THE FIRST MODERN MAN: NOT MARX, BUT MONTAIGNE The Gospel of Adjustment, Common Ground & Mediocrity

© 1998 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. November 1998, Volume LXV, Number 10.

 THE FIRST MODERN MAN: NOT MARX, BUT MONTAIGNE
The Gospel of Adjustment, Common Ground & Mediocrity

November 1998

by Mitchell Kalpakgian

Mitchell Kalpakgian is Professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa.

In a pamphlet entitled “The Orthodox Poetic,” Arvid Schulenberger distinguished four important worldviews: the classical Greek, the Old Testament, the Christian, and the modern.

Greek: Man is a rational animal living under natural law seeking happiness through knowledge.

Old Testament: Man is a free individual living under divine law seeking righteousness through obedience.

Christian: Man is a fallen being living under divine grace seeking salvation through love.

Modern: Man is a sensitive creature living under social law seeking security through adjustment.

Compare modern man with any of his three predecessors, and we see a loss of dignity, nobility, and heroism. The Greeks, Hebrews, and Christians aspired to such sublime goals as knowledge or righteousness or salvation. But the meager aim of modern man is security, a paltry good by comparison. Where the Greeks, Hebrews, and Christians acknowledged a transcendent divine law that determined the universal meaning of good and evil, modern man asserts that moral laws are cultural and historical constructs and that truth is relative — that is, unknowable. Where the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions cultivate perfection of the mind, will, or heart, and affirm goals that require discipline, determination, or sacrifice, the basic thing modern man demands of himself is adjustment or adaptability.

One of the foremost early examples, perhaps the foremost early example, of this modern sensibility — and a major influence in making our loss of sublimity seem intellectually respectable and even sophisticated — is Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), whose famous collection of Essays depicts every aspect of Schulenberger’s definition of the modern worldview. A nominal Catholic, a courtier, a politician, and a diplomat, Montaigne is a Renaissance humanist for whom man is the measure of all things, for whom the essence of reality is change, and for whom truth is culture-bound.

To encounter him in his Essays is to meet ourselves. His contempt for authority mirrors our modern skepticism toward religious truth. Though casually identifying himself as a Catholic and glibly referring to God, Montaigne is the archetype of our familiar modern dissenter. While he creates for himself the persona of a likable, sensitive, and candid human being, an advocate of peace, reasonableness, and compassion, he stands in opposition to the teaching of the Church.

With his knowledge of ancient literature, his political acumen, and his polished writing, Montaigne appears successful, humane, and engaging. He is, as T.S. Eliot said, a writer who “insinuates, charms, and influences.” He is a father who plays with his children, a reader who loves his books, and a kindhearted person who hates the sight of blood. This is all attractive, and yet on examination Montaigne is revealed to be a precursor of our modern “good enough Catholic” — the kind of Christian who has substituted being nice for being faithful, who renders unto Caesar the things that are God’s, and who in his “moderation” is liable to utter such cowardly formulas as “I’m personally opposed to abortion, but….”

Montaigne’s essays are various and wide-ranging, intensely personal and experiential. Montaigne consistently portrays himself as a “sensitive creature,” sensitive in the way a plant is sensitive to light and dark or an animal is sensitive to sound or smell. He reacts to various stimuli in a deterministic, uncontrollable way. In his essay “On Smells,” for example, he tells of various odors clinging to his mustache and adversely affecting his health and disposition: “for I have often noticed that they [scents] cause changes in me, and act on my spirits according to their qualities.” In “On Vehicles” he complains that rowing with oars upsets his head and stomach, and any type of sudden jarring movement disturbs his health. (No five-speed stick for him — an automatic transmission, if you please.) In “On Cruelty” he says, “I cannot see a chicken’s neck twisted without distress….”

He sounds very modern indeed, for today sensitivity is a virtue, stimuli are irresistible, environment is determinative, and we prefer our chicken frozen and wrapped in plastic. The credo of today’s sexual revolution, for instance, is that erotic urges are irresistible; one can only react to them by submitting to them (“If it feels good, do it”); one is not to master them or control them. Condoms are the mandate for public school “health” courses because, it is said, the young “are going to do it anyway” and chastity is an unrealistic ideal. Natural Family Planning and periodic continence are said to be too burdensome and demanding for married couples, even Catholics, and so, to ensure instant gratification, contraception is required. The view of sexuality as recreational, as permissible outside marriage in both premarital relations and adulterous affairs, lowers man to a creature ruled by unmanageable instincts. Montaigne’s own self-confessed extramarital amours coincide with his strong susceptibility to stimuli — and with his endless fascination with his own reactions and responses, a modern type of egotistic introspection that we know all too well.

