Category Archives: Shakespeare & his world

was Montaigne a relativist?

The most interestingly radical form of cultural relativism has three elements, I think:

  1. People’s norms, habits, values, and ways of thinking are pervasively diverse.
  2. The variation is not so much among individuals as among large groups; or (to put it another way) beliefs and values cluster into composites that we call “cultures.”
  3. Since our perceptions and assessments of any culture are shaped by our own, we cannot know or judge objectively.

I do not necessarily share these premises but believe they are essential to the history of thought. Modernism and postmodernism (in all their varieties) are basically responses to these three ideas. I am open to the possibility that cultural relativism was discovered/invented several times in human history–e.g., in India in the 15th century–yet I have long believed that the rise of cultural relativism in Europe around 1800 was epochal; it prompted entirely new ways of thinking that spread with European power around the world.

But what about Montaigne (1533-92)? A case can be made that he was already a thoroughgoing cultural relativist during the Renaissance. Unlike the later figure of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who has also been called a relativist, Montaigne was hardly obscure in his own time. He had a profound and direct influence on thinkers as important as Shakespeare, Bacon, Pascal, and Descartes. Thus I can see three possible theses:

  1. Montaigne was a cultural relativist, and these other figures understood that. They were exposed to cultural relativism far before the modern era and either endorsed it privately or deliberately rejected it–but in either case, it was in their worldview.
  2. The major thinkers whom Montaigne influenced did not understand the idea of cultural relativism. They read the relevant passages in his Essais without seeing their radical implications, as we do.
  3. Montaigne did not conceive of cultural relativism. Neither he nor his early readers understood his writing as relativistic, in the modern sense. Nor should we.

Key passages to consider come from the essays “On Habit” and “On the Cannibals” (translated here by M. A. Screech). In “On Habit,” Montaigne first catalogs many of the bizarre ways in which behaviors and norms vary across history and geography. He lists nations where sons are supposed to beat their fathers, where people grow hair only on the left sides of their bodies, where women are the only warriors, where it is honorable to have as many lovers as possible, and where, over 700 years, no woman ever had sex outside of wedlock because it was unthinkable.

Apparently, Montaigne believes the first premise of cultural relativism that I summarized above–that manners are “infinite in matter and infinite in diversity”:

To sum up, then, the impression I have is that there is nothing that custom may not do and cannot do. … The laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom; since many inwardly venerates the opinions of the manners approved and received about him, he cannot without remorse free himself from them nor apply himself to them without self-approbation.

Further, Montaigne seems to endorse the second principle of cultural relativism, that beliefs and values come together in whole structures that we might (today) call “cultures”:

It is greatly to be doubted whether any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it; for a polity is like a building made of diverse pieces interlocked together, joined in such a way that it is impossible to move one without the whole structure feeling it [emphasis added].

But I am not so sure that Montaigne believes the third premise of true relativism: that our understanding and assessment of cultures are determined by our own cultures. I think he rather argues that proper understanding and evaluation are more difficult than we assume because we are biased in favor of the familiar.

…. But the principal activity of custom is so to seize us and grip us in her claws that it is hardly in our power to struggle free and come back into ourselves, and reason and argue about her ordinances [emphasis added.]

“Hardly in our power” does not mean impossible or undesirable; on the contrary, our main duty is to “struggle free” from custom so that we can “reason and argue” better.

For instance, when Montaigne was disgusted by a French nobleman who blew his nose with his bare hands, he forgot to ask whether that might not actually be a good idea. “I considered that what he said [in his own defense] was not totally unreasonable, but habit had prevented me from noticing just that strangeness [about our own habits, such a blowing our noses into cloths] which we find hideous in similar customs in another country.”

In “On the cannibals” the main point is that we recoil at eating human flesh because it is not our custom, but we ignore the closer-to-hand horrors of torturing people on account of their religious faith. If we paid more attention to the strangeness and indefensibility of our own nation’s norms, we would discover the greatest (and most objective or universal) virtues, which include gentleness and tolerance. As Montaigne writes in “On Habit”:

The Barbarians are in no wise more of a wonder to us than we are to them, nor with better reason–as anyone would admit if, after running through examples from the New World, he concentrated on his own and then with good sense compared them. Human reason is a dye spread more or less equally through all the opinions and all the manners of us humans, which are infinite in matter and infinite in diversity [emphasis added].

