On the tyranny of custom, nothing so outlandish, Montaigne observes, that cannot be demonstrated in public practice somewhere in the world. Hey, haven’t we all watched some of those exotic anthropology programs on the BBC?  In his essay, ‘ Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received’ Michel de Montaigne describes religious beliefs, systems of guvuhmint, marriage and burial rituals, attitudes ter women and education of children that seem absurd to us but not ter them. Close ter home, jest take a critical look at some of our own practices, food fads fer instance, and fashions in dress and adornment.

Herewith some extracts from Montaigne’s essay,’ Of Custom and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received.’ … with a few serf comments thrown in.

On The Power of Custom.

‘He seems to have had a right and true apprehension of the power of custom, who first invented the story of a countrywoman who, having accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and daily continuing to do so as it grew up, obtained this by custom, that, when grown to a great ox, she was still able to bear it. For in truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She, by little and little, slyly and unperceived, slips in the foot of her authority, but having by this gentle and humble beginning, with the benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannic countenance, against which we have no more the courage or power so much as to lift our eyes.’

How much custom stupefies the senses is shown by ordinary experience; ‘ Smiths, millers, pewterers, forgemen and armorers could never be able to live in the perpetual noise of their own trades, did it strike their ears with the same violence that it does ours.’

‘But the effects of custom are much more manifest in the strange impressions she imprints in our minds, where she meets with less resistance. What has she not the power to impose upon our judgements and beliefs? Is there any so fantastic opinion (omitting the gross impostures of religions, with which we see so many great nations, and so many understanding men, so strangely besotted; for this being beyond the reach of human reason, any error is more excusable in such as are not endued, through the divine bounty with an extraordinary illumination from above), but, of other opinions, are there any so extravagant, that she has not planted and established for laws in those parts of the world upon which she has been pleased to exercise her power.’.

‘Barbarians are no more a wonder to us, than we are to them; nor with any more reason, as everyone would confess if after having travelled over those remote examples, men could settle themselves to reflect upon, and rightly to confer them with their own.’

Nature and Convention.

“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to derive from nature, proceed from custom; everyone, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received among his own people, cannot, without great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause …But the principle effect of its power is, so to seize and ensnare us, that it is hardly in us to disengage ourselves from its gripe, or so to come to ourselves, as to consider of and to weigh the things it enjoins. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow this track; and that common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine: from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is also believed to be off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably, for the most part, God knows.’

Concernin’ naychure and convention, I referred in my Fourth Edition of Serf Under _ ground Journal ter ancient Athens’ break with a past attitude of tribal societies, the belief that social customs are no different from natural regularities. This break with the past was the revolutionary insight by the first critical duelist, Protogoras, and by Socrates after him, that nature does not know norms, that social norms are man made.

In the first volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies’ Karl Popper attributes the break down of magical taboos ter the beginnings of sea communications and commerce in Athens. As population growth led Greece ter create new daughter cities, new cultural contacts undermined the feeling of necessity in which tribal attitudes had been viewed.

Tsk! As Montaigne, the rational pessimist describes, how easily we succumb ter the tyranny of the old tribal view, prescribed by religious certainties, poor education and parochial living. And jest as laws of conscience seem to be derived from nature, Montaigne observes that laws of government, likewise, are rarely subjected ter criticism:

‘Such people as have been bred up to liberty, and subject to no other dominion but the authority of their own will, look upon all other form of government as monstrous and contrary to nature. Those who are inured to monarchy do the same; and what opportunity soever fortune presents them with to change, even then, when the greatest difficulties they have disengaged themselves from one master that was troublesome and grievous to them, they presently run, with the same difficulties, to create another; being unable to take into hatred subjection itself.’

Hey, is that a mote in yer own eye ?

‘Whoever would disengage himself from this violent prejudice of custom, would find  several things received with absolute and undoubting opinion, that have no other support than the hoary head of custom. But the mask taken off, and things being referred to the decision of truth and reason, he will find his judgement as it were altogether overthrown, and yet restored to a much more sure estate. For example, I shall ask him, what can be more strange than to see a people obliged to obey laws that   they never understood; bound in all their domestic affairs, as marriages, donations, wills, sales and purchases to rules they cannot possibly know, being neither written nor published in their own language, and of which they are of necessity to purchase both the interpretation and the use? Not according to the ingenious opinion of Isocrates, who counselled his king to make the traffics and negotiations of his subjects, free, frank, and of profit to them, and their quarrels and disputes burdensome and laden with heavy impositions and penalties… I think myself obliged to fortune that, as our historians report, it was a Gascon gentleman, a countryman of mine, who first opposed Charlemagne, when he attempted to impose upon us Latin and imperial laws.’

