Book Club: How Extremists Need Each Other

A reader winds down our discussion by tying the lessons of Montaigne to the current crisis in Gaza:

It seems to me the most compelling angle to look at Montaigne right now is how living through the civil war of religion in France his whole adult life shaped his philosophy of bookclub-beagle-trmoderation. I had no idea how bloodcurdling the conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots were. That was just shy of half a century of neighbors dragging neighbors out in the streets to be tortured, killed, and perhaps slowly roasted over an open flame for witchcraft! All over what we now think of as slightly different flavors of Christianity!

Montaigne has been accused of being too bloodless and passive, with his stubborn refusal to pass definitive judgement and his pursuit of equanimity as a cardinal virtue. But if you consider the bloody backdrop of the times he lived through, his very moderation is the bravest and most radical stance I can think of.

As the mob violence spiraled out of control on both sides, the pressure to fall in line and declare the moral supremacy of your cause must be almost irresistible. In fact, “us or them” thinking would have been rational, in a prisoner’s dilemma kind of way. Instead, he championed the power of individual human dignity. Even amid war, he coolly proclaimed, the lives of most people are unaffected most of the time. For an observer of his caliber, that is a statement not of insensitivity but of quiet defiance. Life goes on.

He lived according to his philosophy of modest courage. For instance, he chose not to fortify montaigne.jpgthe defenses for his estate even as anarchy engulfed the countryside. Instead, he hosted travelers so graciously that one group who planned to rob him changed their minds. Politically, he was a passionate moderate who believed the civil war was a political problem with a political, not theological, solution. He complained that as a Catholic with many Protestant friends, he was considered “a Guelph to the Ghibellines and a Ghibelline to the Guelphs”. He toiled as a go-between for the king and the protestant Henry de Navarre.

It seems to me that the true fight that is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the moderates on both sides trying to hold the line against the absolutists on both sides. Even though the ultimate goals for the extremists on both sides are diametrically opposite, their medium-term goal is actually the same: to escalate conflict and prevent any compromise from tainting the purity of their victory. Unfortunately, it is shockingly easy to escalate conflict, especially with partisans on both sides searching for the worst in the others’ actions or rhetorics to justify their own hostile reprisals.

Montaigne would probably advise us to watch out for passion and zeal, so that we do not empower the absolutists. Easier said than done, even for those of us sitting safely with our American asses in our air-conditioned homes. But we all need to be more like Montaigne.