Michel de Montaigne, Philosophy, Sociocultural Phenomena

Fake News

Michel de Montaigne: «On the Vanity of Words»

Fake news is nothing new, nor is the susceptibility of our societies to being manipulated by words written or spoken. Complaints about misinformation have existed for as long as written documents have. Not least in view of the grotesque socio-political phenomena we increasingly witness, the question of right or wrong, truth or not is highly topical again today: Why on earth do people vote for a political party that is constitutionally classified right-wing extremist, as is the case in Germany with the AfD party? Is it despite or precisely because of this fact? How can it be that Donald Trump doesn’t even bother to conceal his numerous indictments, but rather triumphantly flaunts them, posing like a martyr—and still constantly gains sympathy and supporters?

«Rhetoric was invented to manipulate and agitate the mob. It is only used by dysfunctional states for their disrupted societies, much like medicine is only used for the sick. Places where the vulgar and the ignorant had free rein (as in Athens, Rhodes, and Rome) and where affairs were in constant upheaval: those were the places that saw an incessant influx of speakers.»

«A rhetorician of times past once said that it was his profession to make small things appear such that they were believed to be big. To boast himself for such dishonesty and deceitfulness would have been reason enough in Sparta to be flogged. The Spartan king Archidamus once asked the historian Thucydides whether he himself or the Athenian Pericles was the better fighter, and he received the baffling answer: «That is hard to determine. Whenever I throw him at wrestling, he beats me by arguing that he was never down, and he even convinces the audience that he is the winner!»

«Women who wear heavy makeup cause little harm, by comparison, because it’s no big deal if we don’t know their natural state. Rhetoricians, however, make it their business to deceive not only our eyes but also our judgment, and to twist and distort the very essence of things…. Aristoteles very wisely defines rhetoric as a science of persuading the people; Socrates and Plato regard it as an art of deception and flattery…. People’s lack of judgment and susceptibility to seduction render them prone to manipulation by fancy-sounding words and speeches, without them ever being able to discern the truth by the capacity of reason.» (Book I, Chapter 51: «On the Vanity of Words»)

Regarding our extremely limited perception of truth and falsehood, Montaigne writes: «On the other hand, it is a witless presumption to dismiss as wrong everything that seems improbable to us. This is a common error among those who consider themselves smarter than others…. There is no greater stupidity than to trim everything down to the level of our own capacity of cognition and judgement…. He who has never seen a river believes the first one he comes across to be an ocean; and we consider the things that are the greatest within our knowledge to be the utmost that nature is capable of producing.»

«Why do we block out the contradictions in our own judgments? Which beliefs did we hold yesterday that we dismiss as fairy tales today? Curiosity and hubris are the two scourges of our souls: The one drives us to stick our nose into everything, the other denies us to let matters rest without necessarily taking a decision.» (Book I, Chapter 27: «It Is Folly to Measure True and False by Our Own Capacity»)

Montaigne cuts to the core with his statement:

«Since we rely on words to communicate, it is a betrayal of society to twist and falsify them. Words are the only way for us to convey our thoughts and wills to others; they are the go-between for our souls. If we lose them, we also lose connection to each other and no longer know about one another. If words deceive us, all our contacts are severed and all bonds of human togetherness are broken. (Book 2, Chapter 18: «On Lying»)

  1. good thoughts and comments that worry my soul, as a dependable human being… it gets more and more difficult to trust others.

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