Contemporary man is, like Montaigne, acutely sensitive to his own pain, suffering, and difficulty. Abortion and physician-assisted suicide predicate that suffering is meaningless. In his reaction to life’s sorrows, contemporary man evinces a low threshold of pain; he wants immediate remedies and instant solutions. For modern man, the classical notion of noble suffering (“We suffer into truth,” wrote Aeschylus) and the Christian conception of suffering as a “cross” fade into oblivion. Sacrifice, transcendence, and sainthood are not on our agenda, as they were not on Montaigne’s.

Montaigne is equally modern in his concept of law. His essays depict him as living under social law rather than the natural law as upheld by the Church. He especially admires Alcibiades, the ancient Greek who always modified his behavior and character in accord with the customs of the country where he was living. In “On Repentance” Montaigne confesses, “I rarely repent,” and “my conscience is content with itself….” He admits that his habits and predominant flaws make contrition impossible:

For myself, I may wish, on the whole, to be otherwise; I may condemn and dislike my general character, and implore God to reform me throughout, and to excuse my natural weakness. But I should not, I think, give the name of repentance to this…. My actions are controlled and shaped to what I am, and to my condition of life. I can do no better.

In contemporary terms: “I’m okay, you’re okay.” There is no objective moral order; each person is his own moral judge; sin is merely error; and even error is relative, determined according to what we today call situation ethics. A careful examination of conscience would be “scrupulosity.” We, like Montaigne, take satisfaction in mediocrity and sloth, and credit ourselves with candor: “I can do no better.”

Conscience is only truly conscience (and not self-will) if it is properly formed and truly examined. But contemporary man appeals to conscience in self-serving ways. Numerous Catholics even oppose the explicit teachings of the Bible and the Magisterium with a glib appeal to “conscience,” adding with Montaigne, “my conscience is content with itself.” Contraception to many Catholics couples is a “matter of conscience” despite the teaching of papal encyclicals that condemn contraception as an intrinsic evil. The decision to abort a child becomes a “privacy” issue for a woman — the prohibition of abortion for two thousand years of Christian civilization doesn’t seem to faze “prochoice” Catholics. While the Church has always taught the indissolubility of marriage, no-fault civil divorce laws and proliferating Catholic annulments indicate that many contemporary Catholics “can do no better” than follow the way of the world. The rationalization of homosexuality also follows the logic of Montaigne: “My actions are controlled and shaped to what I am, and to my condition of life.”

Unlike the ancient Greeks who arduously aspired to true happiness, the Hebrews who strenuously sought righteousness, or the Christians who strove mightily for salvation, Montaigne seeks security — merely a feeling of comfort. Greeks like Socrates and Plato equated the highest happiness with realization of the true, the good, and the beautiful, but Montaigne is preoccupied with his physical well-being and the state of his nerves. While the Christian vision of eternal happiness gives meaning to man’s pilgrimage on earth, Montaigne’s ambition is simply survival, the avoidance of danger, and an escape from the irritations and disturbances of daily life.

Modern man is likewise obsessed with security, calm, and survival. Worrying about overpopulation, limiting his family to two children, requiring two incomes, he is light years from flinging himself into the arms of divine Providence. Like Montaigne, who preferred his books over friends or wife because books did not inconvenience him, contemporary man prefers things he can control (cars, boats, computers, televisions) over creatures like children who require sacrifice. As Montaigne had his habit of reading alone in his library “without order and without plan, reading by snatches,” we have our habits of trying all the television channels or surfing the Net to escape others and avoid reality. Sloth, superficiality, selfishness, and materialism are apparent in our love of ease and our taste for being entertained. While the pursuit of knowledge, righteousness, or salvation demands discipline, virtue, and sacrifice, the love of security leads to self-indulgence and a lack of charity.

Montaigne’s concern for security also leads to moral apathy and uncritical acceptance of the status quo. In “On Physiognomy” he asks, “But is there any political wrong so bad that it is worth fighting…? Not even, said Favonius, the usurpation of control over a state by a tyrant.” The love of security easily leads to a lack of moral courage and a failure to oppose unjust laws and evil practices, and fits with a view of truth as relative. In his famous essay “On Cannibals” (inspired by European contact with natives of the New World), Montaigne does not properly condemn this barbaric practice as an egregious violation of the natural law. He takes pains to point out instead that while cannibalism violates “the laws of reason,” it is no more abhorrent or unnatural than European practices that rack and torture prisoners, burn them at the stake, and abandon dead bodies to dogs and swine. Thus he casually blurs the distinction between one evil and another, between what is unnatural and what is merely cruel and excessive.

