It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading “The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a big book: it may be only 400 pages, but it’s scope is breathtaking. Don’t come to this book looking for dates or expositions of key historical events. Harari’s approach to history is to stand back and see what patterns emerge from the big picture. Continue reading “Sapiens: a big history of the species”
Watching BBC2’s Life and Death In Herculaneum the other night I thought I glimpsed a truth in the case that John Gray has advanced relentlessly since Straw Dogs in 2002 and now in The Silence of Animals: that the idea of progress in modern western thought is a myth, and advances in civilisation can easily be reversed.
Of course, it would be another three centuries before the Roman Empire collapsed, but learning about the sophisticated way of life enjoyed by the people of Herculaneum – their houses, furniture and interior decoration; their healthy diet; the piped water and sewage disposal system; and the degree of social mobility that allowed slaves to be freed by law to become rich men and property owners in their own right – it occurred to me that the citizens of Herculaneum probably believed, as we do now, that theirs was the best of all possible worlds, and things could only get better.
These thoughts arise after reading The Silence of Animals, Gray’s latest book, and hearing him in on Start the Week (a discussion in which, actually, Mary Beard pointed out that the Romans believed that the best was in the past, in the time of the gods). Gray’s case is, by now, familiar: we need to demythologise the Enlightenment and recognise that, like Christianity, the belief in progress and the advancement of liberal humanist values is a religious faith without foundation, a form of transcendental faith we adhere to for fear of having nothing else to hold on to. Gains in civilisation, such as the emancipation of women or the prohibition of torture are all real, but each of the advantages of civilisation can easily be lost.
On Start the Week, Gray observed that if ten years ago he had argued that torture might be rehabilitated by a liberal regime (as, indeed, he did) that would have been seen as wilful misanthropy and pessimism. But it happened, and very quickly – at Abu Ghraib and other places under the jurisdiction of the USA – and, he suspects, it continues.
Gray states that we falsely imagine advances in civilisation to be like progress in science and technology – a process of cumulative advance, hard to reverse. But advances in civilisation, he argues, are easy to reverse and can be lost very quickly. It’s a modern myth that ethics and politics can be like science, ever-advancing. Universities, he said on Radio 4, are never likely to reintroduce alchemy to the curriculum, but atavistic hatreds – of Jews, gypsies and immigrants – have re-emerged with startling rapidity in the European Union this past decade.
The reason for this, Gray believes, is that humans are, and always will be, flawed: ‘Barbarism is a disease of civilisation’, as he puts it. All our institutions – the family, churches, police forces (he might have added corporations) – are consequently permeated with human nastiness. It is ‘childish’, therefore, to place faith in the the progressive betterment of society and human behaviour: he cites the Belgian Congo, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and pretty much the entire 20th century to support his case.
Gray insists that he doesn’t deny the importance of advances in human rights, but that it is the ‘modern fairy tale’ of progress that he wishes to debunk. He is at one with Joseph Conrad, who learnt what civilisation could do in defence of civilisation in the Congo – but who never ceased to defend civilisation.
The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge – not even in the long run.
– John Gray, ‘Joseph Conrad, Our Contemporary’ in Heresies
In Straw Dogs, Gray wrote:
To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody today, but it is groundless. […] Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
Gray’s perspective is best summarized in an interview with Laurie Taylor, published on the Rationalist Association website in 2007. There, Taylor comments that:
It is all wonderfully readable and consistently provocative. But it is also unremittingly pessimistic. Gray is literally proposing that we should do nothing to try to change our world. We might be able to make modest adjustments here and there to some local social and political arrangements, but even these modest changes are likely to be quickly reversed by the next cycle of history. In such circumstances our best bet might be quiescence. […]
He is absolutely convinced that liberal humanists have made the fundamental mistake of believing that the cumulative developmental nature of science is paralleled by a cumulative development in human well-being and ethical behaviour. He is equally insistent that religion can only be temporarily vanquished because its special access to basic truths about human life means that it will always reassert itself in one form or another. Above all he is thoroughly sceptical about attempts to better the human condition. He’ll just about go along with a little of what Popper once called ‘bit and piece social engineering’ but anything more ambitious is certain to founder at some time in the future. History is cyclical not progressive. Reversible not linear.
This is a salient passage from the interview in which Gray sums up his position:
Let me try and be more precise. I don’t deny that some states of human history are better than other states. Europe in 1990 was better than Europe in 1940. I don’t deny that. And I don’t deny that some programmes of reform have enhanced the lot of human beings to a considerable extent. And peace is better than war, freedom is better than anarchy, prosperity is better than poverty, pleasure is better than pain, beauty is better than ugliness. But there is a another very specific belief that I would guess you subscribe to: the belief that advances in ethics or politics can in principle become like advances in science in the sense of being cumulative. This is the belief that there is nothing inherent in human life or human nature to prevent cumulative improvement. We’ll get to the point where there is no poverty in the world, where there is no anarchy in the world.
