Saturday, July 26, 2014


156. Montaigne and the mask of convention

 At first, Montaigne denounced the mask of social convention as make-belief, a lie, hypocrisy, an assault on truth. That motivated him to retire to his castle. Later, however, he adopted the mask as a necessary device, an interface and demarcation, between the make-believe of social functioning, as one part of human virtue, and authenticity and integrity of the self, as another, perhaps higher part of virtue. This is how Montaigne reconciled his being an independent thinker with his functioning as mayor of Bordeaux.

There is a connection here with the earlier series in this blog on Eastern and Western philosophy. Montaigne’s predicament may reflect the tension between on the one hand a Taoist commitment to the purity and autonomy of nature, and on the other hand a Confucian commitment to social responsibility, with its artificiality and make-belief.

How satisfactory would it be, Montaigne’s ironic, dispassionate social commitment, as a duty, without fight or self-sacrifice, without conviction other than taking one’s responsibility and wanting to preserve the peace? The Taoist would rather abstain from social artificialities, in wuwei, than betray truth, nature and what is genuine. The Taoist rejects the mask as the early Montaigne did.

My view on the matter is this. One should act on one’s beliefs, seriously, passionately even, not ironically, but with the pragmatist stance that the oppositon one meets can feed, refresh and transform ideas and beliefs. That also can be a Nietzschean joy. Counter to Montaigne: it can yield the excitement of discovery. But it is not a Nietzschean will to power. It entails the tolerance of give and take in dialogue, in debate. However, that is not without limit. If conviction cannot be shifted by reasonable debate, one should stick to it.

Surely, Montaigne is right in refusing to sacrifice or violate the self for the sake of social calling or duty. As I proposed in item 63 of this blog, Levinas seems to go too far in the opposite direction, surrendering the self ‘as a hostage’ to the other. But apparently Montaigne sees social action only as a sink, something one contributes to, not also as a source, something to learn from.

As I noted before (in item 140), Montaigne makes the error of seeing only one direction in the traffic between outward manifestation and inside flourishing. Others are not only receptacles for one’s ideas, compassion and sacrifice, but also founts of influence and opposition that help one to escape from one’s prejudice and myopia, and thereby to flourish. Niezsche also failed to recognize this (see item 60). Certainly, others may do more harm than good to the self, but that is no reason not to give it a chance, in seeking the good.

Did Taoism also make this mistake, of not seeing that action in the world, with other people, feeds the development of the individual?