Montaigne And Conservatism


A reader writes:

Andrew, you said in your appreciation of Montaigne:

Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

I am a lifelong liberal, perhaps for genetic reasons (as some recent studies have proposed), conservative-soulbut most certainly because conservatism in America has, as you say elsewhere in your piece, degenerated into reactionary, xenophobic, fundamentalist, hate-inspired lunacy. So, yes, I am a lifelong liberal (also because as a gay man, now in his seventies, the liberal left always seemed to me to be more favorably disposed to accepting me and our kind, though slowly and reluctantly.)

But I tell you, I heartily and wholeheartedly agree with your statement. So I guess I’m a conservative too, at least one of your kind. Can you confess that maybe you’re a liberal too? The progressive objection to the way of Montaigne?

I haven’t met a leftist ideologue who thought there were “true” solutions since the sixties. You, fighting leftist gays when you were arguing for gay marriage and they were for rejecting your “virtually normal” ideas, may have soured your views of the left, but believe me, there were millions throughout the country who just wanted their rights, to be as lawfully legitimate as our heterosexual brothers and sisters. And we have prevailed, spectacularly.

The key here, it seems to me, is understanding conservatism as a disposition rather than as a fixed ideology. That suggests, of course, that it might pragmatically express itself, at times, as a form of political liberalism as we understand it.

bookclub-beagle-trOne of the aha! moments I had in reading Oakeshott (who was deeply influenced by Montaigne) was when he actually described progressivism as an integral part of the Western conversation – one that a true conservative would not seek to extinguish, but rather respect and nurture. The genius of the modern European state was that it contained two core impulses – collective action and individual liberty – and the conservative mission was to find the right balance between them, at the right time, with a little preference for liberty.

That requires prudential judgment and a light, pragmatic touch. Oakeshott’s vision of the conservative politician was a “trimmer” – someone who trims the sails on a ship to exploit the current winds and weather. The point is merely to keep the ship afloat – not to reach the perfect desert island or to conquer distant lands, but for the sake of the coherence and steadiness of the whole. And when you look at Montaigne’s own political predilections, he fits smack dab in the middle of just such a disposition.

Bakewell, in How To Live, vividly brings to life the era of zeal and religious conflict that Montaigne lived in.

It was like Iraq in the last decade, the bodies piled high from sectarian murder and chaos and fanaticism and hatred (see the depiction of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre above). The human atrocities wrought in the name of ultimate truth and personal salvation beggar belief. And throughout it all, despite being enmeshed in politics at times, Montaigne kept his independence and perspective and balance. Bobbing and weaving between Protestant and Catholic, and finding the extremism of both distasteful, he homed in on the key failing of his time:

Our zeal does wonders when it is seconding our leaning towards hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, detraction, rebellion. Against the grain, toward goodness, benignity, moderation, unless as by a miracle some rare nature bears it, it will neither walk nor fly.

He embraced moderation as a way of life:

The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.

He sought ordinariness, acceptance of reality (including the reality of one’s own nature), an aversion to heroism and conquest, and the long view of human affairs (he was, after all, dependent for much of his learning on men who lived thousands of years before). That’s partly why he was derided by some as a “politique“, which translated pretty much to Oakeshott’s notion of the “trimmer.” And what motivated both Montaigne and Oakeshott was a preference for “present laughter” over “utopian bliss”. Yes, reforms may well be necessary; yes, there are 1024px-Debat-Ponsan-matin-Louvretimes for collective action; but a political regime that leaves people alone in their consciences and allows us the task of ordinary living is the best regime. In that sense, Montaigne was stranded in the wrong country. While France was convulsed with the blood of religious conflict, England was benefiting from that very politique Queen, Elizabeth I.

As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is “Toujours l’audace!” And you can see why, after an important reform like marriage equality, I am deeply suspicious of those on the left seeking to remake society in its wake and to obliterate bigotry in our time.

Another reader writes:

Reading PM Carpenter‘s entry into the Montaigne discussion, the ending thought jumped out, as it did to you probably.

“So what of my underlying if not uneasily irrepressible socialism? What of Sullivan’s conservatism? In effect they’re indistinguishable, which is somewhat mind-blowing. But then again, so was Montaigne.”

It made me immediately remember a passage from Eric Hobsbawn, who has a thing or two to say about how to live and how to doubt. This is from The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century:

It may well be that the debate which confronted capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive and polar opposites will be seen by future generations as a relic of the twentieth-century ideological Cold Wars of Religion. It may turn out to be as irrelevant to the third millennium as the debate between Catholics and various reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on what constituted true Christianity proved to be in the eighteenth and nineteenth.

That’s all.

And that’s a lot.

(Paintings: The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter born circa 1529 in Amiens. Although Dubois did not witness the massacre, he depicts Admiral Coligny‘s body hanging out of a window at the rear to the right. To the left rear, Catherine de’ Medici is shown emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies; and One morning at the gates of the Louvre, 19th-century painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan. Catherine de’ Medici is in black.)