“Of Custom; We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received” by Michel de Montaigne
There is a story that warns us about not being comfortable with customs. A woman starts holding a calf & feeding it. She did this every day until the calf was no longer a calf but an ox. It crushed her. Custom can be a bitch & really turn us on to things that we ought not to do. It starts off small & innocent & turns into something unstoppable.
Even the smartest of men do what they do out of custom. People have gotten used to eating mice, grasshoppers & all sorts out of custom. & they wouldn’t be able to stomach our sort of food. You can eventually get used living next to a noisy place after a while. You might not even notice it. You’ll eventually stop smelling perfume if you wear it a lot. I barely notice the bells from the church next door.
Our vices get cemented when we’re kids. Some parents encourage children to do something bad by either actively encouraging it, giving an example of it, or by not stopping it & the kids will eventually learn that this is the thing to do. That’s how evil begins, through custom. Smaller vices that don’t get corrected will turn to larger vices. My upbringing reinforced good morals in me & I have a hell of a time trying to cheat in cards, even if nothing’s on the line.
I met a dude in Nantes who’s got no arms but can sew, tie his shoes, cook & do tons of other stuff with just his feet. He doesn’t think anything of it. It’s as natural as can be. There’s a young boy who’s really handy at weapons because he practiced so much when he was even younger.
Custom goes even deeper than active thoughts. It’s really important in judgment & belief. All sorts of very smart people are religious, & the custom of religion makes them do all sorts of crazy shit because they have that custom embedded in them. It’s no way to learn anything. Custom makes us do totally inexplicable things. They are accustomed to some things that foreigners would find them very strange. They salute to people facing away from each other. Why do we use handkerchiefs to blow our noses on & carry them around all day but we don’t do the same with piss & shit? Why is snot so much more special than any other excrement? We’re just as weird to foreigners as they are to us. You could travel the world & come up with a huge list of ways this is true. Some of these differences seem horrifying to us.
Violence & abuse are passed down from generation to generation. This has more to do with custom than nature. We’re so ingrained in our customs & what is seen as acceptable to the public that it is so rare that we stop following them. Laws of conscience are from custom not from nature like we claim. When open-minded people hear a good phrase, it’s not really a good phrase but an indictment on our stupidity that we didn’t think about this before. But most people take it on board not out of ignorance from themselves but as something they think others just don’t know yet.
People who’ve grown up in a free environment look at other forms of government as monstrous & unnatural. Those who live under a king think the same way. If the people get rid of a tyrant, they very likely will find another because they are used to it & that’s what they really want. People tend to like the place where nature has put them & are very unlikely to adopt the customs of others.
I have found that the foundation of authority & law to be very weak. Plato looked at what was popular of his time & what was he found to be good & tried to compare the good & the popular. He thought that the poems written, the public opinions, various interpersonal customs to be abhorrent & tried to propose cutting them out of children’s education because he didn’t want them to grow up repeating the same mistakes of their parents due to having the same education.
We see chastity as a virtue. But it’s difficult to say whether or not it is merely a custom, that it is a virtue or if it is one by nature. It’s so difficult to find out where these customs come from & we can only assume that they were just passed down through the ages.
Imagine trying to withdraw from all of these customs. It would really strange to have to go through all the things we find “normal”. You probably wouldn’t understand any of it: marriage, donation, wills, selling, buying, etc. But when we look at our own country, it seems pretty savage that justice can be bought & sold, & that following through on laws will get you into heaps of trouble, & not doing so will get you reprimands.
When you think about it most of our customs, all the fancy clothes that we think really make us us are really just bullshit & don’t really help us understand who we are or anything about the world. The way others behave & act aren’t really all that important to us, as far as what we do individually & we often avoid looking after ourselves in order to tend to what others are doing.
But as much as custom is silly, it is important to leave laws as they are. The government is not just a monolith. It’s a body of many moving parts & if you start tinkering with it, you may just bring the whole thing crashing down. The Thurians forced anyone who wanted to change a law to carry a noose around his neck & if someone had anything against his proposal, they’d have him hanged. I’m not really into novelty because I see all the shit that goes down because of it. Quote from Ovid: “Alas! The wounds were made by my own weapons.”
The first ones to fuck with the state are usually the first to suffer when all the shit kicks off. The really crafty ones will follow behind as well as the copy cats. Both will do only what has been done to them personally & whatever their wild imaginations can dream up. They’ll come up with all sorts of wonderful titles to call them & all sorts of wonderful excuses for them.
But isn’t it really arrogant to be so in love with one’s own opinions as to try to overthrow the government on their basis? If you know all the shit that will happen as a result of your ideas & you’re still on board with the idea you either must be Jesus or a fucking lunatic.
About Christianity: It has a unique commandment that you should not only yield completely to the government but also orders you to obey its laws. Jesus died & was resurrected – defeated death. He sacrificed himself for our sins but still ordered us to obey earthly laws as well as heavenly laws. Christianity seems to prefer to preserve earthly laws & let heaven deal with it than to change anything. It lends itself to moderation rather than excess.
I’ve taken these ideas on board. It seems dangerous to subject the public to my private wishes which may go against their wishes & may be based on my misunderstanding. But God has made rules beyond those of the earth but doesn’t allow us to do the same.
In our current civil war, hardly anybody has taken into account all the points of each side & has given a good, reasoned opinion of the matter. People have only exacerbated the situation through their words & demagoguery. All the words to try to calm things down do nothing. When we put our faith in an asshole to solve our problems, it seems to make matters worse.
When we attempt to upset the natural order of things, we do so with passion & heat. When we follow clearly laid out procedure, we do so calmly & coldly. On the other hand, if you sense a huge blow coming your way, you should be ready to yield a little in order to make sure it doesn’t break you but you still maintain the customs that mostly seem to have been working. Who knows what will result from all the violence?