Judged by Night

“The venerable senate of the Areopagus judged by night, for fear that the sight of the plaintiffs might corrupt their justice.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

“Et à fin que les luges ne peussent estre destournez par quelque affection de la verité, ils cognoissoient des causes criminelles la nuict, & en tenebres.” (G. Bouchet, 1584, Les Sérées, v. II, Nevfiesme Seree, p. 134)

Upon Accepted Foundations

“It is very easy, upon accepted foundations, to build what you please; for according to the law and ordering of this beginning, the rest of the parts of the building are easily done, without contradictions. By this path we find our reason well founded, and we argue with great ease. For our masters occupy and win beforehand as much room in our belief as they need in order to conclude afterward whatever they wish, in the manner of the geometricians with their axioms; the consent and approval that we lend them giving them the wherewithal to drag us left or right, and to spin us around at their will. Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

An Exercise for Sharpening One’s Thinking

From Herbert Simon, 1983, Reason in Human Affairs: “A useful, if outrageous, exercise for sharpening one’s thinking about the limited usefulness of reasoning, taken in isolation, is to attempt to read Hitler’s Mein Kampf analytically — as though preparing for a debate, The exercise is likely to be painful, but is revealing about how facts, values, and emotions interact in our thinking about human affairs. I pick this particular example because the reader’s critical faculties are unlikely, in this case, to be dulled by agreement with the views expressed.

“Most of us would take exception to many of Hitler’s ‘facts,’ especially his analysis of the causes of Europe’s economic difficulties, and most of all his allegations that Jews and Marxists (whom he also mistakenly found indistinguishable) were at the root of them. However, if we were to suspend disbelief for a moment and accept his ‘facts’ as true, much of the Nazi program would be quite consistent with goals of security for the German nation or even of welfare for the German people. Up to this point, the unacceptability of that program to us is not a matter of evil goals — no one would object to concern for the welfare of the German people — or of faulty reasoning from those goals, but rests on the unacceptability of the factual postulates that connect the goals to the program. From this viewpoint, we might decide that the remedy for Nazism was to combat its program by reason resting on better factual premises.

“But somehow that calm response does not seem to match the outrage that Mein Kampf produces in us. There must be something more to our rejection of its argument, and obviously there is, Its stated goals are, to put it mildly, incomplete. Statements of human goals usually distinguish between a ‘we’ for whom the goals are shaped and a ‘they’ whose welfare is not ‘our’ primary concern. Hitler’s ‘we’ was the German people — the definition of ‘we’ being again based on some dubious ‘facts’ about a genetic difference between Aryan and non-Aryan peoples. Leaving aside this fantasy of Nordic purity, most of us would still define ‘we’ differently from Hitler. Our ‘we’ might be Americans instead of Germans, or, if we had reached a twenty-first-century state of enlightenment, our ‘we’ might even be the human species. In either case, we would be involved in a genuine value conflict with Mein Kampf, a conflict not resolvable in any obvious way by improvements in either facts or reasoning. Our postulation of a ‘we’ — of the boundary of our concern for others — is a basic assumption about what is good and what is evil.

“Probably the greatest sense of outrage that Mein Kampf generates stems from the sharpness of the boundary Hitler draws between ‘we’ and ‘they.’ Not only does he give priority to ‘we,’ but he argues that any treatment of ‘they,’ however violent, is justifiable if it advances the goals of ‘we.’ Even if Hitler’s general goals and ‘facts’ were accepted, most of us would still object to the measures he proposes to inflict on ‘they’ in order to nurture the welfare of ‘we.’ If, in our system of values, we do not regard ‘they’ as being without rights, reason will disclose to us a conflict of values — a conflict between our value of helping ‘we’ and our general goal of not inflicting harm on ‘they.’ And so it is not its reasoning for which we must fault Mein Kampf, but its alleged facts and its outrageous values.

“There is another lesson to be learned from Mein Kampf. We cannot read many lines of it before detecting that Hitler’s reasoning is not cold reasoning but hot reasoning. We have long since learned that when a position is declaimed with passion and invective, there is special need to examine carefully both its premises and its inferences. We have learned this, but we do not always practice it, Regrettably, it is precisely when the passion and invective resonate with our own inner feelings that we forget the warning and become uncritical readers or listeners. Hitler was an effective rhetorician for Germans precisely because his passion and invectives resonated with beliefs and values already present in many German hearts. The heat of his rhetoric rendered his readers incapable of applying the rules of reason and evidence to his arguments. Nor was it only Germans who resonated to the facts and values he proclaimed, The latent anti-Semitism and overt anti-Communism of many Western statesmen made a number of his arguments plausible to them.

“And so we learned, by bitter experience and against our first quick judgments, that we could not dismiss Hitler as a madman, for there was method in his madness, His prose met standards of reason neither higher nor lower than we are accustomed to encountering in writing designed to persuade. Reason was not, could not have been, our principal shield against Nazism. Our principal shield was contrary factual beliefs and values.”

W. H. Auden on The Human Condition

W. H. Auden on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition: “The normal consequence of having read a book with admiration and enjoyment is a desire that others should share one’s feelings. There are, however, if I can judge from myself, occasional exceptions to this rule. Every now and then, I come across a book which gives me the impression of having been especially written for me. In the case of a work of art, the author seems to have created a world for which I have been waiting all my life; in the case of a ‘think’ book, it seems to answer precisely those questions which I have been putting myself. My attitude toward such a book, therefore, is one of jealous possessiveness. I don’t want anybody else to read it; I want to keep it all to myself. Miss Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition belongs to this small and select class; the only other member which, like hers, is concerned with historical-political matters, is Rosenstock-Hussey’s Out of Revolution.” (In Arthur Krystal’s A Company of Readers)

As Solid as the Alps or the Pyrenees

Jean Guéhenno, Diary of the Dark Years 1940–1944 (tr. David Ball): “I told them that this year’s work would have a still more serious meaning, that my job was to teach them France and French thought — that is, something which, as skeptical as I may be about history, seems to me as solid as the Alps or the Pyrenees; this solidity would be our guarantee and nothing and nobody could make France something different from what she was, and luckily her history could not be changed; I told them that Montaigne, Pascal, Voltaire, Michelet, Hugo, and Renan were its guardians, and that consequently, according to the law of my profession and out of simple honesty and faithfulness to myself, to Europe, and my country, I would speak to them as I had always spoken. I told them victory would not have changed anything in my way of thinking, so defeat could not change it, either.”

