May 16, 2019, 05:58AM

Guns, Greeks, and the Moral High Ground

The Montaigne Project on guns and Stoicism.

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Consider the waiting time every traveler must factor in when taking an airplane. It’s about 90 minutes. During that time you must submit your luggage for inspection and stowing. You must allow yourself to be meticulously inspected by X-rays, electronic sniffers, fatigued officials, and cameras. You must take off your shoes, present identification, put your laptop in a separate bin, and make sure your luggage is always attended.

Without such precautions, it’s incredibly easy to blow up an airport, sabotage a runway, hijack a plane, or say you are going to your mother’s funeral when you’re really stowing away to Bermuda. The 90 minutes of lead time is the only thing standing between you and that memorable scene, in The Godfather Part II, where all the Americans are hurtling across runways in the hopes of getting out of Cuba before they’re shot or trampled. Instead, at this very moment, people everywhere are standing in shaggy, listless queues at their assigned boarding gates, texting each other and overpaying for lunch. The social order is perfectly intact in the midst of countless dangerous metal birds.

I mention this because, in “On constancy,” Michel de Montaigne does his damnedest to write a straightforward little essay about morality under similarly mundane circumstances. He begins with several droll war stories from ancient Greece. Even in the 16th Century, these were well past their expiration date, but in Montaigne’s defense, he was probably trying to delay—however briefly—what comes next. To wit: guns. Guns, it turns out, are a big fucking problem for Renaissance Stoics.

Montaigne writes: “Once a man’s post is the target of cannon-fire (as the chances of war often require it to be) it is unbecoming for him to waver before the threatening cannon-balls, all the more so since we hold that they have such speed and such impetus that you cannot take evasive action. There are many cases of soldiers at least providing their comrades with a good laugh by shielding behind their arms or ducking their heads.”

In other words, since you can’t dodge bullets, you should at least try to avoid looking silly. 

Except—as Montaigne mutters next—maybe you should duck: “Lorenzo de’ Medici… saw the fire applied to a cannon which was pointing right at him and ducked; luckily for him, for otherwise the shot, which only grazed the top of his head, would have certainly struck him in the chest…[But] in so sudden a matter how can you judge whether the aim is high or low? It is far easier to believe that fortune looked favourably on their fear but that another time they might have jumped into the path of the shot, not out of it.”

Montaigne winds the inquiry up on a personal note: “I cannot stop myself from trembling if the shattering sound of a harquebus suddenly strikes my ear… growing tense and even pale.” So much for Stoicism. Let’s sum up: if you hear gunfire, then once you’re done freaking out, you should either duck and save your life, or stand your ground and impress all the onlookers.

Having gotten us into this mess, Montaigne then steps delicately over it, concluding, “The Aristotelian sage is not exempt from emotions.” Perhaps, but more to the point, the Aristotelian sage is not exempt from bullets. Montaigne was registering the breakdown of a whole Stoic ethos. Though it had once been rooted in military behavior, Stoicism became a relic, during Montaigne’s lifetime, when it collided with modern technologies of war.

Even now, there are people who can’t really abide such lethality. Take, for instance, “Film Crit Hulk,” writing for Polygon.com about Red Dead Redemption 2: “But the biggest problem is that… an important bad guy is absolutely no harder to kill than a random enemy you face at the beginning of the game, other than the fact that important enemies are usually surrounded by meaningless people you’ll need to kill to get to them.”

This is a completely realistic move on the part of the game. Very important people, it turns out, are just as susceptible to bullets as “meaningless people”—as the modern history of assassination has amply demonstrated. It’s commendable that Rockstar made the “big baddies” easy to take out. Your shock, when they slump over, teaches you something about the world we’re living in.

Nonetheless, you may be surprised that I’m juxtaposing guns and Stoics. After all, who’s more stoic than Clint Eastwood, in every movie he’s ever made, or Gary Cooper in High Noon? Who wears a more serene, unflappable expression than Steve Martin, his gun at his side, in The Three Amigos? The town of Deadwood, in that memorable HBO series, was arguably more Stoic than Christian per capita. So how is it that guns dismantle bravery, and fortitude, in European theaters of war, but adorn them in the American West?

The answer’s a revelation. If you examine a Western settlement, in 19th Century-America, and take into account the customs of the settlers, you find guns seeping into every detail of daily life. The routes you’d travel, if you were savvy, kept you away from armed gangs. The position of the doors, in a place of business, was designed to maximize visibility, in case a new customer was armed and dangerous. The distance people maintain, for personal space, expands to accommodate the possibility of drawing, and firing. There are more solitary men at the fringes of these places. They hunt game with guns, make a living by shooting (or threatening to), and keep others away. When violence can break out anywhere, at any time, new dance steps are invented to contain it, and people try for a détente. Within that re-imagined, meagerly domesticated space, the Stoic re-emerges as a loner with a gun. It may be more dramatic, but in essence, it’s no different than people drinking Starbucks at the airport, as if the planes taxiing outside could never come careening through those giant windows to bury them in wreckage.

On my campus, a huge percentage of the students wear AirPods all the time. They’re always plugged in. When you hail them, you have no idea whether they’re listening to something or not, so you don’t know how well they’re hearing you. Sometimes they share AirPods, streaming music to socialize; sometimes they keep just one ear tuned. They’ll even pull out both little nubs, and slam them down on the table, to show incredulity about something you’ve just said. New technology is always rude and immoral at first, shredding the conventions that worked under different conditions. But the first thing people build after adopting new tools, or new weapons, is a mutual morality: a theater where bravery, courtesy, and convention apply, and where every individual has sufficient room.

Ultimately, our greatest challenges are tests of imagination. We couldn’t imagine the 9/11 attacks until they happened; now, in their aftermath, a similar plan could never succeed. We Americans can’t get rid of the West, though. We’re stuck with its peculiar myths about personal freedom and its bloody idea of what’s normal. Every time a shooter with the same equipment, the same plan, and the same motivations commits an identical atrocity, all the talk about bump stocks and mail ordered weapons is a distraction. We’re simply paying the price that we’veset, ourselves, so that our Stoic pageant can go on.

—This story was inspired by Michel de Montaigne’s twelfth essay, “On constancy”


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