We Reach The Same Ends By Discrepant Means


(NB. This is the first essay of mine on a topic from Michel de Montaigne. I plan to write at least one post for every essay by Montaigne; more than one, perhaps, in response to his longer works. I’m following the usual published order of his essays. -Kugelmass)

The Emperor Conrad III….was to allow the noblewomen who had been besieged with the Duke to come out honourably on foot, together with whatever they could carry on their persons. They, with greatness of heart, decided to carry out on their shoulders their husbands, their children and the Duke himself. The Emperor took such great pleasure at seeing the nobility of their minds that he wept for joy and quenched all the bitterness of that mortal deadly hatred he had harboured against the Duke; from then on he treated him and his family kindly.

-“We Reach The Same End By Discrepant Means,” Michel de Montaigne

The phrase “a good magician never reveals his tricks” usually implies the idea that people are awed by things they do not understand. There is more to the phrase than that, however. The “good magician” who does not reveal his tricks is a good man, as well as a successful performer, because of it.

After all, a happy person who attends a magic show will never ask the magician to explain his stunts. She will leave the theater assuming the tricks are all tricks, feeling pleased by the illusions they create, or she will leave in a state of wonder, thinking she has underestimated the strangeness of the world. Every reflection along these lines is worthwhile. It really is remarkable how easily we can be fooled, and how satisfying illusions can ultimately be. It is also true, at all times, that we are paying too little attention to the immensity and strangeness of our surroundings. Even an annoying person, who spends the whole car ride home trying to figure out each trick, gains something from the attempt.

Anyone who asks the magician for an explanation is unhappy. They are sometimes out to prove that everything is a “trick,” and everyone is a huckster; in fact, good illusions are quite difficult to create, and one always gets one’s money’s worth. Other times, the skeptic is jealous, and wants to prove that “anyone” can do what the magician has done. This is only superficially true; there is no such thing as a hypothetical achievement.

Everything worth doing can be done by various means: methodically or quickly, alone or collaboratively, secretly or openly, traditionally or unconventionally, spontaneously or according to a plan. Most people go through life assuming this cannot really be true. They quote the old phrase about the ends not justifying the means, and pretend that every fork in the road has great moral significance. In the American mind two roads are always diverging in a yellow wood, and every choice makes all the difference.

College students, for example, dislike people who can write an essay in less time than it “should” take to write. They will put time and effort into proving that the person is a) cheating, b) borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, or c) doing inferior work.

Here’s another example. Most Americans want to lose weight. There are two ways to lose weight: burning it off, or eating less. “Burning it off” by running marathons, or spending hours each day at the gym, strikes most people as tiresome, vain, and obsessive. Eating less through stimulants or surgery is perfectly possible, but deep down, most of us consider it cheating. The other method involves waiting until you’re aching with hunger, and then eating a tiny, palliative meal. This can easily be dismissed as manic behavior — or, if that explanation fails, as depressive behavior.

The truth is that everything works: stomach stapling, personal training, marathons, cigarettes, amphetamines, or “barely stopping to eat.” Thinking there’s no point to human existence — and, therefore, no reason to eat — works too. Chewing every bite of food for twenty minutes works. It just doesn’t matter how you reach your destination. The result is the same, and the means are morally equivalent.

Therefore I side with the magicians. Only tell people how to do something when they need to know, and only give them options they can use. The rest of the time, when someone asks you to explain your methods, just say: “Oh! You liked the show! I’m so glad.” Then change the subject, or walk away. The ignorance of another person is never yours to squander.