Montaigne: A Skeptic and Secular Humanist Before It Was Cool

Montaigne is a huge influence on my writing, as he exemplifies what I love best about the form of the “essay,” where certitude about a subject is put aside for self-reflecting deliberation. He’s also the prime influence of Andrew Sullivan, who also inspires my writing, and Sullivan is currently hosting at his site a book club series on a truly wonderful book: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Of particular interest to folks around these parts of the blogosphere is how Sullivan and his readers keep returning to Montaigne’s apparent lack of religious feeling and his general skepticism. Indeed, it is often said in these posts in one form or another that skepticism was Montaigne’s key trait, the thing that differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries, and fueled the very creation of what we now know as an essay.

Here’s how Sullivan puts it in the introductory post, with my emphasis:

[Montaigne’s is] a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. …  This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. Andit is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”.

Now read on as what we began talking about as Montaigne’s skepticism begins to sound like something else:

[H]ere’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

And this is what I mean by secular humanism. (Not necessarily that truth is “beyond our grasp” — I would modify that to an acceptance that there may be things our meat-based cranial wetware can never quite process, but not that we know this to be so.) Life is finite, but in the time we are conscious and mobile we have an opportunity to investigate and make meaning as we will. To do that, you need to come to terms with mortality and, if not the non-existence, then at least the inaccessibility, of the supernatural.

For the record, though I have accepted the lack of a supernatural, coming to terms with mortality is a state of being that continues to prove elusive to me.

There’s more. As the conversation at Sullivan’s blog goes on, readers begin to clamor for a discussion that answers not just whether Montaigne was a skeptic, but whether he was an outright atheist. (Indeed, they really want to know if he qualifies as a “New Atheist,” which I think is a pointless question.) To try for an answer, they go to the authority, Sarah Bakewell:

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. … I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist … but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

That sounds right to me. Ascribing atheism to historical figures for whom such an outlook would have been extremely alienating I think is largely a fool’s errand. We do it with Jefferson, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and on and on, and while any or all of these individuals were certainly skeptical, contemplative, analytical, and prone to challenge outlandish notions, they lived in times when out-and-out atheism would have been quite a leap, and even if they were privately entirely atheistic, we’d likely never know. So too, I think, with Montaigne.

I went back into my notes from my first reading of the Essays to unearth some of his better skeptical passages, and I tell you my cup runneth over. Take away some of the more archaic structure of the 16th century prose, and you could read these passages in Skeptical Inquirer:

‘Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think they see what they do not see.

Or how about this for a way to describe the latest flimflam artist or psychic:

These ape’s tricks are the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence.

That’s awesome.

He also leaves clear room for the existence of God, even if he finds such a being wholly out of his ability to comprehend. But he does so seemingly as a hedge:

[R]eason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?

Some say God is responsible for this or that event, but Montaigne says that making such claims limits the potential power of said God, and leaves no room for actual discovery or investigation.

Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians.

“God” is such a big idea, so open to interpretation and imagination, with so many ways it could be presumed to manifest, that it makes sense that Montaigne doesn’t tell us that such a thing absolutely doesn’t exist. But his experience in the real world allowed him to be keenly and unabashedly skeptical. And as he does not seem to have lived his life nor written his works in any explicitly Christian mode, we can also say, as Bakewell does, that he was indeed “profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.”

Our Big, Crowded Moral Circle

As you might already know, as horrible as we humans are to each other, we used to be much, much worse. In the Boston Review, Claude S. Fischer takes a quick trip into the history, not of callousness, but of sympathy; primarily, why are we getting nicer to each other?

Before roughly the 1800s, sympathy was less common and more restricted in scope, overwhelmed as people were by practical needs and circumstances. Cruelty ran through everyday life—animal torture, bloody brawling, severe punishment of criminals, child abuse, whipping of servants, and so on. Such atrocities repel us today but were less dreadful and sometimes even amusing to people then.