A Dangerous Obligation and a Handicap

“…when you resist the growth of an innovation that has come to introduce itself by violence, it is a dangerous obligation and a handicap to keep yourself in check and within the rules, in all matters and places, against those who are free as air, to whom everything is permissible that can advance their plan, who have neither law nor order except to follow their advantage.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

This Little Scrap of Knowledge

“This man I had was a simple, crude fellow — a character fit to bear true witness; for clever people observe more things and more curiously, but they interpret them; and to lend weight and conviction to their interpretation, they cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest, or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory. Such was my man; and besides this, he at various times brought sailors and merchants, whom he had known on that trip, to see me. So I content myself with his information, without inquiring what the cosmographers say about it. We ought to have topographers who would give us an exact account of the places where they have been. But because they have over us the advantage of having seen Palestine, they want to enjoy the privilege of telling us news about all the rest of the world. I would like everyone to write what he knows, and as much as he knows, not only in this, but in all other subjects; for a man may have some special knowledge and experience of the nature of a river or a fountain, who in other matters knows only what everybody knows. However, to circulate this little scrap of knowledge, he will undertake to write the whole of physics. From this vice spring many great abuses.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

The Most Decency and Justice

“…when the various details and circumstances of a matter have so perplexed us that we are powerless to see and choose what is most advantageous, I find the surest thing to do, even if no other consideration invited us to it, is this: to cast ourselves into the course in which there is the most decency and justice, and since we are in doubt about the shortest path, to hold always to the straight path.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

“…we can always do more for mankind by following the good in a straight line than we can by making concessions to evil. The illusion that it is wise or necessary to suppress our instinctive love of truth comes from an imperfect understanding of what that instinctive love of truth represents, and of what damage happens both to ourselves and to others when we suppress it. The more closely we look at the facts, the more serious does this damage appear. And on the other hand, the more closely we look at the facts, the more trifling, inconsequent, and absurd do all those reasons appear which strive to make us accept, and thereby sanctify and preserve, some portion of the conceded evil in the world.” (John Jay Chapman, Practical Agitation)

Insane from Fear

“I have known many people to become insane from fear; and even in the most stable, it is certain that while the fit lasts it engenders terrible bewilderment. I leave aside the common herd, whom it causes to imagine now great-grandfathers issued from the tomb wrapped in their shrouds, now werewolves, goblins, and chimeras.” (Montaigne, tr. Frame)

“Verily I have seene divers become mad and senselesse for feare: yea and in him, who is most settled and best resolved, it is certaine that whilest his fit continueth, it begetteth many strange dazelings, and terrible amazements in him. I omit to speake of the vulgar sort, to whom it sometimes representeth strange apparitions, as their fathers and grandfathers ghosts, risen out of their graves, and in their winding sheets: and to others it sometimes sheweth Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and such other Bugbeares and Chimeræs.” (Montaigne, tr. Florio)

I Did Not Know Montaigne from Adam

“Where the development of talent is concerned we are still in the food-gathering stage. We do not know how to grow it. Up to now in this country when one of the masses starts to write, paint, etc., it is because he happens to bump into the right accident. In my case the right accident happened in the 1930s. I had the habit of reading from childhood, but very little schooling. I spent half of my adult life as a migratory worker and the other half as a longshoreman. The Hitler decade started me thinking, but there is an enormous distance between thinking and the act of writing. I had to acquire a taste for a good sentence — taste it the way a child tastes candy — before I stumbled into writing. Here is how it happened. Late in 1936 I was on my way to do some placer mining near Nevada City, and I had a hunch that I would get snowbound. I had to get me something to read, something that would last me for a long time. So I stopped over in San Francisco to get a thick book. I did not really care what the book was about — history, theology, mathematics, farming, anything, so long as it was thick, had small print and, no pictures. There was at that time a large secondhand bookstore on Market Street called Lieberman’s and I went there to buy my book. I soon found one. It had about a thousand pages of small print and no pictures. The price was one dollar. The title page said these were The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I knew what essays were but I did not know Montaigne from Adam. I put the book in my knapsack and caught the ferry to Sausalito. Sure enough, I got snowbound. I read the book three times until I knew it almost by heart. When I got back to the San Joaquin Valley I could not open my mouth without quoting Montaigne, and the fellows liked it. It got so whenever there was an argument about anything — women, money, animals, food, death—they would ask: ‘What does Montaigne say?’ Out came the book and I would find the right passage. I am quite sure that even now there must be a number of migratory workers up and down the San Joaquin Valley still quoting Montaigne. I ought to add that the Montaigne edition I had was the John Florio translation. The spelling was modem, but the style seventeenth century — the style of the King James Bible and of Bacon’s Essays. The sentences have hooks in them which stick in the-mind; they make platitudes sound as if they were new. Montaigne was not above anyone’s head. Once in a workers’ barrack near Stockton, the man in the next bunk picked up my Montaigne and read it for an hour or so. When he returned it he said: ‘Anyone can write a book like this’.”(Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time)