For a Little Perspective, Look to Montaigne

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Half of the American people are going to be sore at the other half. That's all right. There is sore, and there is homicidal. Or, worse, there is fratricidal.

Americans are upset, of course. But since Appomattox, they have refrained from slaughtering one another for political reasons, except on an informal basis. I doubt the outcome of the election of 2000 is going to cause bloodshed.

In an effort to achieve perspective on the subject of citizens being sore with one another, my mind has wandered to 16th-century France. There, for nearly 50 years, French Catholics and French Protestants attacked one another with conscienceless enthusiasm. The to and fro of the Gore and Bush camps, the postmodernist recounts of the Sunshine State, the genteel animadversions of James Baker and David Boies on the Sunday talk shows — all these represent quite an advance from the massacre on the eve of the feast of St. Bartholomew, when the Catholics cut down 3,000 Huguenots as part of the sectarian tit for tat that went on until the entire argument collapsed in exhaustion and the Edict of Nantes.

Americans have been considering only two serious contenders for the leadership. At the height of their religious wars, the French had three, all named Henri — Henri III, Henri of Navarre, and Henri, Duke de Guise. The first Henri and the last were assassinated, leaving Henri of Navarre, faute de mieux, to become king. Sixteenth-century French political technique makes early-21st-century American technique (even if it has to go to the Supreme Court) look like progress.

I mention this history in order to introduce my real subject — the infinitely civilized, decent, and human Michel de Montaigne, sometime mayor of Bordeaux and inventor of the modern essay. Montaigne, a Catholic whose mother was a Jew, lived squarely in the middle of the religious wars, yet managed to survive them handsomely and even to be a friend to Henri of Navarre and Henri of Guise, not out of duplicity but out of sheer decency.

I suggest that the urbane and hilarious Montaigne — in his way, the most honest man who ever lived, and one of the most interesting writers — might be a model (if Americans were given to reading people like Montaigne, which they are not) for the attitude of intelligent and philosophical tolerance we ought to bring to the matter that is now before the court.

In his provincial chateau, in a round tower lined with books, Montaigne wrote the "Essais," his candid, quirkish, sometimes embarrassingly intimate portrait of himself. It was hardly an ivory tower: War and plague and fanaticism swirled around it. A thousand times, Montaigne wrote, he went to bed expecting to be murdered.

It has been said that in America during the fractious 1850s, before the Civil War, Walt Whitman entertained the wistful, urgent conceit that his great poem "Leaves of Grass" might save the Union. It would show Americans that despite their divisions they were one great nation. Montaigne, almost three centuries earlier, worked a variation on the theme. Rising above dogma and abstraction, he would pursue the general human truth by studying himself — and such generalized self-knowledge, the recognition of their human selves, might relieve people of their inclination to kill one another for religious reasons.

Of course writers often have the delusion that their work will save the world. Maybe it will not, but weighing positives and negatives, writers probably have a better record on that score than politicians do. In any case, I would rather read Montaigne than listen to either Gore or Bush. And, to the extent possible, that is my policy this week.