“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 and feeding it. She did this every day until the calf was no longer a calf but an ox. Custom can be a bitch and really run things that ought not to do. It starts off small and innocent and turns into something unstoppable.
Even the smartest of men do what they do because of custom. People have gotten used to eating mice, grasshoppers and all sorts due to custom. And 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 are cemented when we’re kids. Some parents encourage children to do something bad by either actively encouraging it, giving an example of it, or not stopping it and they will eventually learn that this is the thing to do. That’s how evil begins, through custom. If they have smaller vices and aren’t corrected, they will turn to larger vices. My upbringing reinforced good morals and 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, try his shoes, cook and all sorts 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 our minds. It’s really important in judgment and belief. All sorts of very smart people are religion and 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 custom to some while foreigners would find them very strange. They salute to people facing away from each other. Some people use linen to trash. Why do we use handkerchiefs to blow our noses on and carry them around all day but we don’t do the same with piss and shit? Why is snot so special? We’re just as weird to foreigners as they are to us. You could travel the world and come up with a huge list of ways this is true. Some of these differences seem horrifying to us.
Violence and abuse is something passed down from generation to generation. This has more to do with custom than nature. We’re so ingrained in our customs and 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 and 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 and that’s what they really want. People tend to like the place where nature has put them and are very unlikely to adopt the customs of others.
I have found that the foundation of authority and law to be very weak. Plato looked at what was popular of his time and what was he found to be good and tried to compare them. He thought that the poems written, the public opinions, various interpersonal customs to be abhorrent and 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 their 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 and 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 and sold and that following through on laws will get you into heaps of trouble and not 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 and don’t really help us understand who we are and anything about the world. The way others behave and act aren’t really all that important to us, as far as what we do individually and we often avoid tending to 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 and 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 and 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 and whatever their wild imaginations can dream up. They’ll come up with all sorts of wonderful titles to call them and 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 and 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 yield completely to the government but also orders you to obey its laws. Jesus died and 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 and 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 and may be based on 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 and has given a good, reasoned opinion of the matter. People have only exacerbated the situation through their words and demagoguery. All the words to try to calm things down did 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 and heat. When we follow clearly laid out procedure, we do so calmly and 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?