Michel de Montaigne isn’t particularly popular in the twenty-first century.
Born to a well-to-do family in 1533 near modern-day Bordeaux, France, Montaigne was a politician and thinker who recorded his thoughts in many essays. Montaigne is widely regarded as the predecessor of the modern “essay,” a word that then roughly translated as “to try” or “to attempt.”
His ideas weren’t as unique as Bacon’s, nor his theories as profound and defining for Western thought as those of Aristotle or Plato. However, his idea of human nature and human morality is – as for as I’m concerned – a high virtue, and a necessary perspective as we enter an era that will require more international collaboration than ever. Namely, to handle the post-human transition – and the (hopefully) safe creation of superintelligence.
Francis Bacon modeled his own English “essays” after Montaigne’s style, Shakespeare himself owes a great debt to Montaigne’s ideas, and Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes him lavishly in nearly a dozen of his own essays, and credits him openly as one of his foremost influences:
“A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the Essays remained to me from my father’s library… It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience” – Emerson, Of Representative Men, Montaigne – or – the Skeptic
The Virtue of Montaigne
1 – Denial of Virtue, Exploration of the Good
Montaigne’s essays are free of any moral certainty or moral high ground, and in many ways, his writing is his way of coping with (and making peace with, and living with, and gaining wisdom by) this uncertainty.
With rare exceptions, there isn’t a character – contemporary of historical – that Montaigne paints as either a saint or a devil, but always somewhere in between. There isn’t a vice or error that Montaigne doesn’t call out twice in himself before accusing others thereof.
He pretends to most of the vices; and, if there be any virtue in him, he says, it got in by stealth. There is no man, in his opinion, who has not deserved hanging five or six times; and he pretends no exception in his own behalf. “Five or six as ridiculous stories,” too, he says, “can be told of me, as of any man living.” – Emerson, Montaigne; or, the Skeptic
Furthermore, there is hardly a vice that Montaigne won’t occasionally admit to being a virtue in another context, or to being neutral in another, whether on the punishment of cowardice, the role of prayer, the habit of putting soldiers in rags or into expensive and showy equipment before battle.
Montaigne is most keenly aware of virtue being potentially mere self-interest (what we today call psychological egoism), and that we’re unable to genuinely identify the origin of our desires, and that they most likely spring from sources we do not understand – and which we certainly cannot call wholly “good.” He feels this way about himself more than anyone – rarely preening himself in proud and certain virtue, and almost never stating a position that he doesn’t concede could be completely false.
He often sees virtue is a way to frame our amoral needs in a way that seems okay to ourselves, and is perceived well by others.
Speaking of the denial of fame in Not to Communicate a Man’s Honor, Montaigne writes:
There is not any one of which reason so clearly accuses the vanity; but it is so deeply rooted in us that I dare not determine whether any one ever clearly discharged himself from it or no. After you have said all and believed all has been said to its prejudice, it produces so intestine an inclination in opposition to your best arguments that you have little power to resist it; for, as Cicero says, even those who most controvert it, would yet that the books they write about it should visit the light under their own names, and seek to derive glory from seeming to despise it.
He gives glimpses of admission that he, too, is motivated by this recognition. He left public life to write – but that maybe this is his new public life, his new means to fame. Acknowledging this seems to give him a degree of peace, but if anything, it takes away from his ability to project “virtue.” This is a trade he willingly makes in nearly every essay.
2 – Skepticism, Arbitrariness
He marvels openly at the downright arbitrariness of cultures, customs, and ways of doing and being (Of Ancient Customs), unable to reason his way to justifying which is best, or why.
He wrestles with the complete randomness of events – that differing opinions, principles, and perspectives may be “right” or “wrong”, “winning” or “losing”, more by a roll of the dice than by some inner truth or goodness.
Man (in good earnest) is a marvellous vain, fickle, and unstable subject, and on whom it is very hard to form any certain and uniform judgment. For Pompey could pardon the whole city of the Mamertines, though furiously incensed against it, upon the single account of the virtue and magnanimity of one citizen, Zeno,—[Plutarch calls him Stheno, and also Sthemnus and Sthenis]—who took the fault of the public wholly upon himself; neither entreated other favour, but alone to undergo the punishment for all: and yet Sylla’s host, having in the city of Perugia —[Plutarch says Preneste, a town of Latium.]—manifested the same virtue, obtained nothing by it, either for himself or his fellow-citizens.
Or from Of a Saying of Caesar:
Our appetite is irresolute and fickle; it can neither keep nor enjoy anything with a good grace: and man concluding it to be the fault of the things he is possessed of, fills himself with and feeds upon the idea of things he neither knows nor understands, to which he devotes his hopes and his desires, paying them all reverence and honour, according to the saying of Caesar:
“‘Tis the common vice of nature, that we at once repose most
confidence, and receive the greatest apprehensions, from things
unseen, concealed, and unknown.” – De Bello Civil, xi. 4.
Montaigne admits openly to the complexity of matters, and ultimately their interpretability, but that we should try, and try our best
He knows that it very well might have, and that much of what he is doing today could be looked at with the same 20-20 hindsight. He isn’t presumptuous is that sense.