My view is that all gains in ethics and politics are real but they are all also reversible and all will be reversed and often reversed very easily. For example, I know many liberal humanists myself and I know that when I said two and a half years ago that torture would come back, they were incredulous. That doesn’t tell me they are stupid. That tells me they are in the grip of a belief that makes such a thing unthinkable. They have a narrative, a notion of stages. But when I look at history I don’t see any kind of thread, however tenuous, however sometimes broken. What I see is cyclical change, cyclical transformation.
In a recent interview with the Telegraph that coincided with the publication of The Silence of Animals, Gray said:
What you’re seeing is the re-emergence of classical toxins into politics which a lot of people thought would never emerge again. Whenever there’s a prolonged dislocation in people’s lives, they start blaming minorities – gays, Jews, immigrants. That’s starting to happen all over Europe. Look at the rise of the [fascist] Golden Dawn party in Greece. Just the other day, one of the leading politicians in Hungary questioned Romani people’s right to exist.
Gray gives short shrift to any suggestion that social media will act as a brake on extremism:
Technology may make some short-term difference, but history shows that political tyrannies always end up controlling key forms of communication. In the long term, the Google generation, the liberals, will be swallowed up and erased from history.
The Silence of Animals is divided into three sections, in each of which Gray draws on a wide range of poetry, fiction, memoirs and philosophy to advance his argument that, in the words of Wallace Stevens which he quotes, ‘We live in an old chaos of the sun’. This approach makes the book very readable, and though I find John Gray’s philosophy daunting in its challenge to fundamental ways of thinking about the world (since I’ve always regarded myself as a beneficiary of Enlightenment values), I am always stimulated when I read his work.
In the first section of The Silence of Animals, Gray assembles examples such as Conrad writing about the Congo at the end of the 19th century, Norman Lewis’s account of Naples in 1943, a city where civilisation had crumbled, and many more to support his assertion that faith in progress is nothing more than a facile modern myth. Amongst several nuggets in this first long section of the book, is Gray’s discovery of the probable source, in a contemporary account of propaganda for the Soviet Five Year Plan in the 1930s, of the equation ‘2 + 2 = 5’, just one of the memorable tropes from Orwell’s 1984.
In the second section, Gray finds support for his argument in the work of Sigmund Freud, who, he says, ‘reformulated one of the central insights of religion: humans are cracked vessels’. In Gray’s account, Freud saw all religion, and all myths, as illusion, therefore posing the question: how can modern human beings live without modern myths? Gray’s answer is found in lines from another poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’:
To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute …
Gray finds an example of such a fiction in the ‘myths of the near future’ created by JG Ballard in novels such as The Drowned World,a vision of the planet reverting to a remote geological past and London reverting to swamp. Ballard’s vision is a ‘truer myth’ for Gray ‘because there is no suggestion of any better civilisation coming into being’. He likes the story, too, because the protagonist is subject to the effacement of all personal memory, thus enabling him ‘to reconnect with pre-human levels of his own nature’.
Having erased all religious illusion and all myth, including the Enlightenment myth of progress and perfectibility, what is left? Gray concludes this section by invoking the thoughts of the late 19th century writer and philosopher Fritz Mauthner. For Gray this is what is left: ‘There is no God apart apart from the world, nor a world apart from God …the Ego is a delusion …there ceases to be a difference between the world and myself’. Those are Mauthner’s words; Gray calls this ‘Godless Mysticism’.
The book’s third section comprises two extended essays on works about the natural world that, in Gray’s view, come closest to expressing this ‘godless mysticism’. Along with a discussion of the writings of Llewelyn Powys, the younger brothers of the better-known John Cowper Powys, there is a superb account of JA Baker, whose obsessive observations of peregrine falcons in his native Essex resulted in The Peregrine, one of the most extraordinary examples of nature writing in the 20th century.
The book, Gray says, ‘slowly reveals itself as the testament of someone struggling to shed the point of view of a human observer’:
People who love other creatures are often accused of anthropomorphising them. This was not true of Baker. Rather than anthropomorphising other species, Baker tried the experiment of de-anthropomorphising himself. Seeing the world as he imagined hawks might see it, he was able at times to be something other than he had been. He [lost] himself as he followed the peregrine.
It is here that the title of the book is explained. The silence of animals, says Gray, is not the same as the silence pursued by human beings. The silence of animals is not a literal silence, for most sentient animals inhabit vivid sound worlds. It is, however, a world without the kinds of turmoil and torment that humans experience:
Only humans want to silence the clamour in their minds. Tiring of the inner chatter, they turn to silence in order to deafen the sound of their thoughts. […] Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves; other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming. […] The distance between human and animal silence is a consequence of the use of language. It is not that other creatures lack language. The discourse of the birds is more than a human metaphor. … Only humans use words to construct a self-image and a story of their lives. But if other animals lack this interior monologue, it is not clear why this should put humans on a higher plane. […]
Turning within, you will find only words and images that are parts of yourself. But if you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.