Making us rather bear those ills we have …

‘And now to another point. It is a very great doubt, whether any so manifest benefit can accrue from  the alteration of a law received, let it be what it will, as there is danger and inconvenience in altering it; for as much as government is a structure composed of divers parts and members joined   and united together, with so strict connection, that it is impossible to stir so much as one brick or stone, but the whole body will be sensible of it.’

‘For my own part, I have a great aversion from novelty, what face or what pretence soever it may carry along with it, having been an eye witness of the great evils it has produced… And freely to speak my thoughts, it argues a strange self love and great presumption to be so fond of one’s own opinions, that a public peace must be overthrown to establish them and to introduce so many inevitable mischiefs and so dreadful a corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train, and to introduce them, in a thing of so high a concern, into the bowels of one’s own country… ‘who so ever shall take upon him to choose and alter, usurps the authority of judging and should look well about him and make it his business to discern clearly the defect of what he would abolish and the virtue of what he is about to introduce.’

‘So it is, nevertheless, that Fortune, still preserving her authority in defiance of whatever we are able to do or say, sometimes presents us with a necessity so urgent that ’tis requisite the laws should a little yield and give way … better to make laws do what they can when they cannot do what they would. After this manner did he who suspended them for twenty-and-four hours, and he who, for once shifted a day in the calendar, and that other who of the month of June made a second of May.’    

Say, maintaining stable guvuhmint was a matter of real concern fer Montaigne and fer Plato, one millennium earlier, as both men had experienced civil war. Plato writing ‘The Republic,’ sought to arrest all change, his perceived cause of all society’s ills, through his blueprint fer a Utopian hierarchical society ruled by a philosopher king.

Montaigne, the rational pessimist, was suspicious of any social engineering since change could so easily lead to new and unforseen disorders. Better ter stay with the present system than risk the public peace be overthrown, introducing  as he said, the ‘many inevitable mischiefs and a dreadful corruption of manners, as a civil war and the mutations of state consequent to it, always bring in their train.’

Considering suffering, as serfs do, and considering that laws are man made as Protogoras claimed, I’d say it is our business ter improve them if we find them objectionable. But serfs, living on the littoral ‘n such, are suspicious of sweeping changes likely ter affect the food supply. Serfs have experience of famine. As opposed ter utopian engineering of society, demanding strong centralizing rule and likely dictatorship, serfs go along with piecemeal engineering, a method of identifying and reforming specific social ills and introducing cautious changes that can be tested, altered or revoked in law. Modest reforms are less risky than sweeping changes, because one thing we do know, you and me, and that is we jest ain’t good at predictin’ consequences and black swan events … And I’m gonna’ leave it there.   




 “…thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.”

The still youthful Dr. Wynn – attentive, defensive – eyed the elderly patient who sat before him. If this man resembled any previous patient of the institute, then Dr. Wynn could not remember whom. In his blithe composure, Mr. Ashe could almost be a senior and retired colleague on visit from, say, Austria. Yet he was suffering the most extravagant and vividly detailed delusions.

Now he was requesting a recorded consultation – through paranoia, through grandeur?

The old man’s manner, so practical, so downright venerable, was in sharp contrast to his actual condition. That made things easier in some ways, harder in others.

“Mr. Ashe, there is no reason why we can’t record our consultation, yet there is no reason to do so either…”

“Dr. Wynn, please indulge me. I know that my account of my life seems fanciful, and gives ample justification for my admission to your institute. Yet, if you will allow me to repeat it here in just a little more detail – I won’t take much of your time – you will certainly come to see the purpose of the recording. It is not to be a video record, merely voice.”

“Easily done.” Dr Wynn fiddled to set his computer for recording. “Please, Mr. Ashe, proceed. We have a few minutes.”

“Thank you. I’ll be brief.”


I was born a Jew in Egypt shortly before Queen Cleopatra’s dalliance with Julius Caesar, which gradually allowed that extraordinary lady to confirm her power over Egypt. I was very young when she poisoned her young brother – and husband! – Ptolemy, to become undisputed queen. Can one refer to a woman and Greek as a pharaoh? Certainly, she deserved the title.

I know, Doctor. I’m rambling already.

