When Montaigne wrote his essay about cannibals, by which he means Native Americans, who were new to Europe, I don’t think he meant it as a meditation on meritocracy. Yet, as I read the essay, I find a number of lessons on meritocracy and its limits.
He begins his essay with an admonishment to us all about how we judge the world around us.
“When King Pyrrhus invaded Italy, having viewed and considered the order of the army the Romans sent out to meet him; “I know not,” said he, “what kind of barbarians” (for so the Greeks called all other nations) “these may be; but the disposition of this army, that I see, has nothing of barbarism in it.” As much said the Greeks of that which Flaminius brought into their country, and Philip, beholding from an eminence the order and distribution of the Roman camp formed in his kingdom by Publius Sulpicius Galba, spake to the same effect. By which it appears how cautious men ought to be of taking things upon trust from vulgar opinion, and that we are to judge by the eye of reason and not from common report.”
Montaigne is telling us to judge things as they are, and to find out for ourselves, rather than just listening to what people say and basing our opinions on that. If only more people did this with everything, I think we would end up with a better world, though one cannot possibly research everything.
That said, Montaigne begins his essay this way to warn us about making judgments about the tribes from the Americas. He says that the nations of people there are not barbarians, but they are closer to nature. I think this is probably the beginnings of the idea of the ‘noble savage.’
Montaigne writes that these people have “no use of service, riches or poverty…the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.” In describing their society, he says that the most important attribute is valor in war, and that the wars are fought solely to prove the manhood of the combatants because there is enough land and food for everyone. They are just testing themselves. Those who are most valorous have the most wives but all property is held in common, according to Montaigne. Those who are captured in war are taunted, teased, and prodded so as to get them to beg for mercy, but that the proudest thing the captive would do would be to invite his captors to eat his flesh, because the captive had eaten the captors’ ancestors and family members.
In all of this talk, Montaigne also described the Americans’ reaction to things they had seen when they had visited the King of France, Charles IX and the city of Rouen.
“After which, some one asked their opinion…what of all the things they had seen, they found most to be admire?….They said that in the first place, they thought it very strange, that so many tall men wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king (‘tis like they meant the Swiss of his guard) should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command. Secondly (they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another), that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and that they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer such so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats or set fire to their houses.”
It is a good thing Occupy Wall Street was reading Montaigne and using this passage to guide their actions. Wall Street might still be on fire. The cannibals view the world simply as one where those who display the most valor get the spoils. It is a meritocracy of battle, but one that is pure in that the goal is not to take ground but instead to fight well.
This idea of people being able to earn their way based on their performance is a seductive one, and we like to believe that it exists in our lives. The meritocracy argument is often used by Wall Street to justify salaries and bonuses. One wonders what Montaigne’s Cannibals would have thought of them. All the same, it has its limits. When, post-bailout, companies that received government money argued they had to pay high salaries in order to retain talent, that seemed to be generally accepted by society and the government. But, was it true? What were the investment bankers going to do if they did not receive the salaries and bonuses that they did? Those skills are not readily transferable to another industry, and there is no other industry offering as many positions at comparable pay scales. Stepping back for a minute from the morality question, even in terms of “The Market” that has become the object of its own fundamentalism, there does not seem to be a competing buyer for those bankers at that price.
The question raised by the Cannibals about obeying a child is also interesting, because it essentially says that the emperor has no clothes. When nothing but heredity is the deciding factor for leadership, it seems the meritocracy concept has broken down. It makes sense that a child should not lead grown men, but the concept of what merit meant was twisted. Meritocracy at its best can be quite democratic.
On the other side, for the sake of argument, let’s say that there is a meritocracy somewhere, and that in that place, everyone is truly judged by their merits and performance. One could argue that exists in sports, where playing the game well is what really counts. Still, Montaigne gives us a lesson in the limits there by telling us about the priests and prophets of the Cannibals.
“This prophet declaims to them in public, exhorting them to virtue and their duty: but all their ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives. He also prophesies to them events to come, and the issues they are to expect from their enterprises, and prompts them to or diverts them from war: but let him look to’t; for if he hail in his divination, and anything happen otherwise than he has foretold, he is cut into a thousand pieces, if he be caught, and condemned for a false prophet: for that reason, if any of them has been mistake, he is no more heard of.”
There is the other limit to meritocracy – you can’t get it right or be perfect all of time. There will be times when you screw up, when things won’t go your way. If everything is based on your last performance, then you will face a lot of ups and downs. The problem is that those who do well have advantages, and we don’t all start from scratch with every undertaking. So it is important to keep our performance and everyone else’s in mind as a totality. We should seek to improve when we can, and understand and learn from our mistakes. There needs to be a moderating force on meritocracy to keep us from losing it all at the first one.