At the end of his life, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) inserted a question into an essay written many years before: "When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?" The question summed up Montaigne's long-held conviction that we can never really plumb the inner life of others, be they cats or human beings. Montaigne's cat can serve as an emblem for co-operation. My premise about co-operation is that we frequently don't understand what's passing in the hearts and minds of people with whom we have to work. Yet just as Montaigne kept playing with his enigmatic cat, so too a lack of mutual understanding shouldn't keep us from engaging with others; we want to get something done together.
Montaigne was born the year Holbein painted The Ambassadors. Like Holbein's young emissaries to Britain, the young Montaigne had a political education as a member of the parlement of Bordeaux – a regional council of notables. Like the two emissaries, he came to know the religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants close up. The civil wars of religion in the mid-16th century convulsed the Bordeaux region and threatened the village in which his family's domains lay. While Montaigne took the side of the Protestant leader Henri de Navarre, his heart was in neither religious dogma nor professional politics. In 1570, two years after the death of his father, he retired to his estate, and even further, to a tower within the south-east corner of the chateau, where he set up a room in which to think and to write. In this chamber, he began both to experiment with writing in a dialogical way – that is, emphasising dialogue – and to think through its application to everyday co-operation.
Although he had retired to an intimate stage, and spent much of his time on the wine-making that supported the estate, he had not withdrawn mentally and emotionally from concern with the wider world. The great friend of his youth, Étienne de La Boétie, had written a Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (probably in 1553, at the age of 22), a study of the blind desire to obey, and Montaigne elaborated many of its precepts in his own writings. The religious wars had implanted in both young men a horror of the craving for faith, for service to an abstract principle or to a charismatic leader. Had the two friends lived a century later, the theatrics of Louis XIV would have embodied for them the state's effort to induce passive, voluntary submission among a crowd of spectators to a leader. Had they lived in our own time, the charismatic despots of the 20th century would equally have posed, to Montaigne and La Boétie, the threat of passive obedience. After La Boétie's early death, Montaigne continued to champion his friend's alternative idea of building political engagement from the ground up, based on ordinary cooperation in a community.
Montaigne was a seigneur who availed himself fully of his historic privileges, so that he certainly cannot be likened to a radical community organiser in the modern sense, yet he studied how the communal life around him was organised, hoping to gather from casual chats, the rituals surrounding wine-making and the care of dependants on his estate how La Boétie's project might be realised.
Montaigne's emblematic, enigmatic cat lay at the heart of this project. What passes in the minds of those with whom we co-operate? Around this question Montaigne associated other aspects of practising co-operation: dialogic practices which are skilled, informal and empathic. Blaise Pascal singled out Montaigne as "the incomparable author of 'the art of conversation'". The "art" of conversing for Montaigne is in fact the skill of being a good listener; in one essay he likens the skilled listener to a detective. He detested what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the "fetish of assertion" on a speaker's part. Fierce assertion directly suppresses the listener, Montaigne says; the debater demands only assent. In his essay, he observes that, in society more largely, the declaration of a speaker's superior knowledge and authority arouses doubt in a listener about his or her own powers of judgment; the evil of passive submission follows from feeling cowed.
Montaigne disputes that the skilled detection of what others mean but do not say is the province of exceptional minds; this detective and contemplative skill, he insists, is a potentiality in all human beings,one suppressed by assertions of authority. The idea of everyday diplomacy would have made sense to him for just this reason; once freed from top-down commands, people require skill in keeping silent, in showing tact, in that lightening of differences which Castiglione called sprezzatura – at least this was so between Catholics and Protestants in the town next to Montaigne's estate when political authority collapsed; only the vigilant practice of everyday diplomacy allowed people there to carry on with life on the streets.
As a man moving around his local community, Montaigne enjoyed dialogic conversations more than dialectical arguments, tinged as all disputes were for him with the threat of descent into violence. He practised dialogics in his writing; his essays bounce from subject to subject, seeming to wander at times, yet the reader finishes each with the sense that the author has opened up a topic in unexpected ways, rather than narrowly scored points.
"Dialogics" is in fact a modern name for a very old narrative practice, but Montaigne was, I think, the first to deploy it with a certain cunning: narrating in bits and pieces will suppress readerly aggression. By dissipating emotional temperature in the reader, as in an essay on cruelty, he hopes, ironically, to make the vices of cruelty stand out more in their sheer unreasonableness; he hopes in this way that, as he says, the reader will "unlearn evil". For Montaigne, this was the point of dialogics – looking at things in the round to see the many sides of any issue or practice, the shifting focus making people cooler and more objective in their reactions.
As a man of his time, Montaigne was entranced by skill of a technical sort. Rather than the elaborate astronomical devices resting on Holbein's table, Montaigne was interested in more everyday crafts, such as carpenters' lathes, new culinary tools such as clockwork spits for roasting, and above all he was fascinated by plumbing; water pumps for ornamental fountains and cattle basins seem particularly to have fascinated him. These prosaic interests become incorporated into a pair of essays, "Habit" and "Same Design: Different Outcomes". Habits, he says, steady a skill, but the rule of unchanging habit is a tyranny; good habits are those "designs" left free to produce different "outcomes". This precept applies equally, he argues, to machines and to men. It seems obvious to him, and so he leaves it as just a stray observation. I would argue that by modulating their habits people become more interactive, both in exploring objects and in engaging with one another: the craft ideal governs my exploration of making and repairing both physical things and social relations.
