To take just one example of how we can derive wisdom from Montaigne: his Essays give us a wealth of anecdotes exploring ways of resolving violent confrontations. As a teenager in Bordeaux, Montaigne had witnessed one such scene, which apparently stayed with him for life. Riots had broken out following a new tax imposed in 1548, and an angry mob besieged the home of the city’s lieutenant-general Tristan de Moneins. Ignoring friends’ advice to stay indoors, he went out to meet them. This showed courage, but he failed to see it through with a show of authority and confidence. Shocked by seeing their aggression close-up, Moneins fawned and pleaded with the crowd. They responded by tearing him to pieces. Montaigne never forgot this, and he suggested that Moneins might have survived had he either behaved more boldly, or bowed to his fear and stayed in hiding. The mixture of the two was unwise, and fatal.
Montaigne filled his book with similar scenes, each having a different twist. Many examples came from his classical reading – stories of battles, sieges, challenges and rebellions, with thoughts on what could be learned from them. Others were from his own life. Once, he was robbed in a forest by bandits who wanted to hold him captive for further ransom. Betraying no fear, he stood before them and announced that whatever they did they would never get any more money. He looked like he meant it, so they believed him and backed down. On other occasions, he chose a less defiant approach. A group of maverick soldiers inveigled their way into his home as guests, planning to ransack it. Montaigne guessed what they were up to, but offered his hospitality with such open friendliness that their captain warmed to him. He changed his mind and the gang left him in peace.
Montaigne’s analyses of these situations is psychological, but also moral. He wanted to find solutions that enable everyone both to survive and to remain fully human. Appealing confidently to an opponent’s shared humanity does not always work (nothing always works), but it is both honourable and practical: it is a better way than most.
That last anecdote was also assessed in a more recent Guardian piece by another Montaigne scholar, Saul Frampton. Frampton’s article described neurological research that supports Montaigne’s explanation of how one can engender empathy from a threatening group of armed men:
In his infamous series of electric-shock experiments carried out at Yale in the 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram exposed people’s willingness to obey figures of authority. But in a series of variations on his experiments he also showed how this was affected by distance – subjects were less likely to inflict pain on those close to them, rather than in another room. This might seem obvious, but one still needs to ask why we feel less sympathy with someone distant – it is not as if we somehow doubt the truthfulness of their pain.
It is therefore interesting to note that very recent scientific research suggests that mirror neurons can fire in ways that are dependent on spatial proximity. In a paper co-authored by Rizzolatti and published in Science in 2009, it was shown how different sets of mirror neurons fire depending on whether rhesus monkeys are witnessing actions inside or outside their peripersonal space – that is, within the range of their grasp. Could it be too far-fetched to suggest that something similar happens in our moral responses to others – that they seem more vivid, and more relevant to ourselves, the nearer the other person is, and that this is more than simply a self-interested, “rational” response?
Did Montaigne intuitively know that by inviting his would-be enemy into his living room, and into the moral equivalent of his peripersonal space (or something like it), he was simultaneously invading the moral intimacy of his assailant, and was therefore in a better position to influence him, and precipitate in him a decency similar to his own?
Anyway, food for thought, but follow the advice at your own risk.