Montaigne describes this conclusion with a simple metaphor; “To really learned men has happened what happens to ears of wheat; they rise high and lofty, heads erect and proud, as long as they are empty; but when they are full and swollen with grain in their ripeness, they begin to grow humble and lower their horns” (62), where “ripeness” refers to the experienced condition of the learned man. Montaigne also uses this metaphor to subtly imply that man, like an ear of wheat, is subject only to the laws of nature, a point covered extensively in other areas of the text. Once a man has realized his relative insignificance in the world, he must limit his observations and conclusions to his own self, for Montaigne stresses that “we tell ourselves all we most need” (115). Additionally, “to hope to straddle more than the reach of our legs, is impossible and unnatural. Nor can man raise himself above himself and humanity; for he can see only with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp” (71). The specific diction of “impossible” and “unnatural” support Montaigne’s previous statements about the limitations of man, demonstrating that not only is it arrogant to reach outside one’s individual scope, but it is also an unattainable and abnormal hope to do so. Thus, one of the first steps towards achieving true freedom is realizing one’s triviality and limitations in a more global environment. Once a man has circumscribed himself, he is in state much more conducive to individual growth and experience because he is capable of becoming free within himself. Montaigne himself has realized his confines, and he speaks in a reflective, first-person voice to remind readers that all men, including himself, are subject to these same boundaries. Furthermore, to reach a higher state of true freedom, man must acknowledge his inability to understand the transcendental reality of nature without divine aid. Montaigne describes this reality as “so divine…and so far surpassing human intelligence…truth with which it has pleased the goodness of God to enlighten us…by extraordinary and privileged favor, so that we may conceive it and lodge it in us” (54). Reason and “purely human means” are not “at all capable of this” (54), so it is necessary that God grants man the gift of an intrinsic understanding of Him and of nature, His creation. If an individual wants to achieve a pleasurable state of being through ontological freedom, he must first recognize from where his insight into what is pleasurable comes. If God is inherently good, then his creations are as well; as Montaigne says; “Himself all good, he has made all things good” (133). It follows, then, that “Nature always gives us happier laws than those we give ourselves” (107). Human beings can recognize the imperfections in the manmade society around them solely because they have been granted the awareness of what is perfect: God and nature. The only things that humans can say truly exist are those supernatural concepts that are perfect; as Montaigne describes: “what really is? That which is eternal: that is to say, what never had a birth, nor will ever have an end, to which time never brings any change” (70). Once a man has realized that he has been given the intrinsic idea of what is perfect and eternal, he can utilize that gift in his journey to achieve true freedom. In fact, Montaigne praises the man who does so: “it is…a very fine and very laudable enterprise to accommodate also to the service of our faith the natural and human tools that God has given us,” so “we apply even our limbs and movements and external things to honor him” (54-55). Montaigne’s references to physical entities imply that there is a concrete, corporeal aspect to the faith that depends on the abstract concept of God-infused awareness of the eternal. Using the adjective “happier” to describe the laws of nature makes the eternal seem appealing and enjoyable. Therefore, part of obtaining true freedom involves aligning one’s actions and bodily proceedings with one’s faith in God and nature, his creation. This alignment will in turn bring a man greater happiness. An awareness and response to the apparent inconsistency in man’s behavior is also necessary for true freedom to be established. Oscillation in human actions is blatantly obvious when observing real life, and in fact Montaigne dedicates an entire chapter of Essays to developing this idea. For instance, he states, “Those who make a practice of comparing human actions are never so perplexed as when they try to see them as a whole…for they commonly contradict each other so strangely” (41). Terminology such as “perplexed” and “strangely,” often used to describe this obvious fluctuation, implies that such behavior is highly unnatural. Man acts predominantly according to his reason. Therefore, aside from forming a correlation between one’s actions and faith, it is necessary to line up one’s reason with the laws of nature. Nature itself is consistent, and Montaigne describes his own experience of its consistency: “In this universe of things I ignorantly and negligently let myself be guided by the general law of the world”; yet “It is folly to hope [for nature to modify itself], and greater folly to be troubled about it, since it is necessarily uniform, public, and common” (114). Thus, it remains that man’s reason is one of the main causes for inconsistent actions, and must be adapted to the consistency of nature. This includes accepting pleasures and pains, good and evil. Montaigne informs his reader that “Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one element is no less necessary for it than the other” (120). It is natural for man to enjoy pleasures that nature has given them, for “Pleasure is one of the principal kinds of profit” (119), and “nature has placed it in our hands adorned with such favorable conditions that we have only ourselves to blame if it weighs on us and if it escapes us unprofitably” (130). Pleasures