Contemporary man is likewise smugly blurry about various evils, always expecting to resolve irreconcilable differences by “dialogue,” “common ground” initiatives, and false ecumenism, or by “tolerance” and “diversity.” The Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), affirmed current abortion law and, in Montaigne’s phrase, agreed to “leave things as they are” rather than risk cultural upheaval by denying people what they’ve come to expect, namely, the right to abort.

Seeking security by way of adjustment bears no comparison to seeking happiness by way of knowledge, righteousness by way of obedience, or salvation by way of love. The passionate pursuit of wisdom, the honoring of God’s laws, or the Christian love of neighbor — each of these summons the asceticism, heroism, and sanctity that ennoble man. By aspiring to truth and goodness and by exercising virtues such as temperance, justice, and charity, man in the classical-Christian tradition reflects his godly origin and affirms his dignity. But a sensitive and nervous creature seeking tranquillity and security hardly rises above the animal level and does not reflect the glory of man as created in the image of God. In his essay “On Presumption,” Montaigne portrays himself as mediocre or average in every way: “I think it would be difficult for any man…to have a poorer opinion of me than I have of myself. I regard myself as one of the common sort in all save this, that I do so regard myself.” In “On Cruelty” Montaigne compares humans with animals, arguing that man’s alleged superiority to beasts is illusory. Montaigne’s lowly estimate of himself and man in general not only rejects the definition of man as little lower than the angels, it even scorns man.

Modern man shares this contemptuous view of human nature. When the child in the womb is described as “fetal material,” when the lives of the terminally ill are judged meaningless, when advanced fertility and cloning projects promise a brave new world of disposable humans, then “man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s,” as King Lear put it. Security is supposedly the best we can hope for.

And this security is sought by way of adjustment and adaptability. Since for us, as for Montaigne, there are no absolute truths but only a multitude of conflicting opinions, we claim we can simply “agree to disagree.” As Montaigne said, “For every foot its own shoe.” Montaigne noted that Europe’s new knowledge of China teaches “how much wider and more various the world is than either the ancients or ourselves have discovered.” So contemporary man blithely asserts the multicultural and pluralistic nature of the world. All cultures, lifestyles, and religious practices are said to be equivalent, and all truth claims relative. Western civilization is merely Eurocentric bias, the traditional family is an oppressive patriarchal institution, homosexuality is just a sexual variation, cohabitation is an acceptable alternative to the sacrament of Matrimony, and the classics of literature and philosophy are no more canonical than last week’s feminist or minority tract. How Montaignesque is the skepticism about our capacity for truth that appears in the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade opinion (“We do not know when human life begins”) and its Casey opinion (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”)!

As Montaigne explains in “On Experience,” truth is as elusive as quicksilver, which “keeps breaking and dividing itself indefinitely,” and multiplies into “this infinite diversity of opinions.” A perfect example of this relativism at the very core of modern higher education is literary deconstructionism, which robs words and texts of their universal and objective meanings because intelligibility is “constructed” by the mind rather than discovered in the structure of reality.

A curious thing about the current facile dismissal of the “Western canon of literature” is that Montaigne is part of that canon. He is in fact the canonical apologist for — almost the inventor of — modern man. Our neglected canon also contains the answer to Montaigne, given a century later by Pascal, who was fully aware of Montaigne’s plausibility, seductiveness, and limitations. Pascal wrote to counteract the spiritual mediocrity that Montaigne’s works would surely encourage. Our deprived university students are kept ignorant of both Montaigne and Pascal because no “canonical” knowledge is “imposed” upon them. This educational suppression, of course, serves only to reinforce the practical Montaignism the students see all around them.

So Michel de Montaigne is the classic and eloquent example of the kind of person Schulenberger says we have become. Montaigne is a sensitive creature, a victim who does not bear responsibility for his actions, a “feather in the wind” (as he said) ruled by instinctual drives and impersonal forces such as heredity, environment, and fortune. He submits to social law and doubts the existence of natural law, deforming his Christian faith to suit the new humanistic learning of the Renaissance. He values security more than justice, truth, or love, for convenience and comfort outweigh serving God, sacrificing for others, and carrying the Cross. Montaigne is most accommodating of diversity — most willing to accept pagans who worship animals, savages who practice cannibalism, and tyrants who usurp power. Constantly confessing his own mediocrity (and that of others) rather than admiring heroes, sages, and saints, Montaigne foreshadows the modern policy of “dumbing down” our culture.

Western culture has followed Montaigne’s brand of humanism down the slippery slope at the bottom of which we now sit, dazed, in the wreckage we call secularism. Exalting man above God, the physical above the spiritual, and secular standards above eternal truths, we have plunged precipitously from knowledge into confusion. We have sunk from an inspiring belief in the dignity of man to a disabling philosophy of relativism, and have ended in the world we see around us — a world that has abjured sublimity and mislaid its soul.

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