These passages reminded me of Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and these words which appear on screen in the opening moments: ‘Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all around you? That screaming men call silence?’ Could it be that Kaspar Hauser is Gray’s model for the state of grace we should aim for? The enfant sauvage imprisoned in a dark cellar for his entire life and therefore lacking language, speech and any semblance of received ideas or educated thought? Outwardly he looks like the village idiot, but inside Kaspar is a thoughtful man of great tenderness, drawn towards beauty. Herzog shows how those who rescue him, believing that reason is the true source of humanity, erode Kaspar’s unbounded sense of himself in the world resulting in his ‘terrible fall’ (Kaspar’s words) into the culture of men.
Gray finds in William Empson’s poem ‘Homage to the British Museum’ words which express his own position:
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, doll, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one on the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.
What Gray seeks is ‘godless contemplation’, godless mysticism which offers no more than mere being:
Gods are as mortal as the ways of life they sanctify…. For those that cannot bear to live without belief, any faith is better than none. This is the appeal of fundamentalism, which promises to banish the lack of meaning by an act of will. Hence, also, the god-building enthusiasm of the humanists, who announce the arrival of a new deity, uglier than any that has ever before been worshipped, a divinized version of themselves …
One of those humanists that John Gray has is in his sights is, no doubt, Steven Pinker. I haven’t read his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it would appear to be the antithesis of Gray’s. Drawing on detailed historical analysis and a huge array of statistics, Pinker raises the banner for progress and argues that humans have grown less horrible with time as people become better educated and have created more effective institutions. The 20th century was the century of Gandhi and Martin Luther King as well as Stalin and Mao, and the number of deaths by violence as a proportion of the total population remained modest compared with the ferocious cruelties of the wars of religion in the 17th century.
The modern nation state, he insists, has had a civilising effect almost everywhere. Education has helped, as has the empowerment of women, and the idea of human rights. Capital and corporal punishment have been eliminated in much of the world, and slavery has been abolished: people have lost their thirst for cruelty. Pinker gives the credit for this progress – ‘and if it isn’t progress, I don’t know what is’ – to explicit political arguments and changes in sensibilities that began during the 18th century, the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.
As for me – some days I believe in the world of Pinker; but on others Pinker becomes Pollyana, and I see the ash cloud about to fall and obliterate all.
- Review by Peter Conrad (Observer)
- Review by Shahidha Bari (THES)
- Going nowhere: Laurie Taylor interviews John Gray (Rationalist Association)
I recently finished reading The Philosopher And The Wolf: Lessons in Love, Death, and Happiness in which Mark Rowlands chronicles a decade in which he shared his life with a wolf he named Brenin, telling how he raised, lived with, and learned from the animal. If that sounds like a sappy Jonathan Livingston Seagull, it’s not: Rowlands is a a reputed professor of philosopher and a writer who thinks too deeply and probes accepted ideas too questioningly to produce something sloppy and sentimental.
What Rowlands sets about here is to explore ideas about the relationship between humans and other animals. A central strand in his academic work has been to probe the moral status of non-human animals, and he uses this autobiographical account of his relationship with the wolf to reassess the way most people think about the difference between humans and other creatures, reflecting on questions such as the nature of happiness and evil, the differences between ape intelligence and lupine intelligence, and perceptions of time, death and the meaning of life.
Rowlands is very good at weaving together everyday details with philosophical enquiry, writing in an easy, relaxed style that keeps you engrossed, whether he is describing some nightmarish transgression by the wolf or discussing Kant’s take on evil. There is certainly no doubt that his account of his life with Brenin is, at times, jaw-dropping. You think: how can someone have been allowed to raise a wolf in a domestic environment, train it into a sort of obedience, take it into his workplace every day, and travel with the beast around the southern United States on drunken rugby weekends, to Ireland and London, before the story ended in the South of France?
A few pages in, Rowlands explains how high the stakes could be: when he first brought the six week old Brenin into his house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, within two minutes he had torn down both sets of curtains in the living room, then found his way into the garden and under the house, where he proceeded ‘methodically, meticulously, but above all quickly’, to rip down every single one of the soft, lagged pipes leading to the air-conditioning unit. Rowlands observes that he had owned Brenin for one hour and the wolf had already cost him $1000 – $500 to buy him, and $500 to repair the air conditioning. So you can see why he had to take him with him into university:
Dire consequences would ensue for my house and possessions should I leave him unattended. So, I had to bring him into work with me – and as I was a philosophy professor, this meant bringing him to my lectures. He would lie in the corner of the lecture room and doze – much like my students really – while I droned on about some or other philosopher or philosophy. Occasionally, when the lectures became particularly tedious, he would sit up and howl – a habit that endeared him to the students, who had probably been wishing they could do the same thing.
