Updated: Jan 10
‘There is nothing I so hardly believe to be in man as constancy, and nothing so easy to be found in him, as inconstancy’ - Michel De Montaigne.
What do New Year's resolutions, Plato and my Grandma have in common? They all tend to presuppose that there is an ideal, pure form of objects, social systems and most importantly for this article, Human’s. Due to the lack of context and plurality that this often provides, we end up with the illusion that the complexity of Humans, as long as they follow enough rules, can achieve a kind of perfection. In the case of my Grandma(as with most Grandma’s), she envisions me to be an entity of saintly perfection for which the sun shines for, even after I ruthlessly criticised her vegetable lasagne for being too acidic...
The particular kind of perfection that we have been burdened with since the birth of Prophetic ideals such as those of Plato is constancy. The idea that given enough time, practice and wisdom we can reach a stage in our lives in which our thoughts, emotions, speech and actions can all conform to a set of ideals, partly set by us and partly set by Society, that are never contradicted and can bring us salvation from dissatisfaction and anxiety. In modernity, this has indirectly led to so-called “cancel culture” in which any sign of inconstancy from societal and personal ideas is met with a barrage of public shame. Although most people in the woke community are likely well intentioned, socially conscious individuals, it has a damaging understanding of Humans that must be reconsidered.
The most blatantly obvious point here is that the underlying assumptions of who Humans are for the crew of cancellers is narrow and idealistic. Pascal thought of man's condition as primarily consisting of inconstancy, boredom and anxiety, for example, he attempts to further explain inconstancy in saying ‘Man is an organ, but a strange, unstable and unreliable organ whose pipes are not arranged in regular descending order of size’. The soul he writes has ‘various inclinations’, for he notes that humans are both independent and dependent, loving and hateful, have ideals of peaceful livelihoods but are yet susceptible to boredom and restlessness.
In this same vein, the great French Philosopher Michel De Montaigne was endlessly insightful about the inconstancy of our actions. The nature of Humans for Montaigne is not one of perfection, but one that is often foolish, self-deceptive and certainly less constant than the Human in mind for the woke community. For Montaigne, there are as many differences in ourselves as we have with other people claiming that the collective actions of one's life cannot be pieced together very often in a particularly orderly fashion, or as he puts it, ‘it seemeth impossible they should be parcels of one warehouse’. We know this to be true of our lives and even the lives of people most of us consider wise. Gandhi visited a brothel, smoked and drank when he was younger, one of the most influential Philosophers of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger, was a Nazi for a while before seeing his mistakes, the influential mystic Alan Watts was reportedly drinking a bottle of Vodka a day before he died early at 58. Schopenhauer apparently shoved his maid down a staircase, Rene Descartes reportedly once launched a cat out his window to see if it would feel anything, he concluded that it didn’t. Perhaps most ironically of all was that Thomas Jefferson had six hundred slaves at the time he made the declaration of independence. My motive here is not to dampen the brilliance of any of these people but just to note that constancy doesn’t seem like something that is really possible for humans to adhere to, let alone to be the basis of a society-wide moral code or system of unlegislated justice.
Error correction: Getting on with each other
Sextus Empiricus stated that Scepticism is the practice of falsifying propositions by attempting to explore the opposite of any thesis. The overall aim of Scepticism was to suspend judgement on ideas and practices that claimed to have found absolute truth in the hope that in doing so we might find calm or what the Greeks called Ataraxia. Empiricus is important because he is not afraid to suspend judgement on ethical matters, for instance, he understood that something and its opposite could be true and that with many fundamental ideas, if we look deep enough, there is an equality in how something and its opposite can both be equally convincing and therefore worthy of suspending judgement, for example, in his outlines he states that ‘if nature had made the same things fine and wise for all alike, there would be no disputatious strife among human kind’. The bottom line is that not only are humans mistake prone, but we are mistake prone in our judgement of ethical issues. It’s error all the way down. In my opinion, the best discussion of ethical uncertainty appears from the meeting of Jesus and The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In this section, Jesus returns to Earth at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and meets one of the main inquisitors who orders Christ to be sent to prison as they no longer need his wisdom stating that Christ only put Humans in another straightjacket by giving them spiritual freedom, the likes of which can only be used properly and responsibly by the morally strong. Christ responds by kissing the inquisitor on his ‘bloodless, aged lips’ and walks away silently, showing the power of unconditional love over rational scepticism. Yet if we play inquisitors advocate for a second, would Christ have predicted the inquisition after his sermon on the mount? Would he have predicted the steady decline in religious belief in Western Europe? What this points to in Human life is that ethical uncertainty is the norm, not the exception.
So how do we treat others if we are both inconstant and not very good at knowing what is ethical? I think most would agree that we can and should move meaningfully towards happier, more ethical and spiritually satisfying lives, but individually, we should expect and embrace the pain, anxiety, errors and mistakes that comes with being human and progressing towards living a kinder and wiser life. Karl Popper, made the case that societies should progress via small scale institutional trial and error. In the same way, I believe that we should look fondly on trial and error and inconstancy in our own lives and accept that the road to wisdom is not a linear ascent. Mistakes are initiations, errors are opportunities to learn and inconstancy is something we can sit with and use to become more deeply human. I will, in another post, show how I think error correction/forgiveness on an institutional level could be improved, but I don't have time to do that now.
Constancy is something that the most hypocritical demand.
You can turn inconstancy into your friend by accepting it. Homer Simpson’s endless stupidity becomes endearing because he doesn’t hide his weaknesses. Politicians who try to play the constant Human are damaged by a small scandal because it gives off an air of unrelatable perfection. Consider how many scandals Trump had compared to Obama and still survived in politics. Errors and mistakes actually bring you closer to most people.
The most ardent cancellers are an example of human inconstancy, they just don’t know it. That’s why being ‘anti-woke’ is not that much better than wokeness. If we are to accept human inconstancy, we must accept it in all its forms. That doesn’t mean we have to be passive in acting against it.
‘The Peripatetic sage does not exempt himself totally from perturbations of mind, but he moderates them’ - Michel De Montaigne.
Personal: To speak from personal experience only, when I try to control my emotions and actions too forcefully it only leads to more frustration. The antidote I am currently working with is contained within a paradox. As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche puts it, ‘let go, but don’t give up’. To explain this a little more, It would be wrong to say that we cannot control some aspects of ourselves and reality but we only get that sort of control when we move with the flow of our thoughts, emotions and actions. It is entirely possible for tears to flow yet still remain relatively distant from it.