such as sex, eating, and drinking are not only enjoyable, they are “actions [nature] has enjoined on us for our need” (126). If pleasures are natural, nature is God’s creation, and God is innately good, it follows that pleasures are only perceived as bad because of constructs that are unnatural and inconsistent. Montaigne argues through metaphor that humans should be free and open to what nature brings them: “We are all wind. And even the wind, more wisely than we, loves to make a noise and move about, and is content with its own functions, without wishing for stability and solidity, qualities that do not belong to it” (124). So ontological freedom arises from accepting the pleasures and pains of nature, profiting from them by aligning one’s reasoning with nature, and releasing one’s unnatural desire for stability. Wishing for stability is pointless because stability is not something that can be accomplished through human means. Additional actions are necessary to truly escape the corruption of manmade societies – what Montaigne calls “art” – and reach true freedom. One of these processes involves rejecting the fabricated “knowledge,” “truth,” and other absolutes that have been created in the past, as well as the structure in society that has arisen according to them. If the world is in a constant state of flux, it is impossible to state that at any given point, a particular object or truth exists. As Montaigne states: “we no longer know what things are in truth; for nothing comes to us except falsified and altered by our senses” (67). The only truths, knowledge, and absolutes are what God has implanted into man’s mind, and his senses exist only to work with those fixed ideas. For one to experience true freedom, he must release his attachment to all arbitrarily crafted human concepts: “he will rise by abandoning and renouncing his own means” (71). Structured religions and political laws are among the most critiqued forms of art in the Essays, for they represent manufactured paradigms that cannot possibly be beneficial for one trying to achieve ontological freedom. Religious beliefs are often based on customs born in history, rather than faith. This represents one of the worst forms of art, because it prevents humans from discovering the true faith that has been granted to them, and is subjective with regards to cultural diversity: “Another region, other witnesses, similar promises and threats, might imprint upon us in the same way a contrary belief” (58). Montaigne also criticizes religions for their attitude towards vice: “Our religion is made to extirpate vices; it covers them, fosters them, incites them” (57). If a religion cannot accept and reason with both good and vice, then according to previously discussed definitions it is unnatural and abnormal. Political laws also infringe upon the laws of nature, for “There is little relation between our actions, which are in perpetual mutation, and fixed and immutable laws” (107). A given set of laws, crafted by reviewing a few hundred cases, can never fairly apply to every diverse circumstance. Montaigne is especially critical of his own French political system, stating that “Their commands are so confused and inconsistent that they are some excuse for both disobedience and faulty interpretation, administration, and observance” (113). Again, connotations of unnatural concepts are present throughout Montaigne’s discussions, subtly supporting his ideas by creating a tense and highly critical atmosphere. Rather than conforming to these strict codes, Montaigne advises: “Relaxation and affability, it seems to me, are marvelously honorable and most becoming to a strong and generous soul” (127). By providing the reader with brief literary relief to the built-up atmosphere, Montaigne offers an alternative to the corruption previously discussed. In reference to both religious and political institutions, Montaigne reminds his readers: “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books” (126). Clearly, then, the two activities do not coincide in society. A second action that is important to the development of one’s state of freedom is to constantly exercise that freedom in his judgment. Judgment is the mechanism that determines how an individual will respond to a particular experience. Although ultimately judgment is left up to God, humans should still take advantage of their own resources and exploit them for the purpose of cultivating their relationship with nature. Judgment often consists of evaluating a behavior in terms of the circumstances or appetites that helped set it in motion, though Montaigne reminds his reader that one should do so “without getting into any further research and without drawing from them any other conclusions” (44). Additionally, Montaigne encourages humans to disregard misleading senses when practicing their judgment, for “whoever judges by appearances judges by something other than the object” (68). Essentially, judgment should exist to critique deceiving appearances. Together, rejection of absolutes and structured institutions and the practice of individual judgment are ongoing processes that break one apart from the corruption of art. This break is necessary for achieving ontological freedom because it brings one further from art and closer to nature. Judgment gives man the flexibility to experience nature with his own self because it breaks through the corruption and appearances which surround existence. Montaigne indirectly encourages his readers to foster their own ontological freedom. He does not provide his reader with a list of instructions for how to live their lives, but rather seeks to exemplify the philosophies that he presents. Ontological freedom is cultivated by aligning oneself with nature in all ways. Complete alignment of man’s reason and judgment with nature, along with a recognition of human limitations and inconsistencies, will bring man as close as possible to this true freedom.
Can Evil be Fought with Evil?: Analyzing the Works of Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne
Viewed through the lens of history, Niccolo Machiavelli, Desiderius Erasmus, and Michel de Montaigne appear to have little in common. Machiavelli’s The Prince is now typically taught as a cruel manual for ungodly dictators and tyrants, while Erasmus is known as one of the great Church reformers, a devout Christian trying to eradicate the evils perpetrated by God’s people. Montaigne, in a departure from both camps, has become famous for his skepticism, deconstructing many things, colonialism and traditional Christian theology included. Yet in the works of these authors lies one underlying similarity which serves to unite them far more than might have been expected. All three view human nature as essentially selfish and, therefore, contemporary societies as essentially corrupt. They believe the corruption of society is a result of the movement of humanity away from the most perfect natural order to a falsely constructed one.
In this, they are also very similar to Boccaccio. Unlike him, however, they place more emphasis on the corrupt natures of the people and the difficulties of being ruler to such a society rather than emphasizing the hypocrisy of the rulers alone. The Decameron and Heptameron seem to view moral transgressions as something to be expected in lower classes, while they consider the same actions in higher classes as important character flaws. Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne, on the other hand, hold everyone to the same standard and see rulers perhaps even more sympathetically for having to corral and constrain such people. It is true, however, that their responses to the corruption of society and how it should be ruled differ dramatically in many ways.For example, the ancient republic was, to Machiavelli, the most perfect form of government, one which had been horribly twisted and corrupted. He believed that in his society “the modern debasement of religion, laws, and military training [had] reached extreme levels of corruption, particularly among those holding the reins of power” (Najemy 96). This was not, however, something he saw as unique. He had derived from the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers how easily all three forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy, and popular government – could become “their corrupt counterparts tyranny, government by the few, and anarchy” (Najemy 98). He attributed it to his belief in the Platonic principle of the “inevitable degradation of good forms into [their] bad opposites,” which he saw at constant work in both individuals and the state (Najemy 98).
In the face of such pervasive corruption of both individuals and society, therefore, Machiavelli saw the ruler as having the duty of guarding against this happening on a societal level or, in the case that it had already occurred, of reinstating the original and most perfect order employed by the Romans. For both objectives, his response is one that argues for the proper use of actions usually considered both moral and immoral. Such actions would have the goal of establishing an order, however, that would then ensure greater happiness for all. In The Prince, therefore, he endeavors to outline a way in which contemporary rulers, working against their now corrupt society, can reinstate such a government by applying methods discerned from historical accounts.In Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy he writes that “he must ‘boldly’ say what he understands ‘of past and future times, so that those, still young, who will read these writings of mine can reject the present and prepare themselves to imitate those former times whenever fortune gives them the opportunity” (Najemy 96). To execute this return, he advocates at various points throughout the book murder, deception, the use of religion as coercion, national miserliness, and numerous other actions typically considered immoral as the proper course for rulers in certain situations. His justification for this is that without a strong hand the people will quickly return to their corruption: “the nature of people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force” (Machiavelli 30).
In light of this low opinion of human nature, Machiavelli argues that it is far better for a ruler to be feared than loved because love can be more easily lost. Despite his controversial methods, it is erroneous to argue that he supports tyranny, as has been the view of him passed down throughout most of history. He is quite clear that unwholesome actions are only justified so long as they decrease over time or can be turned to the “advantage of the subjects” (Machiavelli 28). If evil actions persist or increase throughout a leader’s reign it is a sign that he too is corrupt and failing to accomplish the virtuous goal for which certain moral conventions have been temporarily sacrificed. It is this clause that has been often overlooked throughout history by later rulers.He was “refashioned as an amoral counsellor to tyrants, as the atheist he may have been, and increasingly as a forerunner for the subjugation of religion to the state: increasingly but misleadingly” (Pocock 154). This occurred due to their failure to recognize the drastic differences in the political structure of his time and that of the later generations who, viewing his teachings as unnecessarily evil, vilified him. Machiavelli was writing at a time when governments were constantly shifting without a clear structure for each successor to follow. Wars from within and without wracked Italy, and each successive ruler, be he good or bad, was quickly and bloodily supplanted It was chaotic, violent, and dangerously inconsistent.
In The Prince, rather than an instruction manual for a tyrant to overthrow a well-established government, can be seen a desperate attempt to simply formulate a ruler who can bring peace through a single long and unified reign at a time of virtual anarchy. For Machiavelli, therefore, a wholly virtuous ruler in the conventional sense is not only incapable of ruling but also unworthy because he lacks the necessary tools to enforce unity and peace, thereby leading humanity to greater goodness and happiness. In this opinion, despite his agreement over the corrupt nature of humanity, one could perhaps find no author whose views are more diametrically opposed than Erasmus. While Machiavelli advocates fighting fire with fire, Erasmus instead calls for all humans, rulers and people alike, to imitate Christ in self-sacrifice. He is in agreement with Machiavelli that society has strayed from the original order and become corrupt. The salient difference, however, is his stalwart belief in Christianity. Whereas Machiavelli sought a practical and, arguably, unreligious way to reverse corruption that relied on human power rather than divine, Erasmus calls on humanity to turn to their faith and look to Christ for society’s salvation. The original and most perfect order for society was given by God, and it is only through belief in him that humanity can return to it.