Fischer spends some time on Western civilization’s eventual fetishization of misery (more on that in a bit), and gets to the meat of it:

Other explanations of sympathy’s greater reach point to economics. One version simply claims that growing wealth and security freed Westerners to focus on higher goals, including the pursuit of conscience.

Ermmm, I don’t think so. If you’ve read Robert Wright’s Nonzero or The Evolution of Godwhich I reviewed here — you might be inclined to think in terms of utility, where treating the “other” as fully human (or, an expanding moral circle as Wright calls it) turns out to be a pretty good developmental trait for a society. “Our society prospers, and the commoners are less likely to rise up and kill me, if we engage economically (and through economics, culturally) with other clans/tribes/states. Let’s get some glastnost on!”

Fischer goes there.

An alternate economic explanation may be more interesting. Some scholars, the historian Thomas Haskell perhaps most explicitly, argue that the widening circle of sympathy resulted from growing participation in commerce. Commerce, especially at a distance, introduces participants to strangers. Success at trade both requires and teaches people to see situations from others’ perspectives, to make and to keep promises, and, by experience, to have sympathy, even empathy, for the other. Buyers and sellers, however much they struggle against one another, come to know one another.

Fischer’s order here is a bit different, but I suppose there’s a little chicken-and-egg here. Fischer/Haskell has it as, “I want to trade with this alien person, and oh look, he’s not so bad once you get to know (and profit by) him!”

This doesn’t quite explain why we’d start feeling sympathy for slaves, for example, or children who supply labor, as they are both sustainers of a particular kind of economy. Perhaps it’s an inevitable and fortunate byproduct of losing xenophobia, that we look closer to home to see the human beings being mistreated right in front of us.

This is where the fetishization comes in. Fischer seems to be implying that a lot of what we think of as deep and natural sympathy today — the mourning for lost family members and acquaintances, the need for passionate love in a marriage, the desire to help those suffering on the other side of the planet (or in another species) — an expression of our “humanity,” really, is at least in large part the result of a kind of sentimentality porn in popular literature. Novels and the like that fired off our emotions taught us not just to feel, but got us a little bit addicted to grief and passion.

For example:

Nineteenth-century sentimentality focused a great deal on death. Middle-class Americans amplified grief by, for example, adopting elaborate mourners’ clothing and burying the deceased in forested cemeteries rather than churchyards. These romantic settings evoked stronger feelings and provoked experiences of the sublime.

If you think that, say, the national rending of garments every eleventh of September has gotten to be a bit much, you may be seeing this in action. Or, more locally, perhaps you simply don’t get so worked up at the death of acquaintances, distant relatives, or generally people you don’t know very well, as some others do. You may be a sociopath, or, perhaps, you just don’t go in for what I think is often, as Fischer calls it, the amplification of grief. It’s one thing to feel a loss, and another (and this is not a judgment on it) to broadcast it with an expectation that many others feel it as you do, and that it must last and last. (You can see why I think the hashtag #neverforget is one of the more easily mockable.)

And so maybe these two somewhat distinct phenomena feed into each other. We have learned to grieve more, to feel great pangs of sympathy and attachment to all manner of persons (and non-persons…I’m literally looking at you, iPad), pushing ourselves to the point of dependence on the emotional chemicals flooding our brains. This serves to make our moral circles, which are an economic advantage, expand ever faster. Once merely a practical trait that enabled freer trade and cultural exchange, our desire to amplify our feelings brought more kinds of people (and non-people) into those circles more quickly.

Forcing us all, then, to contend with the fact that we now all live in one big, crowded circle, and we all have a lot of strong feelings while we’re in there. Fischer’s prescription is to “cultivate” that sympathy, since it is so artificial to begin with. I’m okay with that. That’s why I like things like secular humanism and the idea that we hold certain truths to be self-evident. To me, that means even if the feelings of sympathy are manufactured, we will behave as though they are encoded into our very DNA. It’s good we can choose to do that. So let’s choose to do that.