There are more stories like this, but what is remarkable in the telling is the methodical determination with which Rowlands sets about training the animal, probably with more success than many dog owners. Let me just mention one more story. On the ferry crossing from Pembroke to Rosslare, Rowlands locked Brenin in his car, leaving just a single window partly open. The wolf reacted to this confinement by destroying the inside of the vehicle — upholstery, seatbelts, everything. When he returned to the car deck to survey the damage, Rowlands asked an attendant if he could borrow a knife to cut down what remained of the car’s ceiling panels. The man hesitated, fearing that Rowlands intended to kill the animal. Rowlands assured him that he didn’t, and that in any case he couldn’t hold Brenin responsible for what he’d done.
And there is where the philosophical questioning begins. Reflecting on his off-the-cuff response to the man on the ferry, Rowlands thinks more deeply about why he couldn’t blame Brenin for wrecking the car: the wolf was not a ‘moral agent’ – it was not capable, in other words, of evaluating its actions in terms of abstract moral principles. And you can’t hold a person or a creature morally responsible for something over which he or it has no control. This leads Rowlands on to a discussion of codes of morality grounded in a social contract – and how animals might figure in such a contract. The result, for Rowlands, was that he wrote a book, Animal Rights: A Philosophical Defence, and became a vegetarian.
Rowlands begins this book by considering the cultural reputation of wolves: they are the stuff of legends and stories told through the centuries: villainous, threatening, metaphors for violence. He carefully deconstructs this image, comparing lupine with ape behaviour. In a key passage he writes:
Some people say that wolves, even wolf-dog hybrids, have no place in a civilized society. After many years of reflection on this claim, I have come to the conclusion that it’s true. But it’s not true for the reasons those people think. Brenin was a dangerous animal; there is no disguising the fact. He was utterly indifferent to other human beings – something that secretly and selfishly delighted me. If another person tried to talk to Brenin, or stroke him in the way you might someone else’s dog, then he would look at them inscrutably for a few seconds, then just walk away. But, in the right circumstances, he might quickly and efficiently kill your dog. However, it is not because he was so dangerous that there was no place for him in a civilized society. The real reason is that he was nowhere near dangerous, and nowhere near unpleasant, enough. Civilization, I think, is only possible for deeply unpleasant animals. It is only an ape that can be truly civilized.
Rowlands examines what it is that differentiates wolves from primates: it is central to the thrust of his argument that there is such a distinction. He locates the superior intelligence of apes and humans in the ability to scheme and deceive. He backs up his assertions with evidence drawn from studies of the behaviour of chimpanzees and other apes. One telling example: a subordinate male chimp or baboon will often hide its erect penis from a superior male at the same time as it is deliberately displaying it to a female. This is sly, but also displays great intelligence, most crucially the ability to empathise (understand the point of view of both the superior male and the targetted female) and to use that perception to deceive. Rowlands has explained his purpose on an internet philosophy discussion forum:
One of the things I wanted to do in the book was look at the notion of intelligence and see what it involved. And there’s a generally accepted thesis now, that the intelligence of apes arose from more primitive abilities to manipulate and deceive other apes. So since as an ape it’s not good to be manipulated and deceived by other apes, you become more intelligent to resist this manipulation and deception. It’s called the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. So the hypothesis is that our human intelligence, which is a branch of simian intelligence, was the result of an arms race which had at its core, manipulation and deception of each other. So I think while it’s obviously false that whenever we’re being intelligent it’s because we’re manipulating or deceiving someone or something, that’s obviously not true, I think it’s true that at the core of that intelligence, lies abilities to manipulate and deceive creatures, and each other, primarily.
This is where Rowlands brings in the idea of the social contract, which he argues is an expression of the calculating, self-interested ape in all of us. Each of the parties to the bargain in the original position is after the best possible deal for himself.What he learned from Brenin, however, was that lupine intelligence is of a different order, and not contractual at all. He reinforces this point in his moving account of the last month of Brenin’s life, as he rapidly lost the battle with cancer. It was a time in which Rowlands was pretty much out of his mind with lack of sleep and worry as he tended the ailing wolf’s infected anal glands. It was then that Rowlands understood what he had learnt from Brenin: that ‘no truly significant relationship can ever be based on a contract’, but that the fundamental bedrock is loyalty.
When Brenin dies, , leaving the philosopher literally howling at the moon, he seeks an answer to the question – what did the wolf lose, what do we lose when we die? Rowlands traces philosophical responses to the question, from Epicurus to Wittgenstein, such as the proposition that death deprives us of a future. In the sense that we humans tend to have a vision of how we would like our lives to be in the future whereas non-human animals don’t, it would seem that we humans lose lose more when we die, that death is a greater tragedy when it happens to a human than when it happens to a wolf.
Candidly, Rowlands admits that he used to believe this – in fact developing the thought in two of his earlier books. Now, he says, he realises that embodied in this account of death is a conception of time as linear, suggesting that life’s meaning is derived from the direction of travel, the goal to which (we hope) we are progressing. The trouble is, we know at the end of the line there isn’t meaning – just death and decay.
