Monday, August 25, 2014

Of custom


“And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self-love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them, and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs, and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high concern, into the bowels of one's own country.” Montaigne, Essays, Book I, chapter 23.

Montaigne lived in a time of civil war. One religious war after another followed in France since the first one broke out in 1562. Nine wars of religion were fought and only a few years after Montaigne’s death this period of devastation and turmoil came to an end. These wars were about power, as always, but the main reason was trying to establish the right religion: Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. Wars on ideology and religion are always among the most devastating. This was also the case in Montaigne’s times, which brought him to the phrase that I quoted. And with right, for what makes that just you are on the right side when your opponent claims exactly the same but then from his perspective?
When this series of wars had ended at last with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, it was to be expected that people would have learned from the past and would find ways of peacefully living together in spite of differences in religion, ideology or world view. Nothing is farther from the truth. Soon we got the Thirty Years’ War in Germany (1618-1648), new religious revolts in France and so on, till the present religious wars in the Middle East. We only need to see the ruins in that part of the world for understanding what Montaigne wrote immediately after the quotation above:

“Can there be worse husbandry than to set up so many certain and knowing vices against errors that are only contested and disputable? And are there any worse sorts of vices than those committed against a man’s own conscience, and the natural light of his own reason?”

But alas, the perpetrators always seem to have different views on what they are doing and think to have good reasons for it. Anyway, Montaigne knew what he was talking about, for the religious wars in France were waged also around his castle. Moreover, Montaigne had relations with all parties. He often acted as a mediator between them.
Montaigne discussed the theme when he talked about custom. Customs can be quite treacherous, so Montaigne, because they can come to dominate us. Moreover they can numb us and make that we are no longer able to see that things can also take place in a different way. Once it has come that far, it has become difficult to avoid acting according our customs. They have become unconscious automatisms. Then it has become almost impossible to think about our customs in a rational way and not to think that what is not according a certain custom need not to be unreasonable. The problem is that everybody thinks so about his or her own customs against the customs of the other, even in the degree that one detests actions that are not in keeping with one’s own. Only once one realizes this mechanism and sees one’s own prejudices, one sees that many customs are based on nothing, are unintelligible and are unreasonable, so Montaigne. Nevertheless he didn’t like changes in his life (at least he says so), but I think that there is a difference between not liking changes in one’s own life and being attached to one’s customs and thinking that everything needs to be the same for everybody and that everybody basically needs to behave that way. That wasn’t what Montaigne thought and wanted to defend. And even if everything would be basically the same, there still are different views on it, as the picture above shows.

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