23 The Banality of Evil: On Habit and On Never Easily Changing a Traditional Law

I abhor novelty, no matter what visage it presents, and am right to do so, for I have seen some of its disastrous effects. That novelty which has for so many years beset us is not solely responsible, but one can say with every likelihood that it has incidentally caused and given birth to them all. Even for the evils and destruction which have subsequently happened without it and despite it, it must accept responsibility.

Those are strange words to American eyes. Even when we take into account that Michel de Montaigne was speaking from the perspective of a nation torn asunder by waves of religious wars, to blame it all on novelty seems wrong to us. We’re a nation committed to novelty and we’re built on revolution. Every election is about a challenge to the abhorrent status quo, an endless shouting match between “it’s time for change” and “we are the change.”

This proud American trait has circled the globe. When the rest of the world thinks of us kindly, it is usually for our naïve belief in progress and individual freedom. Protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and now Bahrain used American technologies to spread American ideals. Even if our government supported despots right up until the end out of realpolitik, the Arabian uprisings are a chorus from the American songbook.

Given his conservative — even reactionary — instincts, does Montaigne have anything useful to tell us about political philosophy? Yes, but it’s a difficult story and I’m not sure it will take us to a very comfortable place. As any reader of Montaigne would expect, the story starts on a tangent – focused on customs — and that’s where I’ll begin as well.

Montaigne believes that customs have a powerful hold on civilizations. In fact, he believes that customs and cultural mores, not rulers and laws, that shape history most dramatically. He writes:

There is nothing that custom may not do and cannot do; and Pindar rightly calls her (so I have been told) the Queen and Empress of the World …. But the principal activity of custom is so to seize us and to grip us in her claws that it is hardly in our power to struggle free and to come back into ourselves, where we can reason and argue about her ordinances.

One 20th century philosopher echoed many of Montaigne’s beliefs about the value of local customs and the limits of social change. Martin Heidegger wrote quite a bit about the everyday practices of cultures and how this relates to political activism. I’ll be borrowing from University of California-Berkeley Professor Hubert Dreyfus’s analysis of Heidegger in a paper entitled “Being and Power” Revisited for much of this analysis.

Heidegger’s primary contribution to philosophy was his focus on being – “that on the basis of which beings are already understood.” Or, as Dreyfus explains it “a culture’s understanding of being is its style of life manifest in the way its everyday practices are coordinated.” Continuing this interpretation, Dreyfus says that for Heidegger, the history of being in the West has been the history of misunderstandings of the clearing (our understanding what counts as things, what counts as human beings and what it makes sense to do.) Philosophers have sensed that something beyond ordinary beings are responsible for their existence as anything, but since the clearing, which creates this meaning, has to take place in the background, philosophers have replaced it with a higher being – or higher power – to ground everything and create a source of intelligibility.

Heidegger scholars, Dreyfus included, will no doubt balk at my attempt to provide a one-paragraph description of “Being and Time,” but for our purposes, it will suffice. Now keep Heidegger’s concept of “the clearing” in mind when Montaigne discusses customs, because they are strongly related.

Montaigne first asks us to take a look at maxims. What makes the sayings so wise? Why should we accept their moral teachings?

If (as those of us have been led to do who make a study of ourselves) each man, on hearing a wise maxim, immediately looked to see how it properly applied to him, he would find that it was not so much a pithy saying as a whiplash applied to the habitual stupidity of his faculty of judgment.

In other words, these maxims exist not to convince us, but to remind us just how faulty our default reasoning can be. The sayings serve as a cultural straightjacket, to keep us from rationalizing an action that is not in the culture’s collective interest. After making a broad and sweeping survey of the mores of cultures around the world (even finding that some cultures accept forms of incest, which he does not back up with evidence and I sincerely doubt), Montaigne draws the conclusion that human beings are basically capable of rationalizing anything. There is no universal morality; every culture will create its own customs. His next step is to advise cultural leaders to use every tool at their disposal to influence these cultural mores so as to make abhorrent practices like incest:

Public opinion should condemn them; poets and everyone else should give dreadful accounts of them. By this remedy even the fairest daughters would not attract the lust of their fathers, nor would outstandingly handsome brothers that of their sisters, since the myths of Thyestes, of Oedipus and of Macareus would have planted moral beliefs in the tender minds of children by the charm of the poetry. Indeed, chastity is a fair virtue; its usefulness is well recognized: yet it is as hard to treat it and to justify it from Nature as it is easy to do so from tradition, law and precept. Basic universal precepts of reason are difficult to investigate thoroughly: don’t skim through them quickly or do not even dare to handle them, throwing themselves straightway into the sanctuary of tradition, where they can preen themselves on easy victories.

Montaigne is arguing here not for laws to govern the morality, but cultural mores instead. Let the popular culture judge an act as unacceptable and the customs will adjust. The clearing that Heidegger speaks of will be influenced. Heidegger, in fact, believed that the clearing is influenced by five different types of paradigm shifts (this again borrowing from Dreyfus.) These are works of art, acts of statesmen, nearness of a god, sacrifice of a god and the words of a thinker. The quote from Montaigne above deals with all of them.

To Montaigne – and later Heidegger – this is how a lasting and meaningful cultural change comes about, not through laws, but through radical shifts in customs created by gods and men capable of capturing the public imagination. Think of what’s happening now in the Arab world. A small uprising in Tunisia turns into a quiet revolution and all of a sudden, the clearing in the Arab world shifts. It now becomes possible to think of new leaders and new governments. This influences an organic uprising in Egypt, then in Bahrain. Each success creates a new clearing – which is why it shouldn’t surprise us that the Saudi Royal Family is doing everything in its power to crush the rebellion in Bahrain before it lands in Saudi Arabia.

