There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, some mutual obligation. -- Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)
Michel de Montaigne was a Renaissance philosopher whose profound horror of cruelty was unusual in his own time – and perhaps it still is today. This revulsion came from his belief that all humans share an element of their being, as do all other living things. ‘It is one and the same nature that rolls its course,’ he wrote. We are similar to other animals – but even if we were not, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive.
This obligation applies in trivial encounters as well as life-or-death ones. We owe other beings countless small acts of kindness and empathy. Montaigne followed the passage quoted above with this remark about his dog:
I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.
He indulges his dog because he can imaginatively share the animal’s point of view: he can feel how desperate the dog is to banish boredom and get his human friend’s attention.
History has largely dismissed the significance of Montaigne’s thoughts on cruelty and kindness. But there are those who find in his essay ‘On Cruelty’ the signs that mark him out as the first completely modern thinker. Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, wrote that Montaigne’s modernity resided precisely in his ‘intense awareness of and passionate interest in the individuality of himself and of all other human beings’ – as well as of non-human beings.
Even a pig or a mouse has, as Woolf wrote, a feeling of being an ‘I’ to itself. He went on to apply this insight to politics, reflecting especially on his memory of the 1930s, when the world seemed about to sink into a barbarism that made no room for small individual selves. On a global scale, he wrote, no single creature can be of much importance; yet in reality these ‘I’s are the only things of importance. And only a politics that recognises them can offer hope for the future.
For Montaigne as for Woolf, human beings do not live immured in our separate perspectives. We live porously and sociably. We can glide out of our own minds, if only for a few moments, in order to occupy another being’s point of view. This ability is the real meaning of Montaigne’s call to ‘be convivial’, one answer to the question of how to live, and the best hope for civilization.