• Daniel Ethan Finneran

I Do Not Loathe Ideas Which Go Against My Own

July 2020

“I do not loathe ideas which go against my own”. So said Montaigne, thus repeat I. He, in typical Gallic fashion, was not only accommodating of that diversity of opinion by which, as a thinking and open man—in an age just beginning to open and think—he’d doubtless be confronted, but positively welcoming of the variegation of its changing hue. He thought of ideas, to which his own might’ve enjoyed but little fraternity, not as alien brigands indiscriminately to be condemned, but as happy guests warmly to be received. His house, into which all comers might’ve gained entry, was as commodious as the breadth of his soul. Both flaunted atria in which limbs might be stretched, both provided rest and stimulation.

Though of a distant origin, uttered in a cadence unfamiliar to his own—which was, to note, a Parisian patois memorably sprinkled with Latin—foreigners arriving in the one or the other would be met there with scrutiny, of course, but not with that alone. Rather, the delights to which they’d soon be treated, the feelings of which they’d now partake, would include the divine graces of hospitality, empathy, and all the embraces of a broad and intellectual life. This was the enticing quality of the Montaignean soul, of the humble man in which so large a presence was embodied.

He saw contrary ideas, those to which his own were opposed, not as a man unaffected by art, but as the most sensitive of sculptors (for, with the lapidary might of his chiseled eloquence, and the marbled strength of his scribbling hand, a sculptor he was). He saw on the canvas of conversation upon which he gazed not blotches to be erased, but special dabs of paint, all deserving of closer inspection and further use. In the perception of his eye, to whose acuity there’s yet been born no equal, every curious and well-considered marking, every accent of touch, was a sparkle by which his own intellect might be better colored. In all thought, there was merit, in all opinion, value. He, a man, was never to be a monochrome. He was too brilliant for the old tedium of “black-and-white”. His palate was too omnivorous, his taste, too exuberant, and like a latter-day Joseph, around whom that refulgent jacket was so fatefully draped, he dressed his philosophy in the colorful ideas of all.

You can understand, then, why I go about repeating Montaigne’s message without a hint of shame. He is the liberal ideal, the freest and most unconstrained of thinkers, to whom a fettered soul, such as mine, such as ours, can aspire. Thus, that wisest of all Frenchmen, that subtlest of all minds is, before any other, the sage from whom, with little wayward listing, I’ve taken most, if not all of my philosophical instruction. While I might deviate, here and again, to pick from the budding genius of one thinker or another, to taste of their distant satellites and fruits, his is the sun, the universe’s center, to whose flowering radiance I always return. They are but ornaments by which his trail is accented, rest-stops in which one dallies, but never stays.

His is the mind around which—with cosmic and literary devotion, with philosophic and planetary glee—all others, including myself, have gathered in unison to revolve. It is the picture, when stretched sufficiently broadly on a welcoming canvass of sky, of an eloquent and delicious motion, a nimble and contemplative jaunt. It is the dance of those minds unafraid not only of themselves, but of all others, a group, in both cases, of which Montaigne is the leader. He is orchestrating the gait of this troupe, of this exuberant and inquisitive class to whom no exertion of the spirit is found to be detestable. So too, without its knowledge, is he leading the opposition, that party to whom he extends so sympathetic a hand. All are improved by his efforts, whether they know it or not.

It is, in every way, a stelliferous and blinding sight—a most hospitable gathering of thought. It is the place in which, in a liberal and conversational world, in a firmament dominated by variety and ideas, one most certainly wants to be. That is Montaigne, that was America. Both are roads to which countless followers have been attracted, gilded realms upon which many have wished to settle their homes. Thus, his is the path to which, lit by the globes of his enduring brilliance and the guiding attention of his hand, I’ve determined to commit my own. It’s a commitment America will have to earn once again.

In so doing, one must follow Montaigne’s precept, must build himself in the mold of his pure and abiding example. One must not, for the mere sake of their contrariness, “loathe ideas which go against” his own. That would be impotent, blinkered, and coarse. That would be undeserving of the title of “man”, and—more distressingly still—unequal to the sublime heights of the Montaignean spirit. Rather, one must embrace those divergent opinions, must “play gracefully”, in the words of Oscar Wilde—himself an inheritor of the lessons of Montaigne—with those ideas with which his own find no immediate kinship.

One must embrace and consider all ideas. He mustn’t conform, as though overwhelmed by the power of an involuntary response, to the prevailing, chattering class—the complacent bien pensant from which so much bland tripe is regularly disseminated. Instead, one must combat, until the exhalation of his last dying breath, the homogenizing influences by which his ideas become, between his mind and its neighbor’s, indistinguishable. A lack of diversity in thought amounts to a lack of vivacity in life, the former often inducing the latter. It’s a cycle for which, outside of death, there’s yet to have been discovered a remedy. That is the making of a stagnant pool, the sagging of a bushel laden with an ugly crop. One cannot hate that which is contrary, merely. One cannot dispose, without first tasting, that which is foreign to the blunted idleness of his tongue. One must drink the juices of all, and savor their influence as he will.

One mustn’t be hesitant in his approach toward an alternative opinion, a seemingly outlandish idea to which his own, however vehemently held (and however unsusceptible to persuasion) might be fiercely antipodal. There mustn’t be timidity and shyness in discourse—all must be intrepid expositors of their thoughts, must be unabashed orators of their lips. One must be “so far from shying away when others’ judgments clash with mine, so far from making myself unsympathetic to the companionship of men because they hold to other notions or parties, that, on the contrary, just as the most general style followed by nature is variety—even more in minds than in bodies, since minds are of a more malleable substance capable of accepting more forms—I find it much rarer to see our humors and purposes coincide”.

Let them fail to coincide. Let their malleability re-shape us, but let their craftsmanship never leave us wading in the same image twice. Let us, all divergent and all new, join together in unison, on this and this point alone: we are not, nor shall we ever be, the same. This is our shared declaration, our distinctly human plight, a singularity in which, without exception, we all can participate. We are not the same. Our minds, and the opinions of which they are the authors, are so radically different, one from the next. So much the better. Nature, wiser than wisdom and older than age, would not have them be so, and so they shan’t be. Variety, truly, is that vital condiment, that dab of mustard by which the flavors of life are so deliciously spiced. It’s responsible for that sapidity, for that unique tastefulness of which we Americans, constantly hungry, can’t get enough. As such, “In the whole world, there has never been two identical opinions any more than two identical hairs or seeds.” Rather, “Their most universal characteristic is”, Montaigne concluded, “their diversity”.

This is diversity out of which, in the undying words of E pluribus unum, our American unity is to be found. We must neither neglect nor abuse it, as lately we’ve done. We must make, once again, a deity of our diversity, and treat it with the reverence and awe, the supreme gratitude of which it's so richly deserving.

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