And at the end of every line is only nevermore. Nevermore to feel the sun on your face. Nevermore to see the smile on the lips of the one you love, or the twinkling of their eyes.
We see through moments and for that reason the moment escapes us. A wolf sees the moment but cannot see through it. Time’s arrow escapes him. That is the difference between us and wolves. We relate to time in a different way. We are temporal creatures in a way that wolves and dogs are not.
This leads Rowlands to define the most important lesson that he learned from the wolf: that the meaning of life is to be found in moments. He is at pains to make it clear that he is not repeating one of those facile homilies ‘to live in the moment’:
Rather, the idea is that there are some moments, not all of them by any means, but there are some moments; and in the shadows of these moments we will find out what is most important in our lives.
He concludes that ‘what time can never take from us is who we are in our best moments’. By ‘best moments’ he means the times when our back is to the wall, there is no hope, there is pain, when death is leaning over our shoulder. He remembers such a moment in Brenin’s life, when the wolf was young:
When Brenin was around two months old…Rugger [a pit bull] lost his temper, grabbed Brenin by the neck and pinned him to the ground. Most puppies would have screeched out in shock and fear. Brenin growled. This was not the growl of a puppy, but a deep and calmn and sonorous growl that belied his tender age. That is strength. And that is what I have always tried to carry around with me, and I hope I always will. Watching Brenin, I realised that we are at our best when death is leaning over our shoulder but we can say ‘in this moment, I feel good and strong’. In the end, time will take our strength. But it can never take from us who we were in our best moments.
So it’s not to do with not having a hope, it’s how to behave when there is no hope.
It took a long time, but I think I now understand why I loved Brenin so much, and miss him so painfully now he has gone. He taught me something that my extended formal education could not: that in some ancient part of my soul there still lived a wolf. Sometimes it is necessary to let the wolf in us speak; to silence the incessant chattering of the ape.
The only thing certain is nothing is certain.
I’ll admit that until recently I didn’t know very much about Michel de Montaigne or his Essays. But in the past month I’ve finished Sarah Bakewell’s highly readable account of his life and ideas, heard last week’s essays on Montaigne broadcast in Radio 3’s The Essay, and read an extract in Saturday’s Guardian from yet another recent book on the French sceptic and humanist.
These days millions of us write about ourselves and broadcast our thoughts – this blog is just one tiny bit of flotsam floating on what Sarah Bakewell describes vividly as ‘the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages and pods’. Do we owe all this to a man who lived from 1533 to 1592, in a France dominated by bloody and miserable civil wars, who retreated from a life of public service to write, in his library in a tower on his estate, the pieces which he called essais, or ‘tries’ – a term he was the first to use in this way?
Sarah Bakewell’s book – How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer – is the first life of Montaigne in English for 50 years. But it is also unique in that she threads Montaigne’s life story through a series of chapters each of which poses questions about how we should live and answered in a manner rather like a Montaigne essay.
Bakewell begins by posing the question:Why write about Montaigne? Her answer is that ‘he is one of the most appealing, likeable writers ever to have lived. … he helped make us the way we are. Had he not existed, or had his own life gone slightly differently, we too would be a little bit different. … The idea that immersion in one’s inner world can be a sociable act, and that the assertion of what makes us unlike anyone else can bring out the humanity we share with everyone else is something we owe to Michel de Montaigne’.
This idea – writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity – has not existed for ever, It had to be invented, And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official and wine grower who lived in the Perigord area of south-western France from 1533 to 1592. Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it. Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements. Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events… [rather] he wrote exploratory, free-floating pieces to which he gave simple titles..
He wrote 107 essays with titles such as:
Our feelings reach out beyond us.
Of the custom of wearing clothes.
How we cry and laugh for the same thing.
How our mind hinders itself.
Together they create a frank self-portrait which is also a mirror, for Montaigne believed that ‘each man bears the entire form of the human condition’, so that by opening his own mind to us, his readers, ours can be revealed to us. He does this by telling us very ordinary things: that he never sleeps in the daytime and only enjoys sex lying down, that he is fond of eating fish, and that his ears often get itchy inside. Once, he liked radishes, but he went off them; then he mysteriously went back to liking them again.
Introducing a series on Montaigne published in The Guardian in May 2010, Sarah Bakewell summed up the approach of his ‘philosopher who proposed no theories, put no trust in reason, and showed no desire to convince readers of anything’:
What is it to be a human being, he wondered? Why do other people behave as they do? Why do I behave as I do? He watched his neighbours, his colleagues, even his cat and dog, and looked deeply into himself as well. He tried to record what it felt like to be angry, or exhilarated, or vain, or bad-tempered, or embarrassed, or lustful. Or to drift in and out of consciousness, in a half-dream. Or to feel bored with your responsibilities. Or to love someone. Or to have a brilliant idea while out riding, but forget it before you can get back to write it down – and then feel the lost memory recede further and further the more you hunt for it, only to pop into your head as soon as you give up and think about something else. He was, in short, a brilliant psychologist, but also a moral philosopher in the fullest sense of the word. He did not tell us what we should do, but explored what we actually do.
