What does success mean in politics? What is the relationship between political expedience and personal integrity? How do we reconcile individual conscience and loyalty to power?
These are questions that have always fascinated me, not only due to their continuous relevance in political matters, but also due to the passion with which people may answer these questions in radically divergent ways. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is a play that explores these issues through the life of Thomas More, whose commitment to the principles of his own conscience puts him on a collision course with Henry VIII and also leads his family into abject poverty.
Such irresolvable tensions between conscience and political life are very difficult to navigate, so I was glad to come across an essay by the father of the genre, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), which deals with this issue in a lucid and at the same time complex way. His ‘Of Profit and Honesty’ reveals not only Montaigne’s experience as a successful statesman but also his ability to bring a range of examples and concrete situations to a discussion of the matter at hand.
One of the key issues he brings up is the notion of utility. “There is nothing useless in nature”, he claims, “not even inutility itself”, and this sets the tone for the essay, which repeatedly pits us into situations in which what is deemed to be politically useful is set against that which is perceived as useless and hence undesirable, including inaction due to the pressures of conscience. Consider, for instance, the way Montaigne speaks about the social function of ‘abject’ and ‘vicious’ governmental functionaries:
In all governments there are necessary offices, not only abject, but vicious also. Vices there help to make up the seam in our piecing, as poisons are useful for the conservation of health. If they become excusable because they are of use to us, and that the common necessity covers their true qualities, we are to resign this part to the strongest and boldest citizens, who sacrifice their honour and conscience, as others of old sacrificed their lives, for the good of their country: we, who are weaker, take upon us parts both that are more easy and less hazardous. The public weal requires that men should betray, and lie, and massacre; let us leave this commission to men who are more obedient and more supple.
Brilliantly turning the tables through irony, Montaigne speaks of those who lie and betray as those who sacrifice themselves for the common good. Being obedient and supple allows them to serve their function with greater ease, and this makes them useful citizens. Of course, this comes at the cost of their honour and conscience, but that, Montaigne implies, is not something that may bother everyone.
A second issue Montaigne thinks about is freedom of speech, and here, in his typical style, he resorts to a quote from the classics to make his point:
Sincerity and pure truth, in what age soever, pass for current; and besides, the liberty and freedom of a man who treats without any interest of his own is never hateful or suspected, and he may very well make use of the answer of Hyperides to the Athenians, who complained of his blunt way of speaking: “Messieurs, do not consider whether or no I am free, but whether I am so without a bribe, or without any advantage to my own affairs.”
Montaigne’s words here expose the problem of the relation between ethos (individual reputation) and truth in political discourse. One’s words, Montaigne suggests, carry more weight if one can prove to be and be perceived as not having personal reasons for holding on to an idea or belief. This means that sincerity means being able and willing to leave ‘nothing unsaid’, even that which may offend. The opposite of this is being the ultra-serviceable individual, the one who offers himself completely to those in power, irrespective of their ideals. Montaigne speaks of examples in which such individuals are perceived and treated as ‘villians’, both by those whom they support and those they oppose. He observes:
Does not he to whom you betray another, to whom you were as welcome as to himself, know that you will at another time do as much for him? He holds you for a villain; and in the meantime hears what you will say, gathers intelligence from you, and works his own ends out of your disloyalty; double-dealing men are useful for bringing in, but we must have a care they carry out as little as is possible.
A third idea among many that Montaigne explores in this far-ranging essay that typically combines personal insight with philosophical rumination, is that of loyalty. What does it mean to be loyal, or, its opposite, a traitor? Montaigne writes, in words that feel supremely relevant more than 450 years after having been written:
Let us not fear […] to believe that there is something unlawful, even against an enemy, and that the common concern ought not to require all things of all men, against private interest
[“No power on earth can sanction treachery against a friend.”
—Ovid, De Ponto, i. 7, 37.]
and that all things are not lawful to an honest man for the service of his prince, the laws, or the general quarrel:
[“The duty to one’s country does not supersede all other duties.
The country itself requires that its citizens should act piously
toward their parents.”—Cicero, De Offic., iii. 23.]
Tis an instruction proper for the time wherein we live: we need not harden our courage with these arms of steel; ’tis enough that our shoulders are inured to them: ’tis enough to dip our pens in ink without dipping them in blood.
In other words, there are limits even in matters of politics, irrespective of the ends and objectives we may have in mind. Secondly, loyalty to power should not come at a cost to personal integrity (irrespective of political expedience and personal profit). Thirdly, when we speak of loyalty to one’s country, we’re not necessarily speaking of something that supersedes anything else. After all, loyalty to one’s country can only come in conjunction with pious behaviour at home. Our duties are not simply to an idea of a country (or nation) but to the individuals around us, and the country or nation should not be used as an excuse for anything.