Three - Mos, Mores and Mos Maiorum: The Invention of Morality in Roman Culture
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One of the problems that our society has most struggled with, particularly in recent decades, is that of tolerance—the willingness to recognize that the manners and morals of “others” should not be automatically labeled as wrong, irrational or (worse still) unnatural, for the simple reason that they are different than “ours.” Others may live their lives in a manner quite unlike our own—eating different foods, with different sexual habits, professing a different religion (or even none at all) and so on. But this does not imply that “we” are right and “they” are wrong (nor, of course, that they are right and we are wrong). One of the most typical manifestations of intolerance is what has long gone by the name of “ethnocentrism” or the conviction that the traditions of the society to which one belongs are inherently better than those practiced by other communities.1 If we were to catalog here all the disasters and injustices that prejudiced intolerance of the Other has ever produced (and still continues to produce), the list would be very long indeed. Of course, intolerance and ethnocentrism do not occur exclusively in the form of violence and as part of the great historic conflicts that we all know. Bigotry is in fact a very devious kind of evil that can affect even those 1. On ethnocentrism, see the sensible definitions given by Taguieff 1999, 113–14. 87 Mos, Mores and Mos Maiorum To reconcile ourselves to usages and customs so very opposite to our own, is a task too difficult for the generality of mankind. —R. Wood, An Essay on the Original Genius of Homer. 1769 Three The Invention of Morality in Roman Culture 88 Part 2. Social Practices who are otherwise quite open-minded, creeping up on them when they least expect it. For example, it is a form of intolerance to brand the habit of drinking herbal tea, very widespread among Californians, as “stupid” simply because any number of outstanding kinds of coffee may be found in the world. We may find bizarre what others prefer as an after-dinner drink, but why define such a custom as “stupid” when compared with that of drinking coffee? Michel de Montaigne’s “Thousand Manners of Life” Intolerance and ethnocentrism are based on the pathological conviction that one’s own customs—“our” customs, those of the group with which one identifies—are always better than those observed by “others.” We might put it like this: Intolerance and ethnocentrism are the products of an excess of cultural identity, of the overvaluation of the traditions that define “us” (or better, what we say or believe define “us”). An excess of cultural identity is obviously a kind of illness, an illness that many factors may precipitate simultaneously: cultural narrow-mindedness, naiveté, fear, egotism, inadequate education and so forth. Obviously, I am not proposing to investigate here all the things that can lead to the overvaluation of one’s own customs.2 But we can say that one of the most effective cures for this illness is a kind of “reversal therapy”—the dedicated practice of systematically upsetting one’s own point of view by taking on that of the Other and of observing one’s self through another’s eyes. One of the most successful practitioners of this method actually happens to have been one of the greatest thinkers of whom sixteenth-century Europe could boast: Michel de Montaigne. In an essay very significantly entitled De la coustume (“On Custom”), Montaigne wrote: “Barbarians are no more a wonder to us, than we are to them.”3 Montaigne took a very ancient category of thought that opposes the “barbarians”—i.e., those who are different from us, “others”—to the group to which the subject belongs, only to immediately turn it on its head. Montaigne looks at himself (“us”) through the eyes of the so-called 2. The distinction between excess of group-identity on one hand and necessary group-identification on the other is quite difficult: probably it is a distinction that can be more easily employed in each instance on the plan of concrete behaviors. Lévi-Strauss (1983b, 21–48) has insisted on the necessity of diversity between cultures as a method of conservation and differentiation. For a discussion of this “differentialist” position, cf. Taguieff 1999, 43–47 and 103. See also the considerations of Remotti 1996, 96ff. 3. The translations given here are those of Charles Cotton’s edition of 1685 (Montaigne 1952...


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