Thus Montaigne is not skeptical about our duty–or our ultimate ability–to understand and judge the diverse ideals of human beings. He just thinks that this is harder than we assume. He is trying to shake our naivety in order to improve our reasoning, much like the Hellenistic philosophers when they taught paradoxes of logic and perception in order to strengthen our intellectual discipline and dissuade us from arrogance.

If this is not only what Montaigne meant, but also how his first readers understood him, then they did not derive cultural relativism from his texts. Instead, they drew conclusions reminiscent of Epicurean philosophy: it is hard to know what is right, foolish to set oneself above other people, and wise to focus on the inner life.

One more problem arises. If we detach ourselves as much as possible from our own local customs in order to attain objectivity, won’t we become critical of “traditional law” and then damage society by striving to undermine its norms? The solution to that problem is to live a contemplative and not an active life, to withdraw to one’s chateau and write introspective essais instead of trying to influence the world. For …

it is his soul that the wise man should withdraw from the crowd, maintaining its power and freedom to freely to make judgements, whilst externally accepting all received forms and fashions.

I conclude that Montaigne was not quite a relativist, nor was anyone for another century after him. Because he shunned politics, he was not the most helpful guide to the design of societies; but he was an excellent theorist of moderation, modesty, and introspection.

is science republican (with a little r)?

First, a puzzle about Sir Francis Bacon, one of the founders of science as we know it. He begins his Advancement of Learning (1605):

To the King. … Wherefore, representing your Majesty many times unto my mind, and beholding you … with the observant eye of duty and admiration, leaving aside the other parts of your virtue and fortune, I have been touched – yea, and possessed – with an extreme wonder at those your virtues and faculties, which the philosophers call intellectual; the largeness of your capacity, the faithfulness of your memory, the swiftness of your apprehension, the penetration of your judgment, and the facility and order of your elocution. …

Yet, just a few pages later, Bacon writes:

Neither is the modern dedication of books and writings, as to patrons, to be commended, for that books (such as are worthy the name of books) ought to have no patrons but truth and reason.  And the ancient custom was to dedicate them only to private and equal friends, or to entitle the books with their names; or if to kings and great persons, it was to some such as the argument of the book was fit and proper for; but these and the like courses may deserve rather reprehension than defence.

Dedicating to the King a book in which you denounce dedications would appear to be a contradiction. Perhaps Bacon thought that the argument of his book was “fit and proper” for James I because it was the monarch’s job to support science; perhaps Bacon thought James uniquely deserving of praise (he certainly said so at great length); perhaps the future Lord Chancellor was just being an oily politician; or–most interestingly–perhaps he was deliberately subverting his monarch’s authority.

In any case, the second quotation raises an important issue. Bacon sees that the institution of science must not acknowledge or incorporate arbitrary power. A scientist must not be told: “Believe this because I tell you to.” A scientist must be asked to believe in a purported truth for reasons that she or he can freely accept.

Freedom from arbitrary power is not democracy. Although I see the appeal of writers like John Dewey who would expand “democracy” far beyond voting and majority rule, I prefer to reserve the word for institutions in which people make binding decisions on the basis of equality. Political equality is different from freedom, and it is not applicable in science. Bacon famously opposes democracy (“The Idols of the Marketplace”) as a guide to truth. In The New Organon, XCI, he writes that scientific progress “has not even the advantage of popular applause.  For it is a greater matter than the generality of men can take in, and is apt to be overwhelmed and extinguished by the gales of popular opinions.”

Yet freedom from arbitrary power is essential to republicanism, as Phillip Pettit and others understand that tradition. A republic is a political order in which no one can simply say, “This is how it will be,” without giving reasons. Even a democratic and liberal society like Canada or Australia is not perfectly republican because the Queen, although almost completely stripped of power, holds her office and takes ceremonial actions without giving reasons–because of who she is. In a republic, no one may do that.

Bacon is republican about science in that way. It should have “no patrons but truth and reason”; relationships among scientists should be like those of “equal friends.” He is also republican in a second sense. A republic is a res publica, a “public thing,” better translated as the common good or the commonwealth. Republican virtue means devotion to the res publica. Knowledge is a public good if we give it away. This, of course, is a deeply Baconian theme, for scientists must “give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men.”

the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)

Shrinking enrollments and subsidies lend the humanities an air of crisis. Several states are considering cutting public support for majors that do not lead directly to jobs. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory discussed that idea on the radio with former NEH director Bill Bennett, who himself holds a philosophy PhD. During the conversation, Bennett “made a joke about gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. ‘If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it … But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.’” Although gender studies includes a lot of social science, the other departments that would suffer the most from cuts would likely be in the humanities.

