Monday, December 14, 2015

Après nous le déluge

The future of the Netherlands?

“Après nous le déluge” (After us the deluge) is a saying that has become proverbial in many languages. It is ascribed to Madam de Pompadour, mistress of the French King Louis XV. She should have said it, when France was in troublesome circumstances. It means something like: As long as we aren’t hurt ourselves in person, we don’t need to care; when the consequences will be felt, we will be gone or we will be dead. Such an attitude has everything to do with responsibility or rather with irresponsibility. It’s an attitude that says: I care only about what touches me and I am not interested in the consequences of my behaviour for other people, as long as I stay beyond their reach. It’s an attitude you find, for example, among politicians who think that they don’t need to account for their deeds, like dictators and leaders in authoritarian states. For who would call them to account, is what they seem to think. Happily practice is sometimes different, but often irresponsible politicians escape and don’t need to give account, for instance because they die.
Although, as far as I know, responsibility as such is not a theme Montaigne explicitly wrote about, the idea comes back in one form or another in many of his essays, for instance in the essay “That the intention is judge of our actions” (Essays, Book I-VII). Here Montaigne first discusses the question whether we can try to escape responsibility and account by postponing the effects of one’s actions till after one’s death. For isn’t it so that death discharges us of all our obligations? Montaigne’s examples are always a bit antique from our point of view – but also always to the point – but he mentions the case of Henri VII, King of England, who had promised to save the life of a certain duke but in his testament he ordered his son to kill the man as soon as possible when he had died. As if his death would discharge Henri VII from his obligations to save the duke’s life! Or, just the other way round, when the counts of Horn and Egmont were about to be decapitated on the 4th of June 1568 in Brussels by order of the Duke of Alva, Egmont asked to be the first to die. For wasn’t he responsible for the death of Horn by having asked him to come to Brussels, promising that nothing would happen? But Egmont had said this in good faith and it was Alva who had tricked both counts. Basing himself on these two cases, Montaigne’s conclusion is: “We cannot be bound beyond what we are able to perform, by reason that effect and performance are not at all in our power, and that, indeed, we are masters of nothing but the will, in which, by necessity, all the rules and whole duty of mankind are founded and established.” Or, as the title of the essay says: “That the intention is judge of our actions”. So, Egmont was to be excused, whether he would die first or second, but Henri VII was responsible for the death of the duke, even if it took place after his death, for he gave the order to kill the man.
Another instance of the idea that death discharges us of our obligations is that people try to correct their mistakes in their testaments, although they could have done so already in life time. This is not right, so Montaigne, for not only need mistakes be corrected as soon as possible, but also “penitency requires penalty”.
What Montaigne makes clear in this essay is that responsibility doesn’t end with death, even if the perpetrator can no longer give account of his deeds and doesn’t feel the consequences in person. I know that there are too many people who think “What happens after my death is no concern of mine”. Politicians – and not only politicians! – should think of these words of Montaigne, but who does? Some don’t even care about their reputation.
Now the Climate Change Conference in Paris has reached an agreement. That’s a first step. Is it a good step? Is it enough? Anyway, the next step must be that the responsible politicians carry out the agreement and that they’ll not think “Après nous le déluge”, for then I fear that we’ll have to take this saying literally.

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