A Little Too Much Character Building

Hannah Dale Thompson has lived both sides of the attractiveness divide, and cops to behaving much as her tormentors did, once she had a taste of the power of prettiness. Her article is far-reaching, and delves more specifically into how women and girls deal with each other, among and between social castes. But this portion leaped out at me as universal for those of us who could not cross a minimum peer-acceptability threshold in our younger days:

Being unattractive in your youth forces you to develop positive personality traits. That’s why comedians are not sexy. Relying on something other than appearance for attention breeds a larger-than-life personality. It breeds a confidence that is more than superficial. It breeds humor, and a social awareness and empathy that, I think, can only be developed from the outside. I am more charismatic, confident, interesting, and funny because I was an ugly sixteen-year-old. I am slightly less superficial and marginally more open-minded. I can stand up for myself. Three days after the best first date I have ever been on, my half-drunk suitor called to tell me I have more moxie than anyone else he’s ever met. I am proud of all of these things; people should take pride in overcoming obstacles and developing better personality traits. Even if the obstacles involve bushy eyebrows and the personality bonus leads to self-diagnosed histrionic personality disorder.

I think about this a lot – I almost certainly would not be the person I am today if I had not gone through the years and years of marginalization and reviling. But I’m also not so sure that’s a good thing. Yes, it made me more sensitive to others in different out-groups, it forced me to quickly develop a sense of comedy, and it inculcated in me an appreciation for less shallow aspects of culture and the people in my life. Would those things have happened anyway? Unclear. But with those positive traits, I also got to bring along a lot of anxiety, trauma, and a paralyzing lack of a sense of self that hobbles me to this day.

And I didn’t get to hop over to the other side, as it were, that Thompson describes. I had my situation improve in college, and nothing in life is ever really like middle and high school. But the damage was done, and I never “blossomed.” At best, I maneuvered among the choking weeds to live to see additional springs. If anything, at least, I hope I can say this about myself: That the garbage I endured was not required in order for me not to be an asshole today.

I also think about this phenomenon in relation to my kids: I want them to have happy, socially satisfying childhoods, but I also don’t want them to face zero challenges, to never have to examine themselves critically or overcome disappointments. But there’s such thing as too much character building. One can only take so much abuse before the character you are trying to build begins attacking itself. I will watch closely for this.

You Are a Wonderful Person, But Now Please Shush

Following my previous post on introversion, the delightful Emily Hauser directed my attention to a piece by Jonathan Rauch from 2003 that not only acknowledges the difficulty of being introverted, but also advises extroverts on how to help the introverts they love.

First off, he makes a refreshing clarification: we’re not, by virtue of our aversion to social situations, dicks.

Introverts are not necessarily shy. … Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring. . . . after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

When it’s put like this, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I mean, hey, extroverts, you like eating and sleeping, right? Well guess what.

But of course, the extrovert in question would have to take our word for it, that this is simply how we get by. And, well, they often just can’t.

Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.

Same here, and that very much includes those closest to me, who love me most. At best, I can manage to squeeze from them a kind of resigned acceptance, a humoring, with a loving dusting of benefit-of-the-doubt. ‘This is just what Paul is like, and if I want to know and be with Paul, I suppose there’s no changing this.’

There is, of course, always the expectation that, despite my feelings, I will play along with the extroverts. They are the standard. When in Rome, etc. Rauch gets this, noting that it is the extroverts who get to be the ones to put in place social norms–and how could it be otherwise? Being primarily those doing the talking–showing up, as it were–the idea of extroversion as a self-evident virtue naturally ascends and remains firmly fixed.

And as for we introverts? Whether or not we play along, we must lead our lives of quiet desperation, the extroverts all the while blissfully ignorant:

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

And not only would uttering such a sentence be a social felony, but the simple act of non- or half-hearted social participation itself is a misdemeanor, or, at best, a symptom of some horribly unpleasant (and slightly disfiguring) condition.

But think again of the analogy to eating and sleeping. Personal interaction is the food and slumber of the extrovert. Imagine someone you knew, and even loved, told you that, well, they actually don’t like to eat or sleep, and actually try to do as little of them as possible. And if they must eat or sleep, they actually need to recover from it. Yeah, you’d think that was a bit odd. You certainly wouldn’t feel inclined to rewire the world or rejigger your own life to accommodate them.