This moment is particularly difficult, but the debate about the public value of the humanities is a perennial one. The word “humanist” derives from the informal name for a new kind of tutor who emerged during the Renaissance. Medieval universities had offered a curriculum that strongly emphasized abstract, theoretical, and technical subjects—above all, philosophy and theology. The main purpose was to prepare senior churchmen. Young men interested in secular, public roles—as courtiers (in monarchies) or office-holders (in republics)—sought a different kind of education that was more practical, concrete, and likely to make them persuasive in public. They attended universities and paid private “humanists” to tutor them on the side, or else they simply studied with humanists, whose curricula began to influence the grammar schools and then the universities of Europe.

The original purpose of the humanities, in short, was to prepare young men to be effective public speakers and to have secular public virtues. The mainstay of humanistic education was the study of narrative, both historical and fictional. Humanists also taught philosophy, but they shifted the focus from abstract arguments to characters like Socrates and the literary form of works by authors like Plato, Seneca, Erasmus, and Montaigne.

Shakespeare received a humanistic education in his grammar school, and he nicely summarizes its goals at the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew. Young Lucentio hopes to “deck his fortune with his virtuous deeds”—and to accomplish that, he needs an education. He sets off for the great medieval university of Padua–the first university in all of Europe–where he plans to “plunge … in the deep” by studying philosophy. The form of philosophy that he would encounter at Padua would be scholasticism, the impressively developed and refined offshoot of Aristotle’s thought. He is rather like a young person today who wants to study economics: a difficult, highly technical discipline that promises professional career opportunities and that pretends to explain important general questions. Lucentio’s servant (and perhaps his tutor) Tranio politely suggests that he should mix that diet with some literature and rhetoric:

Mi perdonato, gentle master mine,
I am in all affected as yourself;
Glad that you thus continue your resolve
To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.
Only, good master, while we do admire
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray;
Or so devote to Aristotle’s cheques
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured:
Balk logic with acquaintance that you have
And practise rhetoric in your common talk … (I.i)

Although the humanities originated as preparation for public life and “common talk,” in the century after Shakespeare, humanistic scholars became increasingly sophisticated about the texts they taught and the historical contexts in which those texts originated. The original idea was to inspire young men with the examples of heroes from the classical past. But the more that humanistic scholars understood classical civilization, the more remote, complex, and varied it appeared. They pursued the truth with the most sophisticated available research tools, treating their impact on students as secondary. The Battle of the Books that broke out in England around 1700 appeared to be a humorous debate between the “wits” and the “pedants,” but in part it was a conflict between amateur enthusiasts of classical texts and professional classicists. Insofar as the amateur enthusiasts—the “wits”—made a serious case for their side, they argued that the humanities should support public life. The pedants retorted that the amateurs did not really understand the texts they appreciated. (I draw this example and much of my argument from the work of my father, Joseph M. Levine.)

The debate about the public role of the humanities has never been resolved, and perhaps never will be, because there is enduring merit in both sides. But as long as we expect the public to fund the humanities with their taxes, it will be essential to make a persuasive case to voters. That case must somehow honor both rigor and relevance, both scholarly excellence and some kind of “common talk.”

[References: Kevin Kiley, Another Liberal Arts Critic, Inside Hiigher Ed, Jan 30, 2013; Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). See also “Joseph M. Levine,” “the future of classics,” “humanistic versus technical philosophy,” and “the place of social impact in a university.”]

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

My favorite book of 2012 is hardly an original choice, since it also won the Booker Prize and has been extravagantly reviewed. But Mantel deserves all the praise she’s received for the second volume of her Thomas Cromwell series, Bring up the Bodies. The first volume, Wolf Hall, was my favorite book of 2010. Of course, I don’t read all that many novels–but many more than I blog about, and twice, Mantel’s were the best.

Below is a typical sample of her vivid imagination and fresh writing. Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, is Cromwell’s nemesis. Although he plays a small role in this volume, he makes an impression when he arrives in an early scene:

Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, blowing up like a thunderstorm, when for once we have a fine day.