He doesn’t fall into black and white… he doens’t fall into a “camp” of belief – he is the ultimate skeptic of “camps” – he must always have the reigns of his own reason, and never trust himself
Emerson, again, conveys his soul well:
Even the doctrines dear to the hope of man, of the divine Providence and of the immortality of the soul, his neighbors can not put the statement so that he shall affirm it. But he denies out of more faith, and not less. He denies out of honesty. He had rather stand charged with the imbecility of skepticism, than with untruth. – Emerson, Montaigne; or, the Skeptic
Montaigne’s skepticism can’t be seen entirely as a virtue. I’m sure that Montaigne himself wouldn’t have claimed as much.
He simply realizes how fallible we are – how many “certain” ideas had been proven not so, how many “normal” behaviors or beliefs are simply anachronisms, and how many opposed opinions are equally baseless – and he wants no part in it.
He probably trades away some degree of political influence by not picking a “side”, and he almost certainly trades away an ability to move forward toward bold aims in full belief. It isn’t that he has no belief – but none so strong as to profess as eternal, or to die for, or to found a polity upon.
3 – Edification Through Thought
Ultimately, Montaigne grapples with the existentialist’s void – but he does so without the railing and petulance of the existentialists.
As the preeminent French skeptic, he could easily be argued to be father to Camus and Sarte. He dealt with what they dealt with (the void), but with a more settled mind, and an ability to occasionally laugh about it.
Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding human condition ridiculous and vain, never appeared abroad but with a jeering and laughing countenance; whereas Heraclitus commiserating that same condition of ours, appeared always with a sorrowful look, and tears in his eyes:
“Alter Ridebat, quoties a limine moverat unum
Protuleratque pedem; flebat contrarius alter.”
“The one always, as often as he had stepped one pace from his
threshold, laughed, the other always wept.” – Juvenal, Sat., x. 28.
I am clearly for the first humour; not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to weep, but because it expresses more contempt and condemnation than the other, and I think we can never be despised according to our full desert. Compassion and bewailing seem to imply some esteem of and value for the thing bemoaned; whereas the things we laugh at are by that expressed to be of no moment.
A bit of bitterness can be sensed here, but not a white-hot kind. The bitterness mostly subsides, as he meanders towards understanding, towards a position from which he can sit and observe from in peace. He continues:
I do not think that we are so unhappy as we are vain, or have in us so much malice as folly; we are not so full of mischief as inanity; nor so miserable as we are vile and mean. And therefore Diogenes, who passed away his time in rolling himself in his tub, and made nothing of the great Alexander, esteeming us no better than flies or bladders puffed up with wind, was a sharper and more penetrating, and, consequently in my opinion, a juster judge than Timon, surnamed the Man-hater; for what a man hates he lays to heart.
He ends the same essay with a sentence that seems to succinctly frame his ability to live as a dying mortal in a meaningless and un-understandable void – without being completely tarnished or broken thereby:
“Our condition is as ridiculous as it is risible.”
It wasn’t that Montaigne was expecting to gain answers through contemplation – but he did believe that he could gain a semblance of peace by building and constructing himself. By fleshing out what can’t be known – what little might be known – and determining how we would live in light of both.
This kind of “seeking” and consideration – the application of phronesis even in the void itself – might allow him to be a better person, a happier person, a wiser person.
Considerations for International AI Governance
“as Cicero says, even those who controvert it would have the books they write about it should visit the light under their own names, and seek to derive glory from seeming to despise it.” https://t.co/oFjN6ACnTS pic.twitter.com/DqoKfaLUif
— Daniel Faggella (@danfaggella) June 2, 2019
I am of the belief that the greatest challenge to humanity in this century is how we manage the transition to post-human intelligence (artificial general intelligence and/or transhuman cognitive enhancement).
When I’m on stage, and being paid for it, I’m usually speaking on the implications of AI on healthcare, or real estate, or some other private sector domain. When I’m on stage to talk about what I care about most (like, every single TEDx I’ve ever given), the brunt of every talk is one core question:
How will we manage an aggregately beneficial transition to post-human intelligence?
I suspect that we could use some of Montaigne’s modesty and frankness in this discourse. For example:
No Saints Allowed
Question benevolence, in others and in oneself. Question the origin of intentions, in others and in oneself.
In the world of AI regulation (and eventually, neurotech regulation) big tech will claim it’s benevolence (Partnership on AI), and myriad “AI ethics” groups will continue to spring up claiming, conveniently, to stand for the “good”, calling others “bad.”
Everyone deserves respect, and everyone deserves to be suspected of working for their own ends first. The powerless are saintly only until they have the power to be otherwise. We should come together as equally important, and equally self-interested, humans – with no nation, organization, or individual claiming ultimate wisdom or higher truth – or (worse) more benevolent intentions.
Deal Frankly with Human Nature
The constitution of the United States put in place checks and balances to endure the inherent selfishness and amorality of leaders and people. Not because all people should be considered evil, but because they should be considered to be motivated by their own aims, and that the aims and wellbeing of others must be protected in the process.
