«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
[c]ar, à la verité, en ces dernieres necessitez où il n’a y a plus que tenir, il seroit à l’avanture plus sagement fait de baisser la teste et prester un peu au coup que, s’ahurtant outre la possibilité à ne rien relascher, donner occasion à la violance de fouler tout aux pieds; et vaudroit mieux faire vouloir aux loix ce qu’elles peuvent. (1.23.122)36 If Montaigne can will the laws to do our will, however, what remains to separate him from “ceux qui sont duicts à ceste subtilité, de les replier et desnouer, seroyent en tous escrits capables de trouver tout ce qu’ils y demandent” (1.11.44)?37 “a government is like a structure of different parts joined together in such a relation that it is impossible to budge one without the whole body feeling it” (1.23.104) “For in truth, in these ultimate necessities where there is nothing more to hold on, it would perhaps be more wisely done to lower your head and give way a little to the blow than, by struggling to let nothing go when this is impossible, to give violence an occasion to trample everything underfoot; and it would be better to make the laws will what they can do” (1.23.108).
“those who are trained in this subtle trick of tying and untying knots would be capable of finding, in any writings, whatever they want” (1.11.35) The answer to this question lies in the gesture that accompanies the willing of the law to do one’s will: lowering one’s head and giving way to the blow. Where the subtlety of the innovators is grounded in the kind of vanity and self-importance that hardens them against all other points of view, Montaigne’s is based upon a sense of humility and even servitude that requires him to take the opinions and the good of others into account. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that when Montaigne grants that a born commander of people “sçavoit non seulement commander selon les loix, mais aux lois mesme, quand la necessité publique le requeroit” (1.23.123), this concession is grounded in the belief that the role of such a commander is to act only in the interests of the public good, “car, à le prendre exactement, un Roy n’a rien proprement sien; il se doibt soy-mesmes à autruy” (3.6.903).38 This explains why Montaigne, who is ultimately so critical of custom and its effects, is still willing to give way to the customs of other people even if it discomfits him: “Je ne crain point de ceder ou preceder iniquement pour fuir à une si importune contestation; et jamais homme n’a eu envie de ma presseance à qui je ne l’aye quittée” (3.9.980).39 Like “[l]e sage Perpaticien[, il] ne s’exempte pas des perturbations, mais il les modere” (1.12.47), and it is precisely his cosmopolitan humility that enables him to do so.40 “knew not only how to command according to the laws, but how to command the laws themselves, when the public necessity required” (1.23.108); “to be precise about it, a king has nothing that is properly his own; he owes his very self to others” (3.6.836) “I have no fear of ceding or preceding unfairly to avoid such a bothersome argument, and never did a man covet my right to go first but that I yielded it to him” (3.9.911).
“The Peripatetic sage does not exempt himself from perturbations, but he moderates them” (1.12.37).
“EDUCATION, WHICH IS … BUT AN EARLY CUSTOM” At times, Bacon shares much of Montaigne’s skepticism about custom’s power: like Montaigne he characterizes it as a “tyrant” with the capacity to turn people into automata (“Of Custom and Education” 179), like him he fears that alterations in custom can produce civil disorder (“Of Seditions and Troubles” 104), and he likewise identifies custom as much with novelty as with tradition (“Of Innovations” 132). But despite their shared misgivings, Bacon ultimately evinces a radically different attitude toward custom, portraying it as a force that can be controlled and cultivated through reason and education in order to improve social, political, and educational institutions.
Where Montaigne sees only a possibility of mitigating the ill effects of custom, Bacon holds out a much more hopeful prospect, suggesting that reason can in fact overcome the power of custom by enabling us to examine our individual and collective practices and institute an educational and scientific program that can shape children and society for the better. If Montaigne’s radical innovation in the conception of custom, then, is to have seen it as contaminating even the purported products of reason, such as written laws, Bacon’s is to flip this equation on its head and argue that the force of custom can operate in the service of reason in order to help mold nature to human will. As Zsolt Almasí aptly suggests, in moving from Montaigne to Bacon, “the perspective of the discussion must be charged from the skeptical to the institutional” (99).
As Almasí is perhaps alone in recognizing, custom plays a central role in Bacon’s project to establish an empirical scientific practice grounded in the close examination of natural phenomena. The foundational gesture of Bacon’s renovated scientific endeavor, as it is laid out in The Advancement of Learning and the New Organon, is a radical slatecleaning of a kind unthinkable to Montaigne. “The only hope … of any greater increase or progress lies in a reconstruction of the sciences” (New Organon 24). Thus, Bacon
famously identifies four sets of “Idols” to be cleared to make way for natural philosophy:
Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Market Place, and Idols of the Theatre.
Though each of these constitutes a distinct group of obstacles to proper scientific practice—the Idols of the Tribe, for example, are those that “have their foundation in human nature itself” (48), while those of the Market Place are “formed by the intercourse and association of men” (49)—the common thread that binds them all is their basis in received and unquestioned opinion. As Bacon argues several pages later, the main reason that people follow this or that school of philosophical thought is “because they have bestowed the greatest pains upon them and become the most habituated to them” (54).
Bacon particularly disapproves of “the customs and institutions of schools, academies, colleges, and similar bodies destined for the abode of learned men and the cultivation of learning, [where] everything is found adverse to the progress of science” (89). The goal
of overcoming custom is, for Bacon, to restore philosophy to its proper object of study:
the phenomena of the natural world.
