Montaigne, Custom, and the Tricky Meaning of ‘Should’

So, despite a long absence and some modern detours, I have not given up my goal of actually reading through this set in some manner. I have advanced to the essays of Montaigne, aFrench philosopher from the 1500s. The first essay is entitled, in this translation, “Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received.’

I got hung up on the word ‘should’ in my first reading of this essay. That hang up was a mistake, because I read a moral element into it that I ought not to have. Montaigne’s translator in this case is using the word ‘should’ in its subjunctive sense. In other words, even though we might try to change customs and laws, we will not find it easy to do so. In contemporary English, we write this variation of ‘should’ as ‘would’, though in terribly proper and somewhat outdated English, we ought to use ‘shall’ than ‘will’ when we speak in the first person, and ‘should’ rather than ‘would.’ The word ‘shall’ has also taken on a moral imperative sense. So the title might be better rendered “Of Custom, and That We Would Not Easily Change a Law Received.”

With the moral sense of should in mind, I initially thought that Montaigne was suggesting that even the worst customs ought to be left in place, but that is the opposite of what he is arguing. It is important to read carefully, and reading these books has forced me to stretch back into better reading habits. I have slipped recently, but I plan to pick back up where I left off. Having had a big slip at the start, I think I am better prepared to make my way through the readings to come.

Moving onto the heart of the matter, Montaigne talks about customs and human habits starting with the biological, describing how one’s own smell is unnoticed by that person, but noticeable to others, to how people get used to things like loud sounds in their environment to the things people learn as children from their culture.

“I find that our greatest vices derive from their first propensity from our most tender infancy, and that our principal education depends upon the nurse. Mothers are mightily pleased to see a child writhe off the neck of a chicken, or to please itself with hurting a dog or a cat; and such wise father there are in the world who look upon it as a notable mark of a martial spirit, when they hear a son miscall, or see him domineer over a poor peasant, or a lackey, that dares not reply, nor turn again; and a great sign of wit, when they see him cheat and overreach his playfellow by some malicious treachery and deceit. Yet these are the true seeds and roots of cruelty, tyranny, and treason; they bud and put out there, and afterwards shoot up vigorously, and grow to prodigious bulk, cultivated by custom. “

This is an interesting passage because it seems to presage the modern research that shows that serial killers usually abuse animals in their childhood. Of course we know that what children are taught by their parents greatly affects the kind of people that they grow up to be. Here, Montaigne is writing in a highly stratified society, but we also see this happen in all sorts of ways. For example people with specific kinds of training or who excel in one area of life often have this problem. Athletes, soldiers, and cops all over the world often have this sense of entitlement that is trained into them as part of what is seen as necessary for them to succeed in their particular arenas. Sometimes, though, it is a question of things simply being over-looked because someone does something well. Look at the chess champion Bobby Fischer. His behavior was overlooked by a number of people and his behavior has been characterized as cruel, tyrannical, and even treasonous.

Montaigne goes on to describe how customs vary among people and that things that seem quite strange, ridiculous, or even harmful are looked upon as normal in other groups. Montaigne cautions that even standards that we think are quite moral come from the influence of custom.

“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received amongst his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause.”

I feel that we are in this state now in the United States. Our system has ended up captive to a destructive custom of infighting between various factions that have not balanced themselves out because they refuse to recognize the common good. In the world as a whole we are facing global problems that I think custom prevents us from facing. We continue to live in a manner that is destructive to our collective future, but because we have always done things in a particular way and we accept the new technology that makes life easier, we give no thought to changing our ways. But I am worried that we are going to end up in a situation where large numbers of people suffer and we put ourselves in a dark ages because we are unwilling to part with custom. Montaigne cautions us that as powerful as custom is, fortune is yet stronger and can force our hands.

“So it is, nevertheless, that Fortune, still reserving her authority in defiance of whatever we are able to do or say, sometimes presents us with a necessity so urgent, that ‘tis requisite the laws should a little yield and give way; and when one opposes the increase of an innovation that thus intrudes itself by violence, to keep a man’s self in so doing, in all place and in all things within bounds and rule against those who have power, and to whom all things are lawful that may an way serve to advance their design, who have no other law nor rule but what serves best to their own purpose, ‘tis a dangerous obligation and an intolerable inequality – Aditum nocendi perfido praestat fides [Putting faith in a treacherous person, opens the door to harm. – Seneca, Oedip., iii. 686] – foreasmuch as the ordinary discipline of a healthy state does not provide against these extraordinary accidents; it presupposes a body that supports itself in its principal members and offices, and a common consent to its obediance and observation.”

I think Montaigne is having similar thoughts as a lot of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but the hard part is that the necessities that are so urgent are not always wars, plagues, and storms. Sometimes they are mortgage crises that don’t affect everyone in the state equally. And we end up with the ‘dangerous obligation and intolerable inequality.’

The other problem that Montaigne notes is that ability to break free of custom is hard to come by, especially for those who need it most.

“If, as we who study ourselves, have learned to do, every one who hears a good sentence would immediately consider how it does any way touch his own private concern, ever one would find that it was not so much a good saying, as a severe lash to the ordinary stupidity of his own judgment: but men receive the precepts and admonitions of truth, as directed to the common sort, and never to themselves; and instead of applying them to their own manners, do only very ignorantly and unprofitably commit them to memory.”

Ouch. That is a caution we should keep in mind (in the moral sense) as we move through the rest of the readings and our own search for truth.

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