While Erasmus recognizes the immorality and hypocrisy of in those in power as unacceptable, he is unable to in good conscience advocate that a ruler commit a sinful act. According to his worldview, there is no situation in which actions that go against God’s commandments are not sins. Therefore a desirable leader should exude at all times Christian virtues such as generosity, mercy, and pacifism, seeking in all things to emulate Christ. Erasmus even “departed from conventional opinion, in denying the theory of the ‘just war’” (McConica 83). Whereas contemporary “Christian authorities like Augustine” espoused the idea that certain war was godly and just depending on the circumstances and the campaign methods employed, Erasmus’ work is characterized by “impassioned appeals to all and sundry to apply themselves to the issue of peace among Christians” (McConica 83). In Erasmus’ eyes any war involves the sins of murder based on greed and hate and is, therefore, ungodly. A worthy ruler, then, would be a pacifistic one.Such a governor would, quite obviously, differ significantly from Machiavelli’s ideal leader. Yet Erasmus recognizes the truth of Machiavelli’s argument that a virtuous ruler such as he envisions would be unable to hold power over the corrupt people of contemporary society and would be trampled due to their own willingness to commit avarice against him. Therefore, a Christian ruler must be supported by a system of people who emulate Christ as well. Erasmus’ response to society’s corruption is to call on all people, of every rank from the king to the serf, to follow Christ’s teachings. If all people submit to God and endeavor to remain virtuous, a noble and sinless leader may preside over his people and lead them to peace and happiness.
In an attempt to secure this revolution of faith and actions, Erasmus labored incessantly throughout his works. Though he has been often criticized for his sharp wit, he employs it as a way to force people to see their sin as it really is rather than presenting an understanding view of it that allows them to escape from its true evil. He is constantly striving to show humanity the folly and error of their ways in hopes that they will repent and allow God to enter the people and enable such a change in society.If Erasmus’ solution may be open to criticism for attributing too much virtue to humanity, while Machiavelli’s certainly attributes very little, Montaigne’s view is in many ways the middle ground between the two. During the writing of his essays he served as Mayor of Bordeaux and “as negotiator between Henry of Navarre and Henry III” (Cave 61). These positions afforded him insight into the difficulty of the position of a ruler and also allowed him to experience first-hand both evils of war and the corruption of society and its individuals. Like Erasmus, dedicated as he had been to negotiation, Montaigne is loath to sanction violence and deception as a viable option to rulers. Yet he cannot help but recognize a certain amount of truth in Machiavelli’s argument that there is sometimes no alternative way of coercing corrupt people to accept peace.Terence Cave writes of Montaigne, “He always maintains the distinction between the expedient and the moral and recognizes the superior claims of the latter. Yet his own intimate knowledge of power…leads him reluctantly to allow certain exceptions in extreme necessity” (61). Montaigne admits that a ruler may make use of “unsavoury” people and methods for the betterment of the state, and in this “his conscience may be excused” (Cave 61). Yet he qualifies this with many “cautions, reservations, and counter-examples,” and stipulates that it is imperative that the prince feel regret for such resorting to such recourses (Dave 61-62).
Cave explains that, according to Montaigne, “If the prince doesn’t regret acting in this way, there is something wrong with his conscience; if on the other hand ‘there should be a prince of such delicate conscience that no cure seemed worth such a dire remedy, [Montaigne] would not hold him in less esteem.’ Machiavelli would not have agreed” (Cave 62) Therefore, though their responses vary, Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne can all be seen as struggling to create order and peace in a disordered and violent world. Is it possible that the most virtuous answer to violence is in some cases violence itself? Such a question continues to haunt politicians and philosophers as well as common people. It is one that, though the greatest minds of humanity have sought to answer it, yet remains unanswered due to their vastly differing responses.
Cave, Terence. How to Read Montaigne. London: Granta Books, 2007. Print.
Machiavelli. The Prince. London: J. P. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1960. Print.
McConica, James. Erasmus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.
Najemy, John. M. “Society, Class, and State in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.”The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2010. 96-111. Google books. Web. 3 June 2011.
Pocock, J. G. A. “Machiavelli and Rome: The Republic as Ideal and as History.” TheCambridge Companion to Machiavelli. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2010. 144-157. Google books. Web. 3 June 2011.