Monday, September 10, 2018

Puppet on a string

After Charles IX, only 14 years old, had become King of France in 1560, he made a tour through the country in order to have his kingship recognized by the local authorities. He made also an entry of state in Bordeaux, the town where the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne lived then. The political elite organised a grand reception for the young king, including a long procession. The parade included a group of prisoners from twelve countries accompanied by 300 soldiers. The prisoners were Greek, Turks. Arabs etc. but also Indians from Brazil, so from the just discovered New World. All wore their national costumes and their leaders held speeches in their own languages. How pity that we don’t know anymore what they said.
It was there that Montaigne met the Indians he tells us about fourteen years later in his essay “Of Cannibals”. Montaigne writes there that the King talked with three of them a great while and that the Indians were shown the town and shown how the people lived. Next they were asked what they thought of what they had seen and what had surprised them. They mentioned three points, but after 14 years Montaigne had forgotten one of them. These are their other observations according to Montaigne :
“They said, that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many tall men, wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king (‘tis like they meant the Swiss of the guard), should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command. Secondly (they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another), that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”
It is not unlikely that the Indians really criticized the French society in this way, but I wonder whether Montaigne didn’t mention just this passage from what the Indians replied because it was his own opinion and because it indirectly refered to what his late friend Étienne de La Boétie wrote about society in his The discourse of voluntary servitude. For isn’t it so that the Essays, to which his “Of Cannibals” belong, are dedicated to La Boétie? Probably most readers of his time would immediately understand Montaigne’s silent reference to his friend. This is what La Boétie wrote:
“I come now to a point which is ... the secret of domination, the support and foundation of tyranny. Whoever thinks that halberds, sentries, the placing of the watch, serve to protect and shield tyrants is ... completely mistaken. These are used ... more for ceremony and a show of force than for any reliance placed in them. The archers forbid the entrance to the palace to the poorly dressed who have no weapons, not to the well armed who can carry out some plot. ... [I]t is not arms that defend the tyrant. ... [T]here are only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him. Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and sharers in his plunders. These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs. The six have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do what they have accomplished with their tyrant. The six hundred maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last except under the shadow of the six hundred, nor be exempt from law and punishment except through their influence. ... [In this way] not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied.”
To my view, this is what Montaigne probably wanted to say in his essay “Of Cannibals”. This is how he saw society. Changes are necessary, but change is not simply a matter of substituting the puppets. So it has no sense that the guard kills the tyrant and choose their own leader. How society works depends on a complicated structure of dependence. Is it different in present-day society even though it is more complicated? In the end we don’t obey voluntarily but everybody is tied to someone else like a puppet on a string.

- La Boétie, Étienne de, The discourse of voluntary servitude. Quoted from an English version that I downloaded to my PC already many years ago. Sorry, I couldn’t find the Internet link, but there are several other good translations available.
- Montaigne, Michel de, “Of Cannibals”, Chapter XXXX in his Essays. Quoted from the Gutenberg edition, English version, on

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