“Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays
Montaigne, that affable, erudite, bemused observer of human nature—mostly his own—would have found no end of contradictions in our political process. In an essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” he marvels at the many faces we wear, sometimes on a single day, and wonders why people try to make sense of someone’s actions, especially “seeing that vacillation seems to me to be the most common and blatant defect of our nature.”
Off he goes in his inimitable fashion, piling on Latin quotes from ancient philosophers and playwrights, and whipping out quips like a ninja’s throwing stars. “It is difficult to pick out more than a dozen men in the whole of Antiquity who groomed their lives to follow an assured and definite course,” he says, “though that is the principle aim of wisdom.” What’s more likely, says Montaigne, is that we “follow the inclinations of our appetite, left and right, up and down, as the winds of occasion bear us along.”
So we get Herman Cain, a supremely confident man, who wakes up one morning and thinks, “I could be president: let’s do it!” Or Rick Perry, striding like a colossus through the Republic of Texas, glib in his own surroundings, but tongue-tied on the national stage. Who can resist the spectacle of the genteel but thoroughly manufactured fury of Mr. Romney, prodded out of his postage-stamp size comfort zone by the uncivil zaniness of Newt Gingrich, himself newly-resurrected and kissed by the media polls? Gingrich, who leads with his tongue, but has already sold his brain to science, defiantly admitted one of his major personal failings, a capacity to change to fit the context. For a conservative these days that is moral turpitude second only to being ‘progressive.’ Romney wins that honor, having declared himself a moderate Republican a few years ago. How he must regret those careless words about reforming urban schools and providing aid for the elderly!
A politician these days must display an unbending spine of steel, be deaf to all pleas for fairness, and follow conscience, especially if it leads to money. In these chaotic times, when a reputation can vaporize with a single tweet, politicians decide their positions early and hold to them though the heavens fall. God forbid that they should see an issue in a new light, for that might demand a willingness to compromise. Thus obstinacy and bone-headedness are taken as the virtues of courage and resoluteness. As the Republican primary debates trudge onward it’s clear that only the strongest will survive this Bataan death march of moral recalcitrance.
Why do we do this? I say ‘we’ because it is we the people who demand leaders who can instantly assess a volatile situation and then ignore their best counsel in order to stay the course. As American troops withdraw from Iraq I wonder if anyone can still believe the reasons why we devastated that country? Why do we want people who cannot deliberate, who will not reconsider, who can only perseverate? Montaigne was not glorifying inconstancy but neither was he denying it. He was allowing for it. That’s not the same as promoting it; it’s the realization of limits and how to work well within them. We want our leaders to be recognizable as leaders from a distance so we create a template for identification purposes. Do this, say that, wave this, kiss that. They have to fit the pattern or they won’t be taken seriously. Lacking any criteria for discernment, humility, and courage—characteristics essential for leadership in any age—we’re left to judge these people by the decibel level of their rhetoric and the cut of their hair.
At the heart of it is something that is both necessary and elusive—trustworthiness. That is all we really require from a leader. The rest of it can be learned on the job, provided that person has the courage and strength to do so.
When we communicate with each other, said Aristotle, we look for three things: logos, pathos, and ethos. They can be understood as reasoning, the ability to understand and empathize, and character. These were the things that Aristotle thought would protect us against the professional liars and the demagogues. How quaint they seem now in this viciously trivial political culture.
“Virtue wants to be pursued for her own sake,” said Montaigne. “If we borrow her mask for some other purpose then she quickly rips it off our faces.”