“What a soft, easy, and wholesome pillow is ignorance and incuriosity, on which to lay a well-ordered head.”
Those words aren’t mine. They come from Montaigne, in an essay he wrote several hundred years ago on the nature of his experiences in life. He speaks of the necessity of trying to know yourself, and the impossibility of ever truly getting there. What’s essential is that you make the effort: that you allow yourself the humility of knowing you’ll never be as smart as you hope or believe you might be – even as you look within, to process what you’ve seen or lived in order to arrive at a sense of who you are that’s free of self-delusion, as much as anyone can be. “A man must learn that he is nothing but a fool, a much more ample and important instruction” than knowledge itself.
Of course, Montaigne could be speaking about our terrifying present, when so many people around the world lay their heads on pillows of ignorance. When so many are proudly, resolutely, fiercely ignorant. This is nothing new, in a way. Montaigne goes on to cite Cicero, who knew a thing or two about political opportunism, shifting loyalty, tyranny and manipulation: “Nothing is worse than that assertion and decision should precede knowledge and perception.”
The presidential election season has begun in earnest in France, and a lot of French voters are worried about the alarming rightward turn in politics. They’ve seen the results of recent elections in Europe and in the U.S., and they fear that a similar craven disregard for basic human decency will come to the fore if a right-wing politician is elected, giving a seal of approval to demagoguery, xenophobia and intolerance. What’s even more troubling is that this rightward swing is surging in a country that in its history has often suffered greatly from the evils that oppressive governments inflict on their citizens.
But history doesn’t matter to the angry and uninformed.
I was in Paris for a few months during the U.S. presidential election, and my French friends would ask my opinion on what was going on, often amused at the exuberant folly and vulgar spectacle of American politics, where entertainment, whatever that consisted of, trumped information, however you defined it. Now, on my return with a new president in power, they no longer seek my opinion, but offer their sympathy – and they also worry aloud that something similar might happen in France. Anyone but Marine Le Pen is what they say (granted, my friends aren’t supporters of her party, the National Front). They hope that “la France profonde” isn’t as determined to sabotage itself along with the rest of the country as did “l’Amérique profonde” last November, but their hope is watered with the growing fear of a new reality of disorder.
At the same time, apart from my sickening apprehension at what’s happening at home and at what might happen in France, I look at recent events around the world, especially in the U.S., and at the delusional power-grabbers responsible for them, and I wonder what it must be like to believe you’re always right.
Living for a few months a year in France I’ve been lucky, if that’s the word, to learn how wrong I often am. And rather than use that as a reason to belittle myself or to blame others, I have come to believe that such awareness helps me gain perspective. Not only on how I see the world – it helps if you live elsewhere from time to time to be confronted with something beyond your own preconceptions – but on how I see myself in relation to the world.
Your relation to the world is not an either-or thing, unlike what many moronic, cruel-hearted politicians and not a few dimwitted regular folks believe. But then if you consider yourself and what you believe in relation to the world and what it believes, you’re already thinking beyond yourself and are more likely to want to learn from different points of view and different cultures.
I know that at best I’m rather a fool, but at least I’m a fool who admits to foolishness and still welcomes experiences that nudge me in the direction of awareness, appreciation and acceptance. If not actual knowledge and understanding, which are always somewhat elusive. But at least they’re within reach if you are aware that you’re not always right. And at least I know that I’m neither knowledgeable nor particularly wise. This awareness is all that I can control.
I’ve actually grown into something approaching humility thanks in part to living in France, learning French and engaging with people of another culture – I’m no longer, as Montaigne wrote of himself, tortured by the arrogance of only trusting and believing in myself – that is, in what I think I know. The arrogant self-believers are the very ones who “establish religion and laws,” Montaigne said. This also sounds all-too familiar today, doesn’t it?
I cannot impose my humility, such as it is, on anyone else, nor can I reason with the unreasonable so that they begin to see things from a different point of view. But this isn’t as hopeless as it might seem – resistance can be effective in the face of evil, as the French themselves discovered when their country was last weighed down by arrogant and self-believing oppressors.
Unfortunately, more people are likely to recall the distant idea of resistance than the looming actuality of oppression. So the know-nothings tend to win, at least until their appalling ignorance becomes a liability and the resistance turns real.