Expecting humans to arrive at some kind of shared vision of the future, or shared definition of virtue, would be absurd.
Expecting any individual, organization, or nation, to act outside of their own best interest would be absurd.
This doesn’t make people bad – it makes them people. A shared understanding of – endurance of – and even sympathy of our shared amoral nature seems a requisite starting point for global governance of any kind.
No Concrete Right and Wrong
There won’t be any agreement on right and wrong, because there’s no objective way to assess these terms. We’re lost in the void – left with feeble proxies for what we believe will produce better wellbeing for life on earth, or with feeble proxies for what will impact the utilitarian calculus one way or another.
Indeed, wellbeing of life on earth isn’t even seen as a shared or universal goal among human groups. Some groups will believe their own national self-interest to be most important. Some people attribute no moral weight to non-human animals – or less weight to woman than to men.
I’m not stating that all moral tenets are equal – I’m not sure Montaigne would either. We shouldn’t presume that moral tenets could be squared and “harmonized.” Efforts will need to be made to find a middle ground in terms of how AI is developed, and in terms of what objectives we should be pursuing with it, and in terms of who controls it (and how).
However, unmoving dogmatic notions of “right” are unlikely to be productive, and a willingness to mold shared moral tenets for AGI will be predicated either on war (might = right), or on an ability to find a middle ground as well as we can.
Montaigne’s anti-dogmatic stance, as it turns out, makes him more agreeable, more open, more cosmopolitan. Traits that will only become increasingly more valuable as the greatest governance and technology concerns become global, not provincial.
When I read modern thinkers on the topics of nature of man and the human condition, I tend to resonate most with those who strive for the middle passage that Montaigne walks in. Not a hatred or revulsion at man’s vices, nor any hint of naive assumptions of human goodness – and no proclamations of being “right” and claiming others to be “wrong.”
There are a few examples that I’m able to call to mind relatively quickly:
Robin Hanson‘s “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life” is a work I’ve enjoyed for its frank admission of the myriad motives we don’t understand, and the opacity of the moral and intellectual mind.
Nayef Al-Rodhan’s work – which I mention frequently – includes his ideas of the “5 Ps” Power, Pride, Profit, Pleasure and Permanence (longevity). According to Al-Rodhan, these five amoral, selfish drives are at the heart of our actions and intentions.
From my interview with Nayef from over four years ago:
My view of human nature is actually the foundation of my outlook – to me, man is an emotional, amoral, egoist…it turns out that our moral compass is governed primarily by our perceived emotional self interest, and the perception bit is just as important as reality.
Emerson‘s essays – particularly Circles and Politics – harken a hundred times to the middle path of Montaigne.
These works engender more skepticism than certainty. Reading Elephant in the Mind or the 5 Ps make one question their own certainties and virtues – and those of others. There is a kind of productive leveling of humanity when we address how much about ourselves we don’t understand, or which might be attributable to factors vastly outside our comprehension.
These works make it clear that there is no “right” way, and no “saintly” person to point it out.
Taking these ideas seriously in AI governance would imply frankly addressing the selfishness and fallibility of ourselves and other people… of not putting too much faith in any idea or person, and in hedging against our amoral tendencies, and our tendency to attach to a “good” and “just” cause – as opposed to the “evil” cause of our perceived enemies.
I boil down the moral insight of Montaigne into a short list of bullet points:
- There are no devils or saints
- Virtue is mostly self-interest, and often a facade
- Goodness is difficult and arbitrary
- The moral high ground is owned by no one, all are fallible and deceivable
- We share every flaw we can identify in humanity itself, and should investigate them
- We need to deal with amoral, selfish man as he is, not as we wish him to be
Montaigne might be seen as one of many authors who stand as skeptics on the topic of virtue. What makes Montaigne different, I think, is that he doesn’t become embittered by the inherent amoral self-interest of man, but somewhat humbler, and curious – about himself, and about society.
Montaigne was keenly aware of how much of a buffoon one can look like who ties themselves to a certainty. Reading enough history, biography, and philosophy, Montaigne hold’s all “certainty” to be thin ice.
Maybe he’s just trying to save himself from looking foolish – and maybe it’s safety he’s ultimately seeking.
Maybe, though, there is strength in looking at the world frankly enough to see how complex it is, and there is strength in the Greek epoché (suspension of judgment) required to do so. Maybe there are some insights that can only come from that mental position. This alone makes Montaigne worth reading for me – as reading the tart, cathartic virtue of Plutarch’s work was for him.
“T’is our breviary,” Montaigne once said of Plutarch, his favorite author (who deserves an essay of his own, but that will be another day).
In the same way, I’ve often adopted Montaigne as my breviary. His first book of essays I have read, repeatedly, more than any other book in my life. I don’t know if I’m more virtuous for it, but I believe I’m less bitter about the amorality and absurdity of our condition and our form, and less likely to tie myself to convenient beliefs that I wish were truths.
I can only hope to fortify more of that ability as the greater questions and struggles of the posthuman future loom larger.
Header image credit: Wikipedia