“There should be some restraint of law against foolish and impertinent scribblers, as well as against vagabonds and idle persons . . . . I do not speak this in jest: scribbling seems to be a sign of a disordered and licentious age.”
Montaigne “Of Vanity” (c. 1580)
“Cobbler, stick to your last.”
Apelles of Kos (c. A.D. 79)
Montaigne was of the opinion that everyone could lend a hand in the destruction of society, since each man could bring to this great work his own pernicious power. “One contributes treachery,” he wrote, while others, differently gifted, contribute “injustice, irreligion, tyranny, avarice and cruelty.” As in happier undertakings, “the same spirit” is in this evil enterprise advanced by “diversities of gifts” and “diversities of ministrations” (1).
Traitors and sadists are active agents who do what we might call the “heavy lifting” in social destruction, but as Milton said in another context, “they also serve who only stand and wait” (2). Montaigne calls those who serve by standing and waiting “the weaker sort,” but says that they “contribute” to social destruction with their gifts for “folly, vanity, and idleness.”
There is no practical difference between folly, vanity, and idleness, since each is a form of the more general vice of frivolity. In its literal meaning, frivolity is the state of being broken or crumbled, and hence of being as insubstantial and unresisting as sand that shifts whenever wind or water takes it. A frivolous man or woman is insubstantial, unresisting, and destined, as we nowadays say, to “go with the flow.” When active agents work at social destruction, frivolous men and women offer no oposition.
This is why a great historian of the French Revolution noted that there is a “uniform progress . . . from frivolity and nonsense to wickedness and vice” (3). Visiting Paris in 1790, Arthur Young observed the sudden transformation of the French from frivolity into fanaticism. After listening to a day of tumultuous speeches in the National Assembly, and attending a dinner party in which politics dominated the conversation, Young wrote:
“When they had nothing better to attend to, the fashionable Parisians were correctness itself, in all that pertained to the toilette, and were therefore thought a frivolous people; but now they have something of more importance than dress to occupy them . . .” (4).
We can begin to see the connection between frivolity and fanaticism when we consider that a man who advocated destruction of French society was in that day called enragé, which meant rabid, and that a rabid man can easily spread his rabies to the insubstantial minds of frivolous men. Because a frivolous man has no form, no substance of his own, but is like a heap of sand that is shaped by wind and wave, he necessarily follows the fashion and falls victim to the latest rage.
And thus it was that “a rage for innovation . . . completely pervaded the minds of the Parisians,” and that men who had formerly painted their faces and powdered their hair became, of a sudden, keen and ruthless politicians.
“The appearance of Paris was completely changed. Everywhere one saw crowds staring at papers pasted on the walls—breaking into little parties—walking up and down the streets in eager conversation—adjourning to coffee houses—and the conversation in all companies turned to politics alone” (5).
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Although himself a “scribbler,” Montaigne condemned “impertinent scribblers” as frivolous and dangerous men. He said they were no better than “vagabonds and idle persons,” and that growth in their numbers and the pages of their scribblings was “a sign of a disordered and licentious age.” He saw the urge to scribble and read scribblings as a dangerous fever in the body politic, as an indication of some deep and raging infection.
The adjective “impertinent” is important, since an “impertinent scribbler” scribbles what no one asked him to scribble. He is not a churchman, and yet he scribbles about the church; he is not a statesman, and yet he scribbles about the state; he is not a businessman, and yet he scribbles about the economy until his inkhorn (or ink cartridge) runs dry.
The “impertinent scribbler” is, in other words, a journalist. Paid if possible, but gratuitous if need be.
If a journalist did nothing but scribble in his private journal, his fever and frivolity would be contained. He might have put his time to better use by weeding his garden or patching potholes in the road in front of his house, but a private journal wastes only the time of the scribbler who scribbles in it.
But scribbling is “a sign of a disordered and licentious age” because a scribbler longs for readers, so he can waste their time as well as his own. And this is why Montaigne observes that, in an age that teems with journalists,
“Everyone applies himself negligently to the duty of his vocation, and is easily debauched from it.”
Like those men walking up and down the streets of Paris in “eager conversation,” journal-readers are obsessed with tasks they do not understand and have not been asked to perform. In his own mind, a journal reader becomes a churchman, a statesman, or the board member of a great industrial concern. He is swept up in the fantasy that he belongs to the officer class. He studies his newspapers, sit up nights reading high-flown books, and very likely begin to scribble and dream that he too is a journalist.
Meanwhile his humble but actual affairs are neglected and fall into disorder and ruin, and thus he plays his own small part in the great work of social destruction.
* * * * *
You have likely heard the proverb, “cobbler, stick to your last.” We have this from Pliny the Elder, who tells us that he had it from Apelles of Kos, the greatest painter of his day. The story is that Apelles would put a new painting on public display, secreting himself nearby, in a place that was out of sight but within earshot. His purpose was to listen to the comments of those who passed by.
Thus secreted within earshot of a new painting, Apelles one day heard a cobbler point out an error in his representation of a sandal. Because he wished to remain the greatest painter of his day, Apelles corrected the defect and put the corrected painting on display the next day. Lo, down the street came the same cobbler, and this cobbler once again stopped to examine the painting. Observing the correction, the cobbler was emboldened to imagine himself a critic of art, and not merely of sandals, and he therefore ventured to find fault with Apelles representation of the man’s leg.
At this impertinence, the artist sprang from his hiding place and administered the rebuke:
Ne sutor supra crepidam,
which has come down to us translated as “cobbler, stick to your last.” The translation is unfortunate insofar as it may seem that Apelles was telling the cobbler to get back to his workshop and start making shoes. A better translation is, “let the shoemaker venture no further.” In other words, thank you very much for your help with the sandal, but do not get above yourself, and speak only of what you know.
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I am, of course, an impertinent scribbler of the very sort Montaigne said the law should place under restraint. I waste my time scribbling what no one asked me to scribble, and I waste your time when I persuade you to read it. I am not a churchman, and yet I have the impertinence to scribble about the church; I am not a statesman, and yet I have the impertinence to scribble about the state. Emboldened like that shoemaker, I venture further than I ought.
Meanwhile my humble and actual affairs are neglected and fall into disorder and ruin, and I thus play my own small part in the great work of social destruction.
(1) 1 Corinthians 12, 4-5.
(2) “On His Blindness,” (1655).
(2) John Robinson, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (1798), p. 463.
(4) Arthur Young, Travels During the Year 1787, 1788, 1789, two vols. (1793), vol. 1, p. 568.
(5) Robinson, Proofs, p. 268.