Montaigne was, as Sarah Bakewell observes in her book How to Live, the philosopher par excellence of modesty, particularly the self-restraint that helps people to engage with others. Modesty encapsulates Montaigne's idea of civility, but his version little resembles the celebrated account of civility given by the sociologist Norbert Elias in The Civilising Process. As a man, Montaigne was easy in his body, and wrote frequently about it, going into details about how his urine smells or when he likes to shit. Modesty without shame: Montaigne's idea of civility is in part that, if we can be easy with ourselves, we can be easy with other people. In a late essay he writes that men, in whatever position they are placed, pile up and arrange themselves by moving and shuffling about, just as a group of objects thrown into a bag find their own way to join and fit together, often better than they could have been arranged deliberately.
"Our self," Montaigne writes in an essay on vanity, "is an object full of dissatisfaction, we can see there nothing but wretchedness and vanity." Yet this is not a counsel to engage in Luther's anguished self-struggle: "so as not to dishearten us, Nature has very conveniently cast the action of our sight outwards." Curiosity can "hearten" us to look beyond ourselves. Looking outward makes for a better social bond than imagining others are reflected in ourselves, or as though society itself were constructed as a room of mirrors. But looking outward is a skill people have to learn.
Montaigne thinks empathy rather than sympathy is the cardinal social virtue. In the record he kept of life on his small country estate, he constantly compares his habits and tastes with those of his neighbours and workers. Of course he is interested in the similarities, but he takes particular note of their peculiarities: to get along together, all will have to attend to mutual differences and dissonances.
Taking an interest in others, on their own terms, is perhaps the most radical aspect of Montaigne's writing. His was an age of hierarchy, in which inequalities of rank seemed to separate seigneurs and servants into separate species, and Montaigne is not free of this attitude; nonetheless, he is curious. It's often said that he is one of the first writers to dwell on his own personal self; this is true but incomplete. His method of self-knowledge is to compare and to contrast; he stages differentiating encounters and exchanges again and again in the pages of his essays. Frequently he is gratified by his own distinctiveness, but almost as often, as with his cat, he is perplexed by what makes others different.
Like Holbein's table, Montaigne's cat was an emblem fashioned at the dawn of the modern era to convey a set of possibilities; the table represented in part new ways of making things, the cat represented new ways of living together. The cat's backstory is Montaigne's, and La Boétie's, politics: co-operative life, freed of command from the top. What happened to these promises of modernity? In a pregnant phrase, the social philosopher Bruno Latour declares, "We have never been modern." He means specifically that society has failed to come to grips with the technologies it has created; nearly four centuries after Holbein, the tools on the table remain mystical objects. As concerns co-operation, I'd amend Latour's declaration: we have yet to be modern; Montaigne's cat represents human capabilities society has yet to nurture.
The 20th century perverted co-operation in the name of solidarity. The regimes that spoke in the name of unity were not only tyrannies; the very desire for solidarity invites command and manipulation from the top. The perverse power of solidarity, in its "us-against-them" form, remains alive in the civil societies of liberal democracies, as in European attitudes toward immigrants who seem to threaten social solidarity, or in American demands for a return to "family values".
Solidarity has been the left's traditional response to the evils of capitalism. Co-operation in itself has not figured much as a strategy for resistance. Though the emphasis is in one way realistic, it has also sapped the strength of the left. The new forms of capitalism emphasise short-term labour and institutional fragmentation; the effect of this economic system has been that workers cannot sustain supportive social relations with one another.In the west, the distance between the elite and the mass is increasing, as inequality grows more pronounced in neo-liberal regimes such as those of Britain and the US; members of these societies have less and less a fate to share in common. The new capitalism permits power to detach itself from authority, the elite living in global detachment from responsibilities to others on the ground, especially during times of economic crisis. Under these conditions, as ordinary people are driven back on themselves, it's no wonder they crave solidarity of some sort – which the destructive solidarity of "us-against-them" is tailor-made to provide.
It's little wonder also that a distinctive character type has been bred by this crossing of political and economic power, a character type seeking to relieve experiences of anxiety. Individualism of the sort Tocqueville describes might seem to La Boétie, were he alive today, a new kind of voluntary servitude, the individual in thrall to his or her own anxieties, searching for a sense of security in the familiar. But the word "individualism" names, I believe, a social absence as well as a personal impulse: ritual is absent. Ritual's role in all human cultures is to relieve and resolve anxiety, by turning people outward in shared, symbolic acts; modern society has weakened those ritual ties.Secular rituals, particularly rituals whose point is co-operation itself, have proved too feeble to provide that support.
The 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt spoke of modern times as an "age of brutal simplifiers".Today, the crossed effect of desires for reassuring solidarity amid economic insecurity is to render social life brutally simple: "us-against-them" coupled with "you-are-on-your-own". But I'd insist that we dwell in the condition of "not yet". Modernity's brutal simplifiers may repress and distort our capacity to live together, but do not, cannot, erase this capacity. As social animals we are capable of co-operating more deeply than the existing social order envisions, for Montaigne's emblematic, enigmatic cat is lodged in ourselves.
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