Whether Montaigne’s highly unusual upbringing had anything to do with his later outlook on life we can’t be certain. His father basically conducted a pedagogic experiment on the young Michel, having him raised as an infant in the home of a humble peasant in a nearby village. Then, until he went to school, he was exposed only to Latin. He acquired an in-depth knowledge of the classics, which perhaps explains why the ceiling of his library was later decorated with favourite quotations from them, including this (from Terence): ‘I am a man and think nothing human is foreign to me’.
For me, one of the most interesting strands in Montaigne’s essays concern his ideas on humanity and empathy. Although he liked to describe himself as a Stoic, and is sometimes portrayed as detached from the world, writing in his lonely tower, he had served as magistrate, mayor, diplomat and king’s advisor; he was gregarious, formed deep friendships, and talked to everyone he met on his travels in order to learn more about their lives. Philosophical detachment was not Montaigne’s way: he had a natural tendency to empathise with others, and to sympathise with them – in the full, original sense of this word, meaning ‘to feel with’. Watching a human or animal in pain, Montaigne felt some of that pain himself.
Three celebrated examples of this empathy in Montaigne – his fascination with imagining the world from different perspectives – come to mind. He lived in a time when Europeans were encountering the peoples of the New World for the first time. He once met a couple of Tupinambá people, who had travelled to Europe from Brazil in a French ship. Through a translator, he asked them what they thought of France. They replied, among other things, that they were amazed to see rich Frenchmen gorging themselves at feasts while their ‘other halves’ – the beggars outside their houses – starved. Europeans were shocked because the Tupinambá – ‘cannibals’ – ate their enemies after a battle, but the Tupinambá were shocked because Europeans found it easy to ignore the suffering of the living. Montaigne looked equitably at both positions. ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to’, he wrote. ‘This great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognise ourselves from the proper angle’:
I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
Montaigne lived during the French wars of religion, a period of violence and fear that lasted from 1562 to 1598. His house stood in the middle of the region of the most intense fighting. And he himself, having tried to negotiate between the warring factions, had made enemies on both sides. One day a neighbour turned up, terrified,on his doorstep. He had, he said, just been set upon by an enemy about a mile away, and begged to be let in. Montaigne obliged, but then:
Four or five of his soldiers arrived, with the same bearing and fright, in order to be admitted. And then more and more after them, well-equipped and well-armed, until there were twenty-five or thirty of them, pretending to have the enemy at their heels. This mystery was beginning to arouse my suspicion. I was not ignorant of the sort of age in which I lived, how my house might be envied . . . However . . . I abandoned myself to the most natural and simple course, as I do always, and gave orders for them to be let in.
Everyone was invited into Montaigne’s living room, where, unexpectedly, his neighbour suddenly announced his departure. In his Essays, Montaigne writes that his neighbour later admitted that it was Montaigne’s demeanour that had defeated his stratagem: ‘He has often said to me since . . . that my face and my frankness wrestled his treachery from him’. This incident was the subject of an article by Saul Frampton – author of another recent book on Montaigne – in Saturday’s Guardian. He links Montaigne’s insight to experiments which revealed that certain neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fired not only when the monkeys grasped food, but when they saw the experimenter grasp it. These neurons have come to be known as ‘mirror’ or ’empathy’ neurons.
So contemporary neuroscientists seem to have confirmed what Montaigne intuited – that humans have an inbuilt empathetic capacity and that the strength of this capability depends on proximity:
No wisdom is so highly formed as to be able to imagine a cause of grief so vivid and so complete that it will not be increased by the actual presence, when the eyes and ears have a share in it.
But Montaigne went further, rejecting the idea that this capacity is species-dependent. In one of his most famous passages he asks: When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?
Presumption is our natural and original disease. The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch, with animals of the worst condition of the three; and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the heavens under his feet. ‘Tis by the same vanity of imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit. How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals?—from what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.
The key to Montaigne’s outlook was his hatred of cruelty and his visceral rapport with others. Speaking to the Brazilian Indians, it was their idea of men as halves of one another – Frenchmen feasting while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep – that struck him deeply. For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things. Even if animals were less like us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive:
There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation. […] I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.
The TLS reviewer of Sarah Bakewell’s book said it is ‘the most enjoyable introduction to Montaigne in the English language’. I’ll vouch for that. She organises her survey of Montaigne’s work into twenty chapters that offer answers to his big question: How to live? These range from ‘Question everything’ and ‘Be convivial: live with others’ to ‘Guard your humanity’ and ‘Be ordinary and imperfect’.
Bakewell presents Montaigne as a falling in the tradition of Pyrrhonian Scepticism, which refines Socrates’ claim ‘all I know is that I know nothing’ by adding the words ‘and I’m not even sure about that‘, which seems a pretty fair way to proceed in the world. Other thoughts of his are equally thought-provoking:
Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.