So as much as I want articles like Rauch’s to encourage the extroverts who dominate our world to better understand and appreciate their quieter associations, it’s also helped me understand why extroverts, like my wife, for example, can’t quite wrap their heads around why we are the way we are. It’s unfair that extroverts got to write the social rules to begin with, but it’s not like we tried to stop them, and it’s nobody’s fault now.

So anyway, what can the conscientious extrovert do to be humane to their introverted loved one?

First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.

Amen.

Interestingly, Emily, who directed me to this article, noted that it turned a lightbulb on for her about her own son, 4 years old at the time. The fact that she realized this when her boy was so young is remarkable to me, for I don’t think my introversion would have been at all apparent to anyone, myself included, at that age. Indeed, I am told countless stories of my brazen openness to interaction as a toddler and young child, my constant efforts to win attention (which still exists, but not socially). Mostly what I recall from those years is a lot of positive reinforcement for who I was and how I behaved. It was not until he age of 10, sixth grade, when my family moved to a new area, that my life became very, very dark socially, with a constant strain of torment from my peers, when I had no choice but to retreat for fear of a kind of personal annihilation.

But, I suppose, too, I began to notice a slight difference between myself and others a little before then. Even in the idyllic part of my childhood, before our move, I recall inclinations toward the indoors over the outdoors, and quieter, more imaginative, and less populated activities and games over mad childhood scrambles or sports. Now that I think of it, I think I did at least begin to prefer being alone.

So perhaps I was already primed toward introversion, but I also have to assume that the barrage of negative reinforcement in middle school and onward, they daily flood of fight-or-flight chemicals in the bloodstream of a meek, thoughtful, generally sweet little boy, vaulted me well into all-out social aversion, where I remain encamped today.

I denied it for years, for decades. It was an illness to overcome, I thought, a fault in my personality to be corrected.

I don’t quite feel that way anymore. I am, if not proudly, at least affirmatively, an introvert. And if nothing else, I’m out.

For Mother and Father, In Equal Measure

Patrick Stewart magnificently describes his efforts in combatting (and his childhood experience of witnessing) violence against women. Watch the whole thing, and then read on for some thoughts.

Perhaps most moving to me is his discovery of what had moved his father to be violent toward his mother: PTSD brought on by his time in World War II. It is this revelation that brings him to a new milestone in his own campaign for the cause, wherein he gives his time both to Refuge, a nonprofit that provides safe houses to women, and Combat Stress, a group that works with those suffering from PTSD:

So, I work for Refuge for my mother, and I work for Combat Stress for my father, in equal measure.

As I have written here before, I suffer from PTSD myself, not from combat of course, but from the combination of a violent assault near my home when I lived in Washington, DC, and many years of relentless mockery and bullying from my middle and high school years. Obviously, the scenarios are starkly different, because my experience had almost nothing to do with any expectation that I be the aggressor, as it is for soldiers. But it does cause me to behave in ways that I would not otherwise, taking over my rational brain and my empathy when a threat is detected. It makes me understand how trauma can cause a person to act in such a way that they themselves might not recognize. It does not excuse it by any means, but it helps to explain it, and provides a point of potential repair so that it stops.

And one more note: I found myself watching Stewart’s body language, and it told its own story. Note how early in his answer, he hugs himself, tightly. This is classic defensiveness — as an actor, I’m well aware of the unconscious tendency for folks feeling insecure in front of an audience to brace or hug themselves to provide a bit of armor from imaginary danger. For Patrick Freaking Stewart to do that tells you something about how raw this issue is for him. Later, of course, he opens up very wide, his arms far out, exposing his face and chest, telling me he there finds his ground, finds his purpose, and it carries him to a courageous state. He is no longer defending, he is affirmatively acting. Not theatrically, but acting as in doing something.

(Hat tip to Kylie for the video.)