These shifts clarify a culture in a new beginning. Dreyfus points out, regarding Heidegger, that no hidden truth is exposed in the shifts. Those who are influencing change cannot even properly articulate how they are doing so. In this context, Montaigne’s long list of cultural mores around the world reads less like a proto-Nietzschean genealogy of cultures and more like what it really was, a laundry list of randomly accepted practices by different groups of people in different moments in history.

Then Montaigne moves onto the question of governance. If customs are overruled and political power is exercised on cultures that feel alienated from the laws of the dominant culture, strife becomes inevitable:

What could be stranger than seeing a people obliged to obey laws which they have never understood; in all their household concerns, marriages, gifts, wills, buying and selling, they are bound by laws which they cannot know, being neither written nor published in their own language: they must pay to have them interpreted and applied – not following in this the ingenious notion of Isocrates (who advised his king to make all trade and business free, unfettered and profitable but all quarrels and disputes onerous, loading them with heavy taxes); they prefer the monstrous notion of making a trade of reason itself and treating laws like merchandise. I am pleased that it was (as our historians state) a Gascon gentleman from my part of the country whom Fortune led to be the first to object when Charlemagne wished to impose Imperial Roman Law on us.

Where Montaigne mentions laws not “published in their own language,” think of the U.S. tax code. It may be written in English, but it cannot be understood or interpreted by the average citizen. So Montaigne is making a case for cultures governed by strong customs and mores, with minimal, understandable laws. But now that he’s make a case for limited government, Montaigne takes his essay in a radically new direction:

It is greatly to be doubted whether any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it; for a polity is like a building made of diverse pieces interlocked together, joined in such a way that it is impossible to move one without the whole structure feeling it.

Compare this to the strange belief Heidegger takes of technology in his later writings:

What threatens man in his very nature is the … view that man, by the peaceful release, transformation, storage, and channeling of the energies of physical nature, could render the human condition, man’s being, tolerable for everybody and happy in all respects.

While Montaigne and Heidegger aren’t expressing the same thought, their ideas are complimentary. For Montaigne, the act of creating new laws upsets the structure and leads to unintended consequences, disrupting lives and people’s day-to-day understanding of the world. For Heidegger, progress itself leads to a dangerous place, where humanity is transformed beyond recognition. In Heidegger’s nightmare, we become slaves to technology. Technological devices have the potential to dominate, warp and confuse us, eventually laying waste to our nature.

This brings us back to the Montaigne quote that began today’s essay – abhorring novelty. Montaigne propagates this meme by arguing that innovators are bad enough, the copycats who follow closely behind bear the strongest responsibility for popularizing the dangerous ideas:

But if innovators do most harm, those who copy them are more at fault for rushing to follow examples after they have experienced the horror of them and punished them. And if there are degrees of honour even in the doing of evil, then they must concede to the others the glory of innovation and the courage to make the first attempt.

So we’ve reached an odd crossroads in Montaigne’s essay (and also in Heidegger’s overall philosophy.) It all seems contradictory. How can you speak fondly of world-disclosing paradigm shifts, but then critique innovators and technologies that change the world? In Montaigne, that kind of contradiction is expected; it’s part of his method. He digs himself a bit deeper with this thought:

To speak frankly, it seems to me that there is a great deal of self-love and arrogance in judging so highly of your opinions that you are obliged to disturb the public peace in order to establish them, thereby introducing those many unavoidable evils and that horrifying moral corruption which, in matters of great importance, civil wars and political upheavals bring in their wake – introducing them moreover into your own country.

That’s very strange – he believes in great cultural shifts that have revolutionary power, but finds revolutionary ideas and the effect of those ideas horrifying. He’s correct in believing that ideas are powerful. The uprisings in the Arab world led to regime changes and violence. This could, in turn, lead to civil wars, moral corruption or perhaps even regimes worse than those cast out. But does he really believe in doing nothing in the face of evil? No, and he tries to find a middle ground:

Nevertheless Fortune ever reserves her authority far above our arguments; she sometimes presents us with a need so pressing that the laws simply must find room for it. If you are resisting the growth of an innovation which has recently been introduced by violence, it is a dangerous and unfair obligation to be restrained by rules everywhere and all the time in your struggle against those who run loose, for whom anything is licit which advances their cause, and for whom law and order means seeking their own advantage: To trust an untrustworthy man is to give him power to harm.

Even still, Montaigne’s baby steps towards change feel uncomfortable for a modern westerner. He only seems to agree with changes in the law to resist innovations introduced by violence. How does such a tradition-based culture repeal slavery or Jim Crow laws under this paradigm? In the end, Montaigne doesn’t give us satisfactory answers, only a worthwhile devil’s advocate perspective: there are always unintended consequences and the greatest changes come from the culture itself. Be humble in advocating change – that’s the best message we can take from Montaigne.

Since I’ve dragged Heidegger into this discussion, what about him? Does he offer a more satisfactory solution to modern political problems? Well, actually, Heidegger was an early supporter of the Nazi party. And after digging himself out (not in an entirely satisfactory manner) from that debacle, he embraced a form of political passivity that would have made resistance to despotism like the Nazis impossible.

He serves as a warning to those wishing to extend Montaigne’s political ideas too far – it’s one thing to be conservative and skeptical, quite another to accept all premises of the state and become willing accomplices to terror. That was Hannah Arendt’s definition of the banality of evil.

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