Montaigne the bodhisattva?

Several influential philosophical traditions assert that everyone is equally important. Since other people outnumber each of us–by billions–we should count ourselves and our interests for almost nothing.

That is a direct implication of classical utilitarianism. Sam Bankman-Fried endorsed it in an interview with Adam Fisher, conducted while he was actually stealing money for himself. (But hypocrisy does not invalidate a moral principle.) Another crisp statement comes in Shantideva’s classical summary of Buddhist ethics, probably written in the 700s CE. Shantideva recommends that we

meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself. … When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself … Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation placed on this? If one asks why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that! If it must be prevented, then all of it must be. If not, this goes for oneself as for anyone … This is why Supushpacandra, although undergoing torture at the hands of the king, did nothing to prevent his own suffering out of sacrifice for many sufferers. … Those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way, to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down into the Avici hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms [to save the souls condemned there.]

Shantideva, 8.90, 8.95, 8.102-3, 8.106-7.

Michel de Montaigne acknowledges that “most of the world’s rules and precepts do adopt such an attitude, driving us outside ourselves and hounding us into the forum in the interests of the public weal.” These philosophies advise “that one should forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour and that, compared to the general, the individual is of no importance” (Montaigne, “On Restraining Your Will,” 1580, III, 10, p. 1137). Montaigne even says that his father held this view, and it motivated the elder Montaigne to be a devoted public servant.

Nevertheless, Montaigne dissents. He acknowledges one good thing about trying to treat every other person as just as important as ourselves. It teaches us not to be overly attached to our private interests, just as a “bowman, … to hit his target, raises his sights way above it”–or just as “to straighten a piece of bent wood we bend it right over backwards” (p. 1138).

In other words, striving to count ourselves for almost nothing counters the fault of caring for ourselves alone. But our real target should lie between the extremes of self-negation and self-love. For …

the true degree of love which each man owes to himself is … not false love which makes us embrace glory, knowledge, riches and such-like with an immoderate primary passion, as though they were members of our being, nor a love which is easy-going and random, acting like ivy which cracks and destroys the wall which it clings to, but a healthy, measured love, as useful as it is pleasant. Whoever knows its duties and practises them is truly in the treasure-house of the Muses: he has reached the pinnacle of human happiness and of man’s joy. Such a man, knowing precisely what is due to himself, finds that his role includes frequenting men and the world; to do this he must contribute to society the offices and duties which concern him. [C] He who does not live a little for others hardly lives at all for himself: ‘Qui sibi amicus est, scito hunc amicum omnibus esse.’ [Know that a man who feels loving-friendship for himself does so for all men – Seneca] The chief charge laid upon each one of us is his own conduct: that is why we are here. For example, any man who forgot to live a good and holy life himself, but who thought that he had fulfilled his duties by guiding and training others to do so, would be stupid: in exactly the same way, any man who gives up a sane and happy life in order to provide one for others makes (in my opinion) a bad and unnatural decision.

Montaigne 1580, p. 1138.

Montaigne’s position requires a defense. After all, every person is equally valuable, in an objective sense, so why shouldn’t we act accordingly?

First, Montaigne argues that to promote everyone else’s welfare requires ambition. It means climbing the ladder of authority in order to influence the social order. Montaigne is highly skeptical of ambition, seeing it as a snare. Most people who attain high office are actually unable to accomplish much, yet they are quick to take themselves far too seriously:

Most of our occupations are farcical: ‘Mundus universus exercet histrionem.’ [Everybody in the entire world is acting a part — Petronius]. We should play our role properly, but as the role of a character which we have adopted. … I know some who transubstantiate and metamorphose themselves into as many new beings and forms as the dignities which they assume: they are prelates down to their guts and livers and uphold their offices on their lavatory-seat.

Montaigne, 1580, pp. 1143-4.

Those who enter the fray to improve the world also become partisans for particular positions. They take views about how things should be and are prone to disparage their opponents. Montaigne, on the other hand, strives for intellectual humility and uncertainty, and he looks for value in all views. “I am firmly attached to the sanest of the parties but I do not desire to be particularly known as an enemy of the others beyond what is generally reasonable” (p. 1145). After all, “A good book does not lose its beauty because it argues against my cause” (p. 1144).

But why do we need authority or ideology to improve the world? Why not humbly give away most of what we possess? Perhaps Montaigne should have done that–and perhaps I should now. Although he doesn’t directly address this issue, he does argue that wealth is unrelated to happiness. “Metrodorus lived on twelve ounces a day, Epicurus on less; Metrocles slept among his sheep in the winter and, in summer, in the temple porticos; ‘Sufficit ad id natura, quod poscit.’ [What nature demands, she supplies –Seneca.] (p. 1141).

Montaigne acknowledges that people want more than the bare minimum of worldly goods, but that is because we have become habituated to surplus and are averse to losing it to other people. “If I lack anything which I have become used to, I [foolishly] hold that I truly lack it” (p. 1142). Better not to obtain it in the first place. That implies that sharing one’s surplus with others would do them little good.

But Montaigne’s main point–throughout his work–is that happiness is hard to accomplish. Fear of death and other human frailties beset us, regardless of our social circumstances. “We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more” (Montaigne, I:3, p, 11). We can address such faults, but to do so requires introspection and self-care. If everyone devoted themselves to helping everyone else, no one would accomplish happiness.

Since I began this post with Shantideva, I should present his probable rejoinder. He would agree with Montaigne that suffering is universal, and the only solution is inward. “Since I cannot control external events, I will control my own mind” (5.14). However, this Buddhist monk would recommend a different path from Montaigne’s. The more we fully grasp the suffering of the vast number of other sentient beings, the less space we have left to care about our own private interests. Caring about our interests–experiencing desire or craving–is the source of all unhappiness. Therefore, setting one’s aim, like an archer, at the good of all sentient beings is actually the best way to liberate oneself from suffering. “Whosoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other” (8:120)

This doesn’t sound exactly like Montaigne. As I have noted, he rejects the advice to “forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour.” He famously retreated from the world’s struggle to read and write in his private tower, making himself his only topic. “My business, my art, is to live my life” (p. 425, from “On Practice”). Also, Montaigne claims modestly that he has not achieved “noble Stoic impassibility” (p. 1153), because he hasn’t accomplished his inner peace by exercising any kind of discipline. Instead, he just happens to be easy-going by temperament.

Still, Montaigne’s writing radiates curiosity and empathy for the vast variety of human beings whom he has encountered in books and life. He abhors cruelty. He offers gentle advice aimed at liberating us from attachment. For instance: “There are so many awkward passages that the surest way is to glide rather lightly over the surface of this world. We should slide over it, not get bogged down in it. Pleasure itself is painful in its deeper reaches” (p. 1136).

And perhaps his essays are a gift. “Here you have not my teaching but my study: the lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all of that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else” (p. 423, from “On Practice”). This is Montaigne’s way of plunging into hell as a cluster of lotus blossoms.

Sources: Michel Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1580), translated by M.A. Screech (Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition); Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: compassion, not sympathy; two criticisms of Effective Altruism; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; was Montaigne a relativist?; John Stuart Mill, Stoic; introspect to reenchant the inner life; Emerson’s mistake; the sublime is social; Buddhism as philosophy; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.