I enter into discussion and argument with great freedom and ease, inasmuch as opinion finds me in a bad soil to penetrate and take deep root in. No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers to my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and so extravagant that it does not seem to me quite suitable to the production of the human mind.
Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.
Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.
No man is a hero to his own valet.
For Montaigne, it was always life that mattered. In his last essay, he gave perhaps his best answer to the question, How to live? –
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.
Something Zen there, perhaps.
Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, ‘Que sais-je?’ (‘What do I know?’). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne’s attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne
Sarah Bakewell was one of those on radio 3 last week presenting their essays on Montaigne. Others included Theodore Zeldin – who spoke mainly about his internet project, inspired by Montaigne, which encourages people to write brief self-portraits describing their lives, experiences, attitudes and values, with the aim of establishing lines of communication with others all over the world – and Jonathan Bate, who explored Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare.
The first edition of the Essays was published in 1580. They were translated into English in 1603, by the linguist and lexicographer John Florio, tutor of Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton. Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin, a true European who spoke French and German as well as Italian and English. It is possible that he and Shakespeare were friends.
We know for certain, Jonathan Bate argued, that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne’s essays, and Montaigne’s influence can be discerned in the language and scepticism of The Tempest and King Lear:
It is abundantly clear from Shakespeare’s linguistic borrowings, via John Florio’s English translation of Montaigne (1603), that the Frenchman’s essays shaped much of his most profound thinking – in King Lear and The Tempest especially – about knowledge and scepticism, nature and nurture, emotion and reason, and the centrality of sexual desire to human experience.
The self-probing, deeply sceptical, often melancholy personality that the Essays reveal seems also to anticipate Hamlet. But that play was written before Florio’s translation appeared, and though some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare may have read it in manuscript, Bate thought this unlikely. The similarities, Bate argued, are due to the similar outlooks of the two men.
But there’s no question whatever that Shakespeare was reading Montaigne as he wrote The Tempest. The clearest evidence is in Gonzalo’s description, in Act Two, Scene One, of his ideal commonwealth. In his essay ‘Of Cannibals’, Montaigne wrote:
It is a nation that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but of common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of among them.
Gonzalo’s words, imagining the commonwealth that he would establish if he ‘had plantation’ of Propero’s island are Shakespeare’s adaptation of Montaigne:
I’th’commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty – […]
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Finally, Bate recalled another of Montaigne’s famous aphorisms. Montaigne rejected as foolish those who fear death and so try not to think about it. A wise man thinks about it all the time, but gets on with his life:
The end of our career is death. It is the necessary object of our aim. If it affright us, how is it possible that we should step one foot further without any ague? Let us learn to stand and combat her with the resolute mind… A man should ever be ready-booted to take his journey. … Let death seize upon me while I am setting my cabbages, careless of her dart but more of my unperfect garden.
Postscript: in a review of several new books on Montaigne, Anthony Gottlieb wrote in the New York Times:
Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” Bacon’s compositions tend to drive at a single conclusion, but Johnson’s “sally” is a nice fit for Montaigne’s meandering collection of thoughts, and those of his more whimsical descendants. […]
It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”). […]
Somewhat like a link-infested blog post, Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations, and can sometimes read almost as an anthology. His “links” are mainly classical, most often to Plato, Cicero and Seneca. Modern readers may find all these insertions distracting — there is, as it were, too much to click on — but some may be thankful for a fragmentary yet mostly reliable classical education on the cheap. (Montaigne should not, however, have credited Aristotle with the maxim, “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” The real source of this unromantic advice is unknown.) […]
Montaigne can evidently still evince strong affection from authors after nearly half a millennium. So artful is Bakewell’s account of him that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration. But it’s not so clear that Montaigne’s often chaotic essays are all that digestible today unless one has a good guide to his life and context, like Bakewell’s close to hand.
- Montaigne and the macaques: Saul Frampton, The Guardian
- Sarah Bakewell’s Guardian series on Montaigne
Discussing the spiritual quest of Charles Lloyd in the last post brought to mind the following passage from The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton. It comes towards the end of the book, as he brings his argument to a conclusion by suggesting that the meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way – not metaphysical, but ethical. Anybody can do it. The key to the universe is something which a lot of decent people do anyway, with scarcely a thought – looking out for others. It’s the activity known as agape, or love (nothing to do with erotic or even affectionate feelings). The quintessence of it is loving strangers, not those you desire or admire. It is a practice or way of life, not a state of mind, and nothing to do with feeling a warm glow. Eagleton uses the image of a jazz group to illustrate his point:
A jazz group which is improvising obviously differs from a symphony orchestra, since to a large extent each member is free to express herself as she likes. But she does so with a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. The complex harmony they fashion comes not from playing from a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and the ‘good of the whole’ yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian. Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’ she does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing herself.
There is self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, the achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium of relationship among the performers. There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and – since there is a free fulfilment or realization of powers – there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can even speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love. One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life – both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful, and – more controversially – in the sense that when we act in this way, we realize our natures at their finest.
