Growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, as I did, long ago, and being of a literary cast of mind from an early age, my interest turned inevitably to Hawthorne, my fellow Salemite, author of The Scarlet Letter and several short stories not to be passed over. Today, surrounded as I am by mobs full of passionate intensity, I am drawn back to the author whose message influenced my ethics as profoundly as any I have ever encountered. If you have read “Endicott and the Red Cross,” or “Young Goodman Brown,” and of course The Scarlet Letter, you can well discern what that message is that has so taken hold of my conscience. Let me set the question aside for a bit and move to another time and place, to the mind of yet another thinker who has affected my ethics beyond measure…
…on many an evening during the late 1570s, and into the 1580s, a vintner of Portuguese ancestry sat in the library of his Perigord estate, in the South of France, and, with his vast library (over 1100 books) at hand, wrote what he called “essays” (“attempt” in French) in which he attempted to understand all about himself. He was particularly drawn to matters of judgment : of passing verdict upon the acts and thoughts of his fellows, and of himself. Michel de Montaigne — that was his name — came to believe that all human judgments were vain, that truth is the possession of no one, that that which is on top today will be on bottom tomorrow, that the only difference between a truth and an irrelevance is the support, or lack of, given by people. In “Of Coaches,” “On Some Verses of Virgil,” “Of Vanity” and “Of the Resemblance of Sons to Their Fathers” Montaigne concluded that the wars of religion going on all around him — the Huguenots versus the League of Guise, with the King shrinking off to one side, trying not to get plowed — could only be ended by an individual act of personal conscience, to opt out, to create in his own home a place of peace, of non-judgment, of no weapons and no death, no persecutions, no armies of truth.
Such was his success that even today we read Montaigne’s essays, and often we find them a guide for our own ethical deciding. And make no mistake : no society can be roiled by armies of truth without having to come to terms with what is the good, what is the righteous, for one’s own piece of this life. It is a shame, perhaps, that our lives must be barred, like a highway being worked, by armies of absolute truth, but shame or not, when those armies block one’s path, one has to take their measure. There are no detours. When one is assaulted, sworn at, plundered and disturbed, one might want to ask, why is this happening here and now ? That, my readers, is a complex question with some not very edifying answers. I have no intention in this brief column of analyzing the causes — although vast deconstructions in the world of education play an outsized role — but the results, we know, just as Michel de Montaigne saw, heard, and felt the guns and battle cries of armies campaigning practically outside his castle doors. And as I have pointed out, his greatest “essays” sought answers to that same question that we face today : what moves the minds of men to battle and kill one another over doctrines unprovable and in any case un-useful ? Where the presumption ? To what end the certainty ?
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great works ask the same question : where does any man get the right to judge other people ? To brand them ? To rip their flags ? Are we not all equally to be judged by God — if a god exists — the only authority so granted ? Hawthorne hated intolerance with a personal animus. His own ancestor, John Hathorne, had sat as a Judged in the Witchcraft trials of 1692 that ever since — and certainly still in Hawthorne’s day — have tainted the consciences of Salemites and others with a shame appropriate to the sin of truth assumption. Thus Hester Prynne goes forth with Pastor Dimmesdale and their child, to a new life and righteous. Thus Endicott, after defacing the Red Cross flag of Salem, despite the calm advice of Roger Williams, shocks the attending populace against his cause. And thus Young Goodman Brown, called to the forest on a moonless night, sees all of his neighbors, so morally superior and tsk-tsk-ing by day in all their depravity under shroud of dark.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere