At first glance, this essay appears to be a light, frivolous piece about the odd cultural practices of ancient cultures (including the first description that I’ve ever seen of what Romans used instead of toilet paper; a sponge on a stick.) It’s actually one of Montaigne’s funniest essays, especially this anecdote from Plutarch’s Life of Crates which has since been lost, making Montaigne’s the only lasting record of the story:
When greeting a great man or begging his favour, they would tap him on the knee. The brother of Crates, Pasicles the philosopher, instead of placing his hand on the knee placed it on the genitals. The great man thus addressed pushed him rudely aside. ‘Come now,’ Pasicles replied, ‘are they not as much yours as your knees are’?
The story brings to mind the various cultural customs that Seinfeld dissected, from shaking hands to knowing your neighbors on a first-name basis to saying “God Bless You” after a sneeze. And in a way, this chapter is very much like a Seinfeld episode, it points out, in a humorous way, how many human customs are nonsensical and seem completely random.
The editor of my edition of Montaigne, M.A. Screech, offers the opinion that this essay was probably one of the first that he wrote and that it serves as “raw material for deeper reflections on the relativity of much that passes as natural in various societies.” If this is the case, Montaigne is quite cagey in placing it here, towards the end of the first set of essays, because he had already written several pieces pointing out the importance of customs and mores and sketching out his belief that cultural change is best driven by new customs, not new laws.
Whether Montaigne is contradicting himself or moderating his position will become clearer in later essays. What’s important to point out here is that Montaigne recognizes the whimsical nature of many group customs. First, he notes that people cannot be held accountable for customs; they are for the most part born into them:
I am prepared to forgive our own people for having no other model or rule of perfection but their own manners and behaviour, for it is a common failing not only of the mob but of virtually all men to set their sights within the limitations of the customs into which they were born.
Having said this, there are limits to this “mob behavior” that Montaigne feels obliged to address. The first is weak mindedness – being such a slave to popular custom and opinion that you’re capable of changing your mind about anything, depending on which way the wind is blowing:
I do complain of his singular lack of judgement if he lets himself be so thoroughly taken in and blinded by the authority of contemporary modes that he is capable of changing his mind and his opinions every four weeks if fashion demands it, and of making mutually exclusive judgements about himself.
So Montaigne believes that you should have integrity. Take a stand for the mores that you believe are right and useful and don’t follow the mob. But at the same time, don’t become so calcified in your beliefs that you end up with a jumble of contradictory thoughts in your head simply because you refuse to alter your belief system:
I also complain that one and the same mind should, for a period of some fifteen or twenty years, hold with such unbelievable and frivolous inconstancy two or three opinions which are not merely divergent but incompatible. None of us is so clever as not to be made a mockery of by such contradictions, allowing our sight and our insight to be dazzled without realizing it.
Finally, Montaigne starts to develop the idea that took root in his “Cannibals” essay, about cultural relativity and the need for people to keep an open mind about other cultures and not assume a certain across-the-board superiority. Here, instead of making that comparison across cultures, he’s making it across eras:
We certainly do our utmost to equal the Ancients in every sort of ostentation, in debauchery and in the devising of gratifications, in comforts and in luxuries, for our wills are as vitiated as theirs were but our ingenuity cannot bring it off. Our powers are no more capable of competing with them in vice than in virtue, both of which derive from a vigour of mind which was incomparably greater in them than in us: the weaker the souls, the less able they are to do anything really good or really bad.
In that final point, Montaigne seems to be taking a position for the superiority of the ancients over his own era. Bear in mind, of course, that he’s making a comparison of elite vs. elite, more specifically Greek and Roman elite vs. early Renaissance Europe elite. It’s not at all surprising that he would make such a claim – the entire point of the Renaissance was to celebrate the cultural superiority of the Greeks and Romans.
But it does beg the question – given that cultural mores are driven by mass behavior, and given that acts of greatness, in Montaigne’s view, are the offspring of cultural elite, how do you avoid smothering cultural change with foolish and ignorant mores? How does an oddball counterculture – and think not only about Paris in the 1920s and San Francisco in the 1960s, but also about Elizabethan theater – take root in a mores-based culture?
Montaigne never gets that specific, but the historical answer may be that it takes a certain cultural stuffiness to encourage innovators to break free. Even though Montaigne has a problem with people blindly following fashion, neither does he want people to be slaves to dominant culture. He simply wants people to be open minded. Respect your culture, have a good laugh at its expense from time to time, but always think about how you can make it better.
I’m still not 100 percent convinced that this is the right way to bring about cultural change, but it’s intriguing and I’ll be thinking and writing more about it as the essays progress.