This long, dense essay from Montaigne deals with a simple subject: what does it mean to have a good reputation and at what cost do we sacrifice ourselves to a “good name.” It begins with a thought that I believe may have inspired T.S. Eliot:
We are all hollow and empty: it is not with wind and spoken sounds that we have to fill ourselves: to restore ourselves we need a substance more solid. A starving man would be a simpleton if he went in search of fine clothes rather than a good meal: we must run to our most pressing needs.
Eliot’s take on the idea is:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
Montaigne’s starting point is undeniably Christian — his hollow man lacks spiritual nourishment. And so, in addition to believing that salvation requires deeds and not words, Montaigne will be taking the position that seeking glory when what you really need is salvation is also akin to a starving man shopping for new clothes instead of some food.
Eliot adds a comical effect to the metaphor by stuffing up the empty space with straw and turning these hollow men into effigies, which are typically burned and mocked.
Despite the theological grounding, Montaigne spends most of the essay describing virtue in philosophical language. This sentence seems to serve as Montaigne’s thesis:
Unless we draw the rules of right-conduct from within ourselves and if to us justice means not being punished, how many kinds of wicked deeds must we daily abandon ourselves to!
That line reminded me of Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” but this one again contains language similar to Eliot’s “Hollow Men” –
The man who first recognized the resemblance between shadow and glory did better than he intended. Both are things exceedingly vain. Sometimes the shadow is thrown ahead of its body; and sometimes it greatly exceeds it in length.
In this case, however, Eliot shifts the metaphor … instead of the shadow distorting our conception of the real and taking on a life of its own, it turns inward and fills up the empty space between the ideal and the real:
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
Returning to a Emerson inspiration, Montaigne gives us this:
Since Philosophy has been able to discover no good method leading to tranquillity which is common to all men, let each man seek his own one as an individual
But my aim in this essay isn’t really to juxtapose T.S. Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson with Montaigne. About halfway through the essay, I came across this line, which produced the kind of involuntary memory most famously expressed by Marcel Proust’s madeleine episode:
There is an indescribable pleasure in being praised, but we value it far too much.
When I read this, my mind immediately snapped back to an old friend’s favorite saying:
I do not succumb to flattery, otherwise criticism would crush me.
Doug Wilder, the former governor of Virginia and the first person to employ me as a speechwriter, liked to use that phrase. And he said many other things that remind me of what Montaigne is saying in this essay, such as:
My father didn’t have a lot of money. But he told me once that he gave me the most valuable thing you can own — a good name.
When the thing is right, the time is always right.
But mostly, he embodied the type of man that Montaigne is describing, one who stands up for himself, even at the risk of offending the crowd. Wilder is a politician, so naturally he has quite a bit of crowd pleasing skill within him. But Wilder never thought it important to wait his turn or take a position purely to please the party. He was — and is and will remain to his last day — his own man.
Looking back nearly 20 years ago, I’m astounded that Governor Wilder, who had just entered the 1992 Presidential campaign (and would leave it less than two months later) would entrust a 25 year old non-Virginian with no speechwriting experience to help shape his rhetoric. And I’m even more astounded that, through all of my trials and errors, he always welcomed my effort and easily slipped into a relationship that allowed me to directly collaborate on speeches, draft after draft.
I’ve never had another speechwriting job like it and it probably spoiled me forever. Never again would I write for a figure of such historical importance … but I’d also never again write for someone so damn interesting, who would return drafts of speeches with Irish poetry inserted within or who would take the 10th draft of the State of the Commonwealth address to craft a closing section that seemed inspired by the words of Emerson and the meter of Langston Hughes.
Because Wilder rose higher in electoral politics than anyone in Virginia thought possible, everyone tried to take credit for his rise … and they took offense when Wilder not-so-gently reminded them that his success was far more impressive than their own. This led to the conventional wisdom that Wilder liked to “feud.” No charge offended Wilder more — his retort was always “what have I done?”
Most famously, political staffers for Sen. Chuck Robb — a fellow Virginia Democrat — obtained illegal recordings of Wilder’s personal telephone conversations and, insanely, played these tapes to newspaper reporters hoping to prove that Wilder was spreading rumors about Robb’s personal life. Incredibly, the tapes didn’t prove that at all … they merely displayed Wilder speculating about Robb’s political future given the rumors about his personal life that were swirling.
The central truth of the incident was that Wilder’s privacy was illegally violated. But somehow the political press morphed the facts into a feud between Wilder and Robb. And what did he do?
The rise and fall of Robb — who was once considered Presidential timber — reminds me of this Montaigne line:
How many valiant men have we seen outliving their reputations, men who, while they are still alive, have seen and suffered the eclipse of the honour and glory which they so justly acquired in their younger days? And shall we go and lose that true life which is our essence and plunge ourselves into everlasting death for three years of that fancied imaginary life?
Wilder has a talent for prickly decisions, ones that make people of all political persuasions a bit uncomfortable. He earned a AAA bond rating for Virginia by closing a massive budget deficit without a tax increase and even created a rainy day fund. Liberals were disappointed that Wilder’s solution froze the size of government; conservatives were not pleased either because Wilder’s brand of cost-conscious governing didn’t advance conservative ideological causes.
Wilder would much rather do what he thinks is right than to cultivate continuous public approval. Montaigne would have liked him:
License in judging such things is a great distraction in affairs of public concern, since not every man has the same determination as Fabius did in the face of opposing and harmful popular counsels: he preferred his high reputation to be torn to shreds by the frivolous notions of men rather than to carry out his responsibilities less well – thereby earning approval and popular support
Doug Wilder earned a bronze star in the Korean War for helping to capture 18 North Korean soldiers … he and one other soldier did it all by themselves, tricking the North Koreans into surrendering. He put the award away in a drawer and never took it out, until one day during his race for Lieutenant Governor his political consultant Paul Goldman saw it and said “What is this? Were you a war hero or something?”
Wilder told Goldman a story about what he and his war buddy did … and the aftermath, where a young lieutenant colonel chided the two soldiers for freelancing the operation. That lieutenant somehow maneuvered to win a silver star for the two soldier’s deed, which left a bitter taste in Wilder’s mouth.
Montaigne would have approved of that attitude as well:
It might perhaps be pardonable for a painter or a craftsman, or even a rhetorician or a grammarian, to labour to acquire a name through his works; but virtuous deeds are too noble in themselves to seek any other reward than their own intrinsic worth, and especially to seek it from the vanity of human judgements.
I hope someday that Doug Wilder takes the time to write these and other tales of his life. He’s a modern version of the exemplars that Montaigne loves so well. And I get the feeling that if he ever works to tell the tale, it’s value would go beyond that of just another politician writing his story. It would place Doug Wilder where he belongs … as the living breathing embodiment of Emerson’s self reliance.