Is jazz, then, the meaning of life? Not exactly. The goal would be to construct this kind of community on a wider scale, which is a problem of politics. It is, to be sure, a utopian aspiration, but it is none the worse for that. The point of such aspirations is to indicate a direction, however lamentably we are bound to fall short of the goal. What we need is a form of life which is completely pointless, just as the jazz performance is pointless. Rather than serve some utilitarian purpose or earnest metaphysical end, it is a delight in itself. It needs no justification beyond its own existence. In this sense, the meaning of life is interestingly close to meaninglessness. Religious believers who find this version of the meaning of life a little too laid-back for comfort should remind themselves that God, too, is his own end, ground, origin, reason, and self-delight, and that only by living this way can human beings be said to share in his life. Believers
sometimes speak as though a key difference between themselves and non-believers is that for them, the meaning and purpose of life lie outside it. But this is not quite true even for believers. For classical theology, God transcends the world, but figures as a depth within it. As Wittgenstein remarks somewhere: if there is such a thing as eternal life, it must be here and now. It is the present moment which is an image of eternity, not an infinite succession of such moments.
I always suspected that the answer wasn’t 42.
Eagleton’s book is readable, erudite and witty (even laugh-out-loud funny in parts). If you’ve read a good deal of philosophical thought on this question you might not find much here to stimulate. But, like many of the books in this series, it is a very good introduction for the novice.
Eagleton is the literary theorist who sparked controversy in 2007 when a scathing critique of Martin Amis was included in the introduction to his book Ideology. In it, Eagleton took issue with Amis’ views on ‘Islamism’, and in particular this passage:
What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.
Eagleton criticised Amis for the passage, and added:
[these are] not the ramblings of a British National Party thug…but the reflections of Martin Amis, leading luminary of the English metropolitan literary world.
Just thought I’d mention that.
I’ve been reading Why Look at Animals, a slim collection of essays by John Berger, published in the Penguin Great Ideas series. I think Berger is the only living thinker represented in the series. The title essay explores how the ancient relationship between man and nature has been broken in the modern consumer age, with the animals that used to be at the centre of our existence now marginalized and reduced to spectacle in zoos.
Berger first discussed the relationship between humans and animals in Ways of Seeing, the 1972 book and TV series. There, he argued that animals – especially those depicted in oil paintings – were symbols of capital. Cows in an elegant 18th century landscape were ‘furniture with four legs’. Berger was asserting that the animal had become assimilated into the bourgeois culture of object desire and possession. In this essay, first published in 1977, Berger presents a cultural history in which there has been a denaturation of the world. Animals have lost their magical, ritual value; they have, like humans themselves, been reduced to economic units in capitalist society.
The 19th century, in western Europe and North America, saw the beginning of a process, today being completed by 20th-century corporate capitalism, by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken. Before this rupture, animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. Perhaps that already suggests too great a distance. They were with man at the centre of his world. Such centrality was of course economic and productive. Whatever the changes in productive means and social organization, men depended upon animals for food, work, transport, clothing.
Yet to suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th-century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and ‘invitation’ of the animal in question. […]
During the 20th century, the internal combustion engine displaced draught animals in streets and factories. Cities, growing at an ever increasing rate, transformed the surrounding , countryside to suburbs where field animals, wild or domesticated, became rare. The commercial exploitation of certain species (bison, tigers, reindeer) has rendered them almost extinct. Such wild life as remains is increasingly confined to national parks and game reserves.
In the first stages of the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines. As also were children. Later, in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities. […]
This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man. The mechanical view of the animal’s work capacity was later applied to that of workers. F.W. Taylor who developed the ‘Taylorism’ of time-motion studies and ‘scientific’ management of industry proposed that work must be so ‘stupid’ and so phlegmatic that he (the worker) ‘more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than other type’.
Berger’s theme is the marginalisation of animals. He explores the ancient relationship between animals and humankind: an ‘unspeaking companionship’. Today, by contrast, the caged creatures in zoos have become ‘the living monument to their own disappearance’ from culture.
Everywhere animals disappear. In zoos they constitute the living monument to their own disappearance. […]
The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism. […]
The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.
Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone. As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.
This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.
A terrible sense of sadness runs through all the pieces in this volume. Berger is concerned by the loss of a meaningful connection to nature, a connection that can now only be rediscovered, he asserts, through the experience of beauty: ‘the aesthetic moment offers hope’. Animals are like us and not like us, he writes. In the simple act of looking at animals, we are in a way looking at ourselves. And in the act of representing animals in art, we are representing, metaphorically and metaphysically, something about us.
One of the pieces in the book is a poem, ‘They Are The Last’, in which Berger writes:
Each year more animals depart.
Only pets and carcasses remain,
and the carcasses living or dead
are from birth
ineluctably and invisibly
turned into meat.
Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.
Unlike the tree
the river or the cloud
the animals had eyes
and in their glance
The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as the mountain.