Liberty Matters

Montaigne on ‘Sumptuary Laws’


In most authors I see the man who writes; in Montaigne, the man who thinks. Montesquieu, Mes Pensées, #633
The importance of Montaigne’s writings to European letters from the late 16th to the 19th century cannot be overrated. Works as diverse as Bacon’s Essays, Shakespeare’s King Lear and The Tempest, and Montesquieu’s variegated writings, most notably Persian Letters and The Spirit of Laws, all testify to the profound influence they exercised. However, anyone who has spent any serious time with Montaigne’s Essays realizes that they frequently traverse an ironic and suggestive path that is difficult to follow. One such essay, to which I alluded in my earlier entry on Montesquieu, is “Of Sumptuary Laws.”[109] As is the case with several of Montaigne’s essays, this one appears bearing a façade title.[110]  Although it might appear as if the essay is about sumptuary laws, and indeed that is the matter with which the essay begins, it is only an artifice for transporting the reader to other lands.
“Of Sumptuary Laws” begins with a criticism of such laws.  If we seek to regulate “foolish and vain expenditures” involving, say, clothes and food, we should realize, Montaigne tells us, that sumptuary laws are a feckless means to do so.  Rather than directing people away from such outlays, rather than leading people to feel contempt toward them, these laws serve to incentivize people to pursue and embrace them.  The laws in question, which have been established by Princes, prohibit almost all from acquiring certain goods, thereby allowing the Princes to be their sole possessors.  However, the people would lose their interest in such goods and expenditures if the Princes themselves would “boldly set aside these marks of greatness.”  We could, Montaigne avers, find other ways, drawn from other nations, of “outwardly distinguishing ourselves and our ranks,” and these could serve finely as substitutes.
Having concluded in this way, Montaigne moves on to show that the people and Princes could, with respect to clothing, act quite alike.  For at least a year following the death of King Henry II in 1559, everyone at court, and practically everyone else, followed funerary custom and wore broadcloth; only but a very few dressed in what previously would have been high fashion, namely, silk, and those few (principally medical doctors and surgeons—men of the city rather than court) were held in low esteem because of it.  It was, Montaigne indicates, a marvel how “custom in such indifferent things so easily and suddenly plants down the foot of her authority.”  When Princes omit pursuing superfluities such as silk, most everyone follows suit.  Nevertheless, he continues on, there are enough obvious distinctions that we could still draw among the various qualities of men.
Furthermore, Montaigne directs our attention to the ancient example of Zaleucus (seventh century B.C.E.) who, through a parallel device, was able to divert the Locrians from their “corrupted morals” by means of dictating that a free woman could not go outside the city at night, or wear embroidered dresses, or wear gold unless she were a public whore; and that a man could not wear gold rings or fancy robes made from the finest fabric from Miletus unless he were a pimp:[111] “And thus by these shameful exceptions, [Zaleucus] ingeniously diverted his citizens from pernicious superfluities and delights.” In such a fashion, honor and ambition were able to attract men to obedience.
Up until shortly before the end of his essay, Montaigne stays on the same trajectory depicted above. And despite my initial statement that the essay “Of Sumptuary Laws” is only seemingly about that subject, it would not be difficult on the basis of the line we’ve traced out so far to conclude anything other than that the essay gives expression to its titular subject.  Indeed, what else could the essay be about?
In trying to discover the essay’s proper subject, we should begin not with Montaigne’s explicit criticism of sumptuary laws, but rather with what should strike the reader as only tangentially connected to it.  After pointing out why these laws would fail to achieve their desideratum, Montaigne takes note of the fact that if Princes were not distinguished by their clothing and food, there would be other outward signs they could make use of, perhaps emulated from other nations, by virtue of which Princes could be seen as great. Whatever these might be, what they would have in common with clothing and food is that they would merely be external signs of distinction.  The reader might be led to wonder what the inward marks of distinction, ranks, or greatness might be, and what this might mean.  But apart from this, regardless of whether both Princes and the people would be free to wear certain clothes or eat certain foods and would do so, or if neither the Prince nor the people would adopt them—in both cases, that is—they would be equal with respect to these conventional markers: each of these alternatives would serve to undercut a conventional inequality to which they had been accustomed, and lead to a certain kind of conventional equality.
This theme of conventional inequality and equality, and the movement from the former to the latter, are further in evidence in the other examples that Montaigne adduces, which we canvassed above—the instances involving King Henry II and Zaleucus being variations on a theme. Of course, there are some differences here. In the former case, funerary custom was at work leading most away from what would have been considered a luxury; in the latter case, it was Zaleucus’s dictates that, given the customary understanding of whores and pimps, made the acquisition of certain luxuries particularly shameful, while not prohibiting anyone from seeking them. But these differences notwithstanding, these two examples coupled with the first spotlight certain thematic considerations of the utmost importance, considerations connected to issues of conventional inequality and equality.
We can begin with the pliable character of custom, that there is nothing fixed about it.  This concern, which runs deeply throughout Montaigne’s essay, seems to be undercut, though, at the essay’s end, where Montaigne elaborates a view he finds in Book VII of Plato’s Laws,[112] to the effect that the young should not be let free to change their practices over time as regards clothes, gestures, and play, or otherwise they will be corrupted.  But this will hold because there is a divine support and sanction for custom.  However, in part, this is exactly what Montaigne himself is undercutting; so, by means of a view that is placed on exhibition in Plato’s dialogue, Montaigne is able to exhibit a view contrary to his own, the very one he tries out in the essay at hand and elsewhere—that despite the authority custom wields, it can be transformed, perhaps for the better.
Yet, what has to be called out for attention here is that the customs saturating “Of Sumptuary Laws” pertain to differences between Princes and the people—that is, the relationships of conventional equality and inequality at issue in the essay have as their relata Princes and the people. Differences (and thus inequalities) between them can be transformed into similarities (and thus equalities) with a change in custom.  Herein lies the importance of Montaigne’s signaling that a change from inequality to equality still allows for other outward marks of distinction, ranks, and greatness. But the question must arise: can those too be subject to a movement from inequality to equality, all on the plane of conventionality?
This last question directs us to a final issue, one to which I have alluded in passing.  Montaigne focuses on matters of convention, but what about those of nature, those that I have termed inward marks of distinction (and greatness)?  There surely are natural differences among human beings, and presumably natural differences among types of human beings. Are there natural differences between Princes and the people, differences that would bear on questions of political authority? If so, what? If not, what are the consequences for political life?  And what might one say about the difference between Montaigne’s life, a philosophical life, and a political one? Does this question bear on issues of natural equality and inequality? However one answers these questions, one would do well to notice that the essay preceding “Of Sumptuary Laws” in Montaigne’s book is “Of the Inequality Between Us.” The theme of sumptuary laws seems the way to more exotic lands.
[109.] As I mentioned in my earlier entry, the best translation of Montaigne remains that of Donald Frame, and the essay in question can be found on pages 196-98 of the previously cited edition; nonetheless, all translations in this entry are the author’s own.
[110.] On Montaigne’s use of such titles, see Patrick Henry, Montaigne in Dialogue (Saratoga, CA: Anma Libri, 1987), 3-35.  Helpful on this issue will be Ralph Lerner’s forthcoming book from the University of Chicago Press (2016), Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic.
[111.] Cf. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 12.21.
[112.] 797a-798e; esp. 797e. Online version: The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). </titles/769#lf0131-05_head_025>.