/ 23 May 2024

If Joe Biden had read Montaigne …

Gettyimages 609667840 594x594
The bust of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is displayed at the bibliotheque in Bordeaux on September 16, 2016, as part of an exhibition and events through the city dedicated to the French philosopher who was mayor of Bordeaux. (GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images)

And so it has come to this — fixing potholes as politics by other means. Every five years sees frenetic road repairs in South Africa’s cities, towns and even dorpies. 

Road crews, dormant if not actually moribund for the preceding four years and 11 months, spring to life like so many Terminators in repair rather than destroy mode. 

Gapingly deep holes, wide gullies into which small cars can disappear (here one thinks of those Bolt mini-taxis, always a prayer away from flipping over), pock-marked corrugations spattered over entire road widths — no imperfection is too small for the Pothole Busters.

If the whole exercise were not so transparent and expedient, it might qualify as amusing. But it is beyond scandalous that residents and citizens — and non-citizens too — should have to wait for their basic daily safety and quality of life to be addressed only because of the small matter of an upcoming general election.

Of course, one should not expect anything from politicians other than an efflorescence every four years and 11 months of baby-hugging, sweaty-palmed handshaking, inappropriate embracing, rictus smiling and T-shirt hawking. As the great definer Ambrose Bierce said of politicians: “As compared with the statesman, he suffers the distinct disadvantage of being alive.”

Hypocrisy, insincerity, double standards, barefaced lying — these are the glorious democratic traits on vibrant display on the campaign trail as politicians and wannabe parliamentarians take to the open (and pothole-free) road, peddling ever more fantastical visions of a utopian future that in reality lies in the realm of Neverland.

What a spectacular year 2024 is for “democracy” and “elections”, those two manifestations of the liberal world order set to play out in so many countries across the globe. The mirage of choice will be enjoyed in South Africa on 29 May and the even more democratically afflicted United States will exercise its Hobson’s choice in November.

Increasingly, politicians are befouling politics, that necessary evil in trying to run societies and nations. Thinking through the problem, Plato advocated a philosopher-king — educated, knowledgeable, fair and wise. 

Well and good, as long as that definition is expanded to allow for a philosopher-queen but, ultimately, both these hypotheticals run up against that sorry obstacle, human beings.

Lenin remarked that for socialism to work would require a better form of human being. For anything to work — nonracism, no nationalism, protection of minority rights, equality in education, opportunities for all — humans need to stop grasping for themselves and begin sharing equitably with others.

But as long as the most basic needs of life — water, food, clothing, shelter and physical safety — are denied billions by rapacious leaders and corporations or by bloodthirsty regimes killing and starving their foes, humankind is in a handcart to hell. 

And for that we have the liberal world order to thank, the architect of the post-World War II disposition that sees the rich West elevated and the Rest ground underfoot.

There’s no better example of the self-administered immunity of the West/Global North/G7 than the reaction of US president Joe Biden to the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Karim Khan seeking arrest warrants for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant.

“Outrageous,” grunts Biden, sounding for all the world like Napoleon, the pig who usurps the animal socialist collective in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm

But, of course, the US is not a signatory to the ICC; it wouldn’t want its own soldiers and leaders subjected to the rules it deems applicable to lesser nations and peoples.

Indeed, hitherto the ICC has largely been a stick to beat African miscreants. Only latterly, with an arrest warrant issued for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, has the ICC’s gaze shifted away from “big offenders in small countries”. (Netanyahu and Gallant are, of course, two big alleged offenders in a small country.)

This condescending attitude has some of its roots in the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century, which venerated individualism and reason and made a specious case that reason is the sole province of the superior Caucasian races. 

It’s a shame that by then those enlightened beings had seemingly forgotten the thoughts and works of Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592).

Montaigne invented the essay through a long process of reading and living, thinking about those, and finally putting his thoughts down on paper.

His pre-eminent translator into English, MA Screech, puts it perfectly, like this: “‘Tentative attempts’ to ‘assay’ the value of himself, his nature, his habits and of his own opinions and those of others — a hunt for truth, personality and a knowledge of humanity through an exploration of his own reactions to his reading, his travels, his public and his private experience in peace and in Civil War, in health and in sickness”.

Montaigne was a country gentleman, just like the soon-to-be-born fictional rural squire Don Quixote de la Mancha, presented to the world in 1604. Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, was as much man of action as man of reflection. His position and the times demanded both.

France was beset by religious wars, the massacre of Huguenots, plots against the Catholic monarch, cruelty and religious fanaticism. While on the side of Catholicism and constitutional legitimacy (in the latter rather like Cyril Ramaphosa), Montaigne nonetheless navigated religious and political turbulence so that his mind was unfettered by prejudice and unclouded by bias. That alone is remarkable.

But he also was vigorous in the harsh realities and duties of 16th-century life. He was an astute diplomat, a brave soldier and served twice as mayor of Bordeaux in the early 1580s. During the terrible Civil Wars of Religion, he saw much of his home region of Gascony, and some of his family lands, laid waste. 

Yet, through it all, Montaigne kept to the path of learning and reflection he had set out for himself when, in 1571 at the age of 38, he retired to his ancestral lands. 

His single greatest text is probably An Apology for Raymond Sebond, a theologically rich and dense exploration of Sebond’s Natural Theology, with its distillation and infusion of the radical syntheses and transformative ideas of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274).

A favourite part of Apology is chapter 12, where Montaigne turns his gentle and perceptive eye to the animals, wild and domesticated, with which humans share the world. In a brilliant late addition to this — he revised and rewrote the essays constantly — he asks: “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not playing with me?”

That is the introduction to a dazzling set of observations and speculations about the understanding and communication — or lack thereof — between humans and animals and also of animal consciousness and intelligence. Three examples will suffice to show the breadth and depth of Montaigne’s thinking.

“Consequently, we should admit that animals employ the same method and the same reasoning as ourselves when we do anything.” (Screech’s translation, as are those below.)

“Should we pride ourselves on our ability to capture them [animals] and make them work for us? But that is no more than the advantage we have over each other: our slaves are in the same condition.”

“There is as well a nobility in animals such that, from want of courage, no lion has ever been enslaved to another lion; no horse to another horse.”

Another of the great essays is To Philosophise is to Learn How to Die, with its starting point Socrates’s contention that philosophy is “a practising of death” because it detaches the body from the soul. 

If Biden had read Montaigne, he would not have cried foul about the ICC’s arrest warrant attempts against the Israeli hierarchy. One thinks in particular of the essay On the Cannibals, in which Montaigne demonstrates that motives understood unlock the key to previously “strange” behaviour.

There is no better synthesis of this short but telling essay, a rebuke to the European colonisers of the time — Montaigne was referencing the coastal areas of Brazil, then being “discovered” and settled by the Portuguese — than Screech’s economical summary: “These peoples are indeed cruel: but so are we. Their simple ways have much to teach us: they can serve as a standard by which we can judge Plato’s Republic, the myth of the Golden Age, the cruelty, the corruption and the culture of Europe, and show up that European insularity which condemns people as barbarous merely because their manners and their dress are different.”