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Nothing as destructive as radical change – EUobserver

21st Oct 2021
When everything is shifting and nothing seems certain, it feels good sometimes to read those who have experienced key moments in history. So, with Poland throwing the legal order of Europe in disarray, Russia rationing Europe’s gas supply and the UK reneging on its Brexit commitments, perhaps the moment has come again to read a few essays by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
Montaigne, a humanist, lived in the 16th century, a period marked by political, civil and, above all, religious wars.
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Protestants and catholics massacred each other. More than three million people died in France. With political leaders and warlords jockeying for power, all pursuing maximalist solutions to real or perceived problems, consensus and compromise were scarce commodities.
This is where Montaigne’s motto “Que sais-je?” [‘What do I really know?’] actually comes from. The more he saw his contemporaries immersed in self-righteousness, the more he himself valued doubt as a virtue. In his Essays, first published in 1580 and still never long out of print, he professes a heartfelt aversion to radical change. “Nothing is as destructive to a state as sweeping innovations,” he wrote. “Every change becomes the basis for new injustice and tyranny.”
Reading Montaigne in 2021 is like reading Stefan Zweig about the years just preceding the First World War: even if one accepts that history never repeats itself, parallels between then and now impose themselves inescapably (Zweig was, by the way, an avid reader of Montaigne and even wrote a book about him).
Montaigne’s essays, a mixture of casual anecdotes, personal observations and intellectual analysis, have a curious modern ring to them. Human beings often tend to believe they are unique, and that their dilemmas are special and unprecedented.
But while reading Montaigne’s essays, one often becomes aware that in fact there are patterns, including in human behaviour and thinking, and that the ideas and conclusions he drew from them actually hold relevance for the 21st century, too.
At the moment, not for the first time in history, many Europeans are dissatisfied with politics and society. For the umpteenth time, some even feel they must answer a key question: should they repair those parts of the system that no longer seem to be functioning properly, or raze everything to the ground and start rebuilding from scratch?
Montaigne firmly believed that, per definition, the first option is always better than the second. In his view, people who try to remedy defects in politics or society by knocking down the entire system often make a bad situation worse – as if one were curing a sick person by killing him.
But the world cannot be cured, he wrote. “If we feel we are being cornered by something, we find it so unbearable that we want only one thing: to free ourselves from it without asking what price we pay.”
Some mistakenly consider Montaigne an arch-conservative. In fact, it was also personal experience that made him write these things. As a young boy, he had seen a politician being torn to pieces by an angry mob who then pickled the flesh in salt. His own father, a wealthy merchant, was chased out as mayor of Bordeaux.
Later, as a politician himself, Montaigne regularly mediated between warring factions who were totally convinced of their own right. More than once, he and his family had to flee from their house. When he was not yet 40, 20,000 Huguenots, as French protestants were known, were murdered on St Bartholomew’s Day (1572).
All these violent events led him to realise that humans should be content as long as they can avoid fighting each other, and that Europe has governance systems that may be far from perfect but which offer at least some guarantees to all and, most importantly, keep extremism at bay.
Perhaps for this reason, Claude Lévy-Strauss considered him a pioneer of relativism. This is not to say that Montaigne was against change per se.
On the contrary, he thought mankind should always try to make the world a little better – but slowly and carefully, one small step at the time. That way, it is easier to correct or redirect things halfway if something goes wrong or works out differently than planned. However, when change comes in big sweeps, this is often impossible.
As his biographer Philippe Desan wrote in Montaigne, A Life: “Montaigne is supposed to be the best proof of (…) the victory of private judgment over systems or schools of thought.”
Being an autonomous thinker, Montaigne was still a child of his time. He may not have cared much about democracy, free speech or women’s rights. But he had seen enough angry mobs in his life to despise fanaticism and extremism, and to become an advocate of modesty, compromise, and independent judgment. He, for one, could tell the difference.
Western Europeans, however, have little or no memory of the ravages of war and battle. Instead of seeing that as a great good, some become dangerously naive as a result – thinking that even if they play with fire, there will never be war again in Europe since we are somehow ‘above’ it.
And so, once again, populists whip up public sentiment. Maximalist and simplistic remedies resurface. According to some polls, there are Europeans again who simply conclude that democracy doesn’t work and that ‘strong leaders’ are needed as a fix – just like many Americans did when they elected Donald Trump in 2016.
Montaigne’s message was clear: even if you are dissatisfied, beware of the revolutionary way out – for the costs almost always outweigh the benefits. As events show almost daily, this message has lost none of its urgency.
Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of an earlier piece in NRC.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s, not those of EUobserver.
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