Next semester I will be teaching an honors colloquium on Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), one of the most important and influential thinkers and writers in the Western tradition. As fate would have it, the first of Montaigne’s essays I read this morning was “Of the useful and the honorable,” reflections on what Montaigne learned from his life in public service, both as the mayor of Bordeaux and as a liaison and diplomat between warring (literally) factions in violence-torn 16th century France.
In the background as I read I had the television on as the impeachment hearings and, eventually, vote on articles of impeachment began in the House of Representatives. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of what Montaigne has to say is directly relevant to what is happening in real time before our eyes.
Here, for instance, is something for Donald J. Trump:
The way of truth is one and simple: that of private profit and the advantage of one’s personal business is double, uneven, and random . . . Will and desires are a law unto themselves; actions must receive their law from public regulation.
And here is what Montaigne has to say to the Republican members of the House:
But we must not call “duty,” as we do every day, an inner bitterness and asperity that is born of private interest and passion; nor “courage” a treacherous and malicious conduct. Their propensity to malignity and violence they call zeal. It is not the cause that inflames them, it is their self-interest.
This, arguably, is important advice for all those who will be debating and voting, both today and in the likely Senate trial of the impeached President next month:
I am attached to the general and just cause only with moderation and without feverishness . . . Anger and hatred are beyond the duty of justice, and are passions serving only those who do not hold to their duty enough by reason alone. All legitimate and equitable intentions are of themselves equable and temperate; otherwise they degenerate into the seditious and illegitimate.
And, finally, Montaigne wraps up his essay with something that reminds me of the courage of Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a freshman congressperson who, a couple of days ago, courageously announced during a town hall in her Michigan district, a district that voted for Trump by 7% in 2016, that she will be voting in favor of both articles of impeachment today. Many people have told Rep. Slotkin that she is committing professional suicide. In the face of both boos and cheers from her raucous constituents at the town hall meeting, she demonstrated that some things are more important than keeping one’s job. Montaigne wrote about public servants like her more than four centuries ago in “Of the useful and the honorable”:
Pure naturalness and truth, in whatever age, still find their time and their place . . . Every person should swear what the kings of Egypt had their judges solemnly swear: that they would not deviate from their conscience for any command, even that they themselves gave them.
This is a solemn day–it was instructive for me this morning to be reminded by Montaigne that the choice between courage and cowardice, as well as duty and self-interest, is a choice that is before each of us every day.