Self-Debasement is Wrong
Tibor R. Machan
As a child and teen I had been very seriously abused, especially while in my father’s “care”. He had in mind to make me into a clone, forced me to do athletics relentlessly and when he detected any resistance on my part, beat me mercilessly. None of this resulted in major damage, fortunately, but his constant ranting at me about how worthless I am because I do not live up to his idiosyncratic expectations did have an impact, at least up to a point. I never quite bought into this view but did often feel uneasy for being rebellious, for insisting to follow my own lights. As if this may be a flaw, even as I insisted in carrying on in my contrary ways even when facing the menacing communists back in Hungary. But luckily I did have the wherewithal to run from my father’s home as soon as I reached the right age. And he only had me to tyrannize for a few years anyway. Still, when I began to read a good deal of classical philosophy and literature, what stood out for me most is the material that affirmed my own importance or value as a human individual.
This came to my mind recently when I ran across a review of a book about the sixteenth century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne because his essays were one of those books I devoured when I was about 19 and served in the US Air Force. At that time I discovered this library of Classic Books and bought them and among those was Montaigne’s Essays, as well as works by Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Locke, and a host of others, books I found fascinating as I did my rather mundane chores for the Air Force at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, DC. (It all got less boring when some friends and I on the base established a theater group, Andrews Players, with its regular slate of plays and even its Andy celebrations!)
In the review of the book about Montaigne I ran across a quoted passage that brought back to mind one of the reasons the Essays left such a strong impression on me. Not that all of Montaigne’s ideas appealed to me but his way of putting them certainly did. But this particular passage, which I am about to quote, showed why what Montaigne wrote helped me come to terms with some personal issues and laid the foundation for subsequent thinking and writing in my life. So here is the passage that brought back to me why I was attracted to Montaigne:
“It is against nature that we despise ourselves and care nothing about ourselves. It is a malady peculiar to man, and not seen in any other creature….It is by a similar vanity that we wish to be something other than we are.”
So my rebellion against my dad’s relentless belittling–supported sadly by much of the moralizing I have encountered in my youth from politicians, the pulpit and writings by theologians and ethicists–had some critics after all! That was a very welcome discovery. It inspired me to examine in more detail why so much of moral philosophy and ethics aims at besmirching human beings, why there is so much misanthropy in the air. After all, judging by the evidence surrounding us, people certainly don’t demonstrate some kind of uniform malfeasance. In fact, all in all–when all the science, technology, literature, poetry, entertainment, art and personal matters are taken into account–people come off to be quite respectable, accomplished, and at least decent. Sure there is much viciousness about, too, but it’s perverse to focus only on that.
Maybe worst of all is when some people, especially those in powerful positions over others–e.g., their children–insist on declaring it evil that others do not follow them in their chosen line of work, politics, economics, entertainment, athletics, and such and try to make the dissidents feel guilty for wanting to go it their own way.
I must tip my hat to Montaigne for setting me on a course that rejected what my father tried to inculcate in me, a hatred of myself.