Montaigne on Those Who Lead

I often turn to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the cheerful philosopher for the common man, for insight into life. In his essay, “On the Art of Conversation” (required reading for every person these days), he not only shows an admirable self-awareness and humility about his own sometimes quick judgments, but he also provides us a commonsense perspective on those who hold power.

Here is one example:

”It is the same for those who rule over us and give orders, who hold the world in their hands: it is not enough for them to have an ordinary intelligence, to be able to achieve what we can. They are far beneath us if they are not way above us. Since they promise more, they owe more too; that is why keeping silent is not, in their case, merely a courteous and grave demeanor; it is also more often a profitable and gainful one.”

And then in the category of “Checking for Clothes on the Emperor,” he offers this:

”Now I was just about to say that it merely suffices for us to see a man raised to great dignity; even though we knew him three days before to be a negligible man, there seeps into our opinions, unawares, a notion of greatness, of talents, and we convince ourselves that by growing in style and reputation he has grown in merit. Our judgements of him are not based on his worth but (as is the case with the counters of an abacus) on the tokens of rank. Let his luck turn again, let him have a fall and be lost in the crowd again, then we all ask in wonder what had made him soar so high! ‘Is this the same man?’ we ask.”

As a French nobleman, a courtier, and a former public servant, Montaigne could have been writing about any of the six kings who ruled in his lifetime from the Houses of Valois and Bourbon. He knew how Fate and Luck could thrust a man onto the throne, qualified or not, and just as easily take him down again.

That was in a political system without a vote or a choice by the people as to who would lead the country. We have it better: our leaders answer to us—as long as we insist on it. Montaigne’s words reveal the tension in a democratic republic: anyone can run for office; they need only persuade us that they are qualified.

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