When Stephen comes into a room, the furnishings shrink from him. Chairs scuttle backwards. Joint stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches. The woolen Bible figures in the king’s tapestries lift their hands to cover their ears.

To the right is a Tudor joint stool pictured in front of a woolen tapestry. It’s the kind of furniture that Shakespeare’s Fool cites when he says to Goneril, “Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.” If its top moved away from the Bishop of Winchester in consternation, its legs would bend to rightward exactly like a female dog urinating.

Of course, that doesn’t literally happen when Gardiner walks into the room; it is Cromwell’s perception. The whole book is told in the third-person present tense from a vantage point very close to Cromwell’s. “When for once we have a fine day,” is Cromwell’s implied voice, describing the actual weather–unremitting rains have ruined England’s crops–while  expressing his jaundiced view of the Bishop. Cromwell is “he” throughout the book. Mantel works hard to avoid using his proper name, thus making the “he” almost the same as an “I.”

The immense challenge she undertook was to restore the perspective of a man who lived long ago, who left few illuminating personal records, and who has figured mainly as the ruthless villain in the biographies of more famous people whom he sent to the block, especially St. Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. We know that he was an effective, reforming statesman who rose from humble origins; that is enough to make him intriguing. But to make him sympathetic is a tremendous achievement.

For the first volume-and-a-half, we see things from Cromwell’s perspective and learn to appreciate his humor, his efficiency and hard work, his unpretentious observations, and his love of family. He has survived a violent father, street brawls, wars, and the fall of his master, and we want him to survive at court. But I think the last part of Bring Up the Bodies shifts the moral center of the book. I will explain what I mean below the fold in order not to spoil the conclusion (which comes straight from history, but you can’t predict where Mantel will choose to end this volume).

Continue reading

man the unwedgeable and gnarled oak (thoughts on Measure for Measure)

Duke: Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. … (Act. 1 Sc. 1)

Lucio: Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (Act 1, c. 4)

Angelo: … ‘Tis very pregnant [natural],
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it. (Act 2, Sc. 1)

These are statements in the form of generalizations about human beings. They come from the first two acts of Measure for Measure. The form–a maxim about us–is not unusual in Shakespeare. (Cf. Kent in Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” and many other examples.) But the frequency seems notably high near the beginning of this play.

In Measure for Measure, the main pair of lovers is guilty of “fornication,” which is a capital offense in the fictionalized setting of Vienna. No one in the play doubts that premarital sex is wrong. The question is whether it is inevitable because of human nature. Lucio claims that fornication is “impossible to extirp … till eating and drinking be put down.” He argues that laws against fornication would prevent the species from reproducing. Speaking of the Puritanical tyrant Angelo, Lucio says: “this ungenitured agent will unpeople the province with continency; sparrows must not build in his house-eaves, because they are lecherous.” (Again cf. Lear: “The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.”)

Since Lucio is himself a lecher and a hypocrite, his view is hardly authoritative. But the holy and chaste Isabella has a more persuasive argument against inflexible rules. “Man,” she says, is an “unwedgeable and gnarled oak” (Act 2, sc. 2). She sounds like Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This is an argument against inflexible laws.

In short, the explicit question facing the characters in Measure for Measure is about human nature; hence the drumbeat of maxims near the beginning. In addressing that question, the characters must remain within the bounds of Christan thought. Their community has  friars and nuns, and Isabella is a source of orthodox theological wisdom. Christians may argue about freedom and original sin, but they cannot claim that all laws and moral strictures are arbitrary human conventions.*

That is why Lear makes an interesting comparison. Its setting is explicitly pagan. Major characters are cast out of society onto the natural heath, where a person is just a “poor, bare, forked animal.” The King (albeit, when mad) comes to see all laws as oppressive conventions. The possibility opens up that life is meaningless: “Ripeness is all.”

Following Stanley Cavell, I think Lear demonstrates that one should not ask general questions about human nature and the purposes of human life. Those questions will yield nihilistic conclusions that are really excuses for avoiding emotional connections and responsibilities for other people. That is a view derived from Montaigne and ancient skeptics. It’s not really acceptable in Christian Vienna, where institutions are derived from providence, and souls are destined for salvation.

*No one uses the word God in Measure for Measure–instead “Jove” is used–but I presume that is because of scruples about taking the Lord’s name in vain on the stage. Also, the setting appears to be Catholic, even though Catholicism was illegal in Shakespeare’s England. Still, the characters are recognizably Christian.