Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne, on the power of habit

«Millers, blacksmiths, armorers: None of them would survive the roaring noise in their ears if it cut them through marrow and bone as it does us others. My perfumed collar may serve my nose well, but after having worn it for three days in a row, only those around me will notice it. I myself live in a tower with a mighty bell that tolls the Hail Mary several times a day. The clangor shakes even my tower. I found it unbearable at first, but soon I became used to it, and it no longer bothers me today; it doesn’t even wake me up any more.» (Montaigne, Chapter XXIII «On Habit»)

A powerful and bossy master

«Habit is indeed like an aggressive and tyrannic schoolmaster. On silent feet, it gradually creeps into us and spreads its sphere of power. It may start out gentle and modest, but once it has gained a foothold and settled down inside us, it will drop its mask and show its fierce, tyrannical face, against which we are no longer free to as much as raise our eyes. And then we will watch it rape the rules of nature at every turn: Habit is the most powerful master of all things.

A habit is a behavior that has become a character trait, something you don’t even think about anymore because it has become independent, like a program that runs autonomously without being called into question. The habit kicks in automatically as if by itself, merely by being repeated, and then it’s almost impossible to get rid of. It is only with difficulty that we break our habits, no matter how silly they are.

In the claws of habit

«We can recognize the effects of habit from the wondrous deformations it inflicts on our souls unless it meets with great resistance. What can it not do to our thoughts and beliefs! I leave aside those crudely false religious doctrines which have blinded so many great peoples and distinguished personalities. Matters of faith are beyond human cognition, after all, so it is excusable to be mislead if you are not exceptionally enlightened by divine grace. But even among the remaining convictions: Has there ever been one too aberrant not to be implanted in a susceptible part of the world, and elevated to the status of law, by mere habit?»

«Mainly, however, the power of habit consists in seizing and clutching us such that we can hardly shake it off and come to our senses enough to review its dictates and examine them rationally. Since we were weaned on habits and see the world in this preshaped manner from the very first moment, we are actually bound from birth to follow the beaten track; and the ideas, which are upheld around us and already infused into our souls with the seed of our fathers, appear to us natural and universal. That is why we believe things outside of the usual to be outside of reason—and God knows how unreasonable that is! 

«The laws of conscience, too, which we claim to spring from nature, actually spring from habit: We all inwardly hold in honor the opinions and customs which are common and approved around us. Without this endorsement, we could neither embrace nor in good conscience reject them. … In times past, when the Cretans wanted to curse someone, they asked the gods to burden that person with a bad habit.»

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