Reading Montaigne 1.17: A trait of certain ambassadors

Another short piece, this time considering two points of communication and reputation.

Montaigne notes the futility of the common tendency for people to want to make (or claim) names for themselves outside of the area of their expertise. In conversation, Montaigne tries to direct the conversation to the subjects that those he is speaking with knows best, because too often “each man chooses to hold forth on another man’s occupation rather than his own, thinking that this is so much new reputation acquired…” Or, as Horace put it, “The slow ox wants the saddle, the horse wants the plow.”

This is not just a marked tendency among the well-known, with actors becoming politicians, musicians proclaiming themselves poets, and captains of the technology industry claiming any number of identities, but of myself. Despite being relatively good at my job and having earned a modicum of respect from my colleagues, I find that I would rather be known for just about anything than that very work. This seems to be a relatively common phenomenon for which I can surmise a few possible reasons: being good at something doesn’t necessarily mean one really cares for it, at some level of remove most work can be seen as inconsequential, the desire may have everything to do with wanting to gain power, and as the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.

Perhaps the confusion sometimes stems between being known for something and being known as something. I don’t mind being known for my abilities as a presenter or for my theories of learning and social media, but I don’t want to be known as an instructional designer or even a disruptive technologies. I’d rather be known as a writer, or a folder of paper, or a maker of books. For me this comes down to theory #2: while I happen to be somewhat proficient at my work, I don’t love it nor do I think–in the final calculation–that it is particularly important or valuable.

There’s something to be said, also, for the lack of creativity in the work I don’t wish to be known for. I like my work most when it intersects with my creative abilities (such as they are). This desire to be engaged in and known for something more creative (which may well stem from not being capable of recognizing the creative qualities in the original work) is evident in most cases that don’t involve a quest for power, whether direct power through political means or extending the very real power of existing celebrity. When an actor becomes a politician, they are most often extending their existing power. When Caesar wants to be recognizes as an architect and engineer or Dionysius the Eder wants to be known for his poetry, that is a reach for the more creative… as is the common desire by musicians–even very successful ones–to be poets, the latter of which is often perceived as a purer or higher art form.

But I’ve gone off on a tangent regarding one of Montaigne’s two points in this essay. The second is that an ambassador or adviser holds his position in order to serve his master. It is not for him to choose which information he conveys, not for him to “obey through direction” when he should obey through “subjection.” While ambassadors and advisers retain their own will, according to Montaigne they must exercise that will in a limited fashion and only when the directions they have been given are unclear, which will often be the case if one is not subjected to what we would now call micro-management (which, according to Montaigne, started with the “kings of Persia”).

It’s hard to believe that someone with an intellect as rich as Montaigne’s would be able to reconcile this latter contention with his strong belief in a pragmatic form of stoicism. This might, in part, be Montaigne’s class-oriented world asserting himself, granting the rulers powers of self-determination that other people do not have. It just seems hard to believe that Montaigne would support the “following directions” defense for Saddam Hussein’s minions, for example.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *