Montaigne On How To Judge Someone’s Actions

Montaigne was a 16th-century French philosopher. Although we remember Montaigne for his literary works, in particular, for the Essays he wrote, but in his own time, he was better know for his statesmanship. He served time as a mayor and was also respected enough by the King to seek him out for advice on different subject matters.

His essays cover many different topics and it’s the practical nature of Montaigne’s writing which attracts readership to this date. One of the topics he covered was how to judge other people’s actions. For Montaigne, it comes down to two things which are related to one another: What was in that person’s control and what was not.

So, for example, if someone owes you money and they promised to pay you by a certain date and that date comes and goes and yet, you have not received your payment. The natural reaction would be to get angry, to get aggressive because you feel cheated. However, Montaigne would advise you to take a deep breath and step back from the situation and think the following:

We cannot be held to promises beyond our power or our means. That is why – since actions and performances are not wholly in our power and since nothing is really in our power but our will – it is on the will that all the rules and duties of Man are based and established.

What Montaigne advises is to judge whether or not that individual intended to honor the payment by the specified date. If the answer is yes but external situations got in the way of that individual and his intention then what use is it to get angry and hurt this individual who is incapable of acting beyond his means.

If you judge the individual to be a cheat and that they had no intention of paying you back then yes, you have the right to be aggressive but at the same time, you must look at yourself. Take ownership of the situation and ask yourself why did you lend the money? What were your intentions? How did you get cheated? Why didn’t you see this lie coming?

Because after all there are only a few things in this life we have control over. One of them is our ability to reason and the other is our attitude. If there was a fault in our reasoning then we have to make sure to correct it so in the future we don’t make the same mistake. While our attitude serves to detach us from the situation at hand and react in a logical manner.

Furthermore, sticking with the example of lending money, let’s say that you lent a person money without putting a strict date of when the payment is to be repaid. This individual then benefits from your loan and is capable of paying you the money and yet, keeps it for himself for a long period of time, perhaps even till his deathbed and on that day, he returns the favor and gives you your money.

In this case, the person would consider himself even with you. You gave him money and then he paid it back. Equal transaction.

However, Montaigne would argue that this individual has committed a wrong. The reason being that he had the means of paying you back but did not intend to do so until he could no longer benefit from your loan. The intention is the key when judging another person’s actions. So, although you have been paid what you were owed, you still may have a gripe with this person because you could have put that money to good use or at least, alleviated some financial burdens. While, in the other scenario, the person intended to pay you back but had no means to do so, which means harboring a grudge with this individual would be useless.

One of the core philosophy of Stoicism is understanding what you can control and what you cannot. Montaigne was a student of Stoic philosophy and you can see its influence throughout his Essays. Particularly, on this topic of correctly judging another person’s actions.

So, before you judge someone’s actions just think what was their intentions, their will, what was in their control and what was not. This will make it easier for you to properly react to the situation at hand and to keep your emotions in check.