In the Essays, Bacon suggests that custom is itself a product of human nature. The essay that precedes “Of Custom of Education” is “Of Nature in Men,” wherein he points out that “custom only doth alter and subdue nature”—though he distinguishes between individual inclination, which holds primary sway over mental faculties, and custom, which he characterizes primarily as a social phenomenon that drives people to act in certain pre-established ways. As part of nature, however, custom is thus subject to scientific examination—in fact, Bacon addresses custom explicitly from such a point of view in his New Organon (185-187). Further, in The Advancement of Learning, Bacon emphasizes the power of custom to alter nature through force of repetition, citing the example of a glove that stretches to fit the hand of its wearer through repeated use (124).
Custom, in other words, offers Bacon a mechanism for training human behavior in fashion analogous to that of the empirical method itself.
The key is that haphazard effects of ungoverned custom be corrected by its reasoned and
systematic application. As Bacon states in the New Organon:
Many other axioms there are touching the managing of exercise and custom; which being so conducted, doth prove indeed another nature; but being governed by chance, doth commonly prove but an ape of nature, and bringeth forth that which is lame and countefeit. (185) The value judgments underlying this statement give a clear indication of the complexity of Bacon’s attitude towards nature. On the one hand, Bacon suggests a distinction between a “true” nature and a “false” nature, wherein the “true” nature is clearly held to be superior. Yet, in a seeming paradox, “true” nature is precisely dependent on the methodical alteration of custom, rather than the acceptance of custom as it comes to us.
This preference for artificed or artificial nature is reflected throughout Bacon’s scientific writings—indeed, it is a central facet of his method, since he sees the experimental isolation of particular aspects of the natural world as the ideal method by which to learn more precise facts about it.
Bacon’s utopian narrative, New Atlantis, offers us any number of examples of this artificial nature, portraying special “caves … for the imitation of natural mines” and “engines for multiplying and enforcing of winds” (266-267). It likewise insists on the very naturalness of using art to help perfect nature, noting that the people of Bensalem, his fictional society, give “reverence and obedience … to the order of nature” even as they make things “by art greater much than their nature” (258, 267). If we put this observation together with Bacon’s insistence on the role of custom in helping to educate young children according to the dictates of reason, we see that his vision of the relationship between nature and custom is completely opposed to that of Montaigne.
Where Montaigne sees custom as force that limits and constrains the potential of nature, Bacon regards it as a means by which that potential can be released.
However, by placing his utopia “beyond both the Old World and the New” (243), he also signals his conviction that those places that have not yet been subject to custom are most apt to take well to its scientific application. Thus, in his essay “Of Plantations,” he emphasizes the potential for colonies, when founded according to reasoned principles, to prosper greatly and, in “The True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” he insists on the “planting of colonies” as “the sure path to greatness” for an empire (151). The potential for colonies in the Americas is, for Bacon, analogous to the potential for science in the Americas, as he indicates in the New Organon when he compares his scientific writings to those of Columbus, who “before that wonderful voyage of his across the Atlantic … gave reasons for his convictions that new lands and continents might be discovered” (91).
Meanwhile, in the New Atlantis, he makes it perfectly clear that the ends of this scientific project are nothing less than the extension of power and of empire: “[t]he end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes … and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (265). With this presentation of the discovery of America as an analogue to the project of empirical science coupled to his insistence on the value of colonies as a means of extending political empire, Bacon anticipates the writings of later British authors such as Hobbes and Locke, who would take the purported blankness of America as an invitation to philosophical and scientific inquiry as well as colonization.
CUSTOMARY PRACTICE IN COLONIAL NORTH AMERICAThe two modes of thinking about custom that I have outlined above—we might call them Montaignian and Baconian—establish the framework within which the French and English colonists would use custom to conceptualize and even transform their collective identities. Montaigne’s emphasis, for example, on the maintenance of traditional customs as a means of maintaining social order found particular resonance with the earliest colonists, while Bacon’s on education as a means of producing an ideal social order made sense to later colonists as they sought to raise up English and French children in what they saw as a wilderness. Similarly, Montaigne’s belief in the impossibility of wiping the slate of custom clean is echoed by those colonists who respected the presence and the customary practices of the Native Americans, while Bacon’s utopian desire to reform custom through the methods of empirical science finds expression in the writings of those colonists who preferred to see America as a land devoid of history—and therefore the ideal location in which to construct utopia. So, as the North American colonists sought to account for their presence in the “New World”—and to insist that they indeed remained English or French—they found that these two conceptions of custom, alone or in combination, helped them to answer the troubling questions raised by colonization.
My first chapter thus compares Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle France [History of New France] and Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, which are positively saturated with the figure of custom. While Lescarbot and Morton share a sense of theatricality with their contemporary colonial authors Samuel de Champlain and John Smith, what they perform is not so much the individual prowess demonstrated in the writings of the latter pair as their national identity represented by its characteristic customs. Given the virtual absence of custom in Smith and Champlain’s writings, the logic behind Morton and Lescarbot’s use of this figure as a framework for their writing becomes all the more important to understand. What motivates these men to juxtapose ethnographic descriptions of the “savage” inhabitants of the New World with rhetorical assaults on those who challenged their authority to colonize? By linking the theatrical politics of the court masque with the emphasis on performance in early modern anthropology, I demonstrate how these authors seek to create authority by criticizing their opponents for their lack of certain key national practices and traits and by staging performances that not only portray the behaviors appropriate to people of their national community, but also symbolically assimilate the New World natives into that community.
In this way their performances and writings open up a radical new way of talking about national identity, situating it in the possession (or lack) of particular habits and customs rather than the land itself.