As a youth whose father was a minor royal physician, I had the great luck to grow up around the court of Alexandria. Sometimes I was included in the feasting and entertainments, when Mark Antony and the queen delighted and scandalised the world with their extravagance.

Alexandrian nights! Never again such refined abandonment, never again, such study of the sensual. I smell it even now, weakly, when newly poured wine is placed near flowers on a warm evening. Ah, but so weakly now…I had my youth, Dr. Wynn!

My father and I were on one of Antony’s vessels which was wrecked in that last battle, at Actium. My father perished, I swam ashore – to nothing.

So began my wanderings. Not knowing what fate awaited me under Octavian in the newly annexed Egypt, I began to wander around the gulf of Ambracia, then north, then east. Because I had acquired an educated manner as well as a true foundation in medical matters, I was able to practice and earn as I advanced. It was natural for a curious young man to go east, and still more natural for a Jew. My identity changed to that of a mature professional. Octavian, now Emperor Augustus, more wise than cruel, would never have cared that my father had been a physician to his enemy.

Still, I wandered, established no family, made brief friendships only to be torn away by unexpected problems or opportunities. It puzzled me, this lifelong ananke, this necessity or compulsion, which seemed at work even then, in my first century of life, to move me along.

I only settled among those of my own religion in old age. Far away in Rome, Tiberius was emperor. At eighty, I was an almost retired physician living in Jerusalem. There, as I emerged one day from a shoemaker’s shop, a trivial event, to which I paid little attention at the time, was to bring about a peculiar physical change in me. Or so I think. So trivial was the matter, that if it were not for subsequent rumour and myth-mongering, I should have trouble remembering it. In fact, there is so little to tell of the moment, that I shall leave it aside.

Nonetheless, I seemed to stop aging after the age of eighty, whatever the cause. It was something I scarcely noticed at first; soon I was to regard it as  a blessing, for, not only did I not age in any visible way, my health and energy were stable.

My history after these years are the history of my race. In a word, survival in dispersion. I have been over and about the whole world, Dr. Wynn, and experienced most things – but not death. There you have it: my madness.

Over centuries, working still as medical man, but often as labourer or scholar or teacher, I wandered.

Briefly in the service of the emperor Hadrian, as a consultant in antiquities, some force made me whisper to him: “Enough war”. Those were not my words, rather my message, which was conveyed…Well, you’ll see how my message is conveyed.

At the time of which I speak, the stabilising of empire by Hadrian and his successors was undertaken. To think that I lived through that great Roman peace under him and Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius! How I relished those far-flung friendships and untroubled journeys over half a world, with a single language and currency. Peace seemed an automatic thing then. I alone knew that nothing, however durable in appearance, lasts longer than its moment.

When I speak of knowing emperors, do not think I have the power to approach and persuade the great. I have the power to find words when some force lets me confirm what an enlightened man or woman has already conceived. How I often come near to exalted persons is as mysterious to me as is my lack of mortality. Remember also that it is not only the exalted with whom I have such contacts.

I was not always a Jew. In France, I was never Jewish, for some reason. When the great monastic movement of Cluny began, I was fortunate to be a respected monk who had the ear of Duke William. What a joy to see Cluny flower, its ideas coursing like new sap into an awakening Europe. Then the sap congealed. What became of Cluny is what becomes of all institutions. Those who are shocked by the demise of Pan-Am or Polaroid should try living as long as I have lived!

And even while Cluny decayed, as a chief pharmacist and lay brother, I was able to watch over the birth of the Cistercians. Ah, the spirit of Cîteaux: discipline which leads to the cultivation of the stubbornest mind and soil. (I was very recently able to transmit my experience of Cîteaux to the kibbutzniks.) Yes, when Clairvaux was just a bare valley, it was I who whispered “Reform, make new” to the illustrious Bernard. Yet he was ready for the word. I change nothing on my own.

Whether to the famous or the obscure, it was always “Reform, make new” which I whispered: the idea, if not the words. Nothing lasts. Make the best and watch it decay. So reform, reform and reform again! As the centuries pass, I find it is my story which convinces best, when believed or just part-believed. As I soak up experience of constant decay and reform, it is my simple story which carries the message, rather than a philosophical discourse.

In the fiercely independent strongholds of half-barren Tuscany, in Lucca, in Siena, I toiled – don’t think me greedy – for a new economic way called capitalism. Empire, slavery and the manor would not give way quickly to this new spirit, nor would that new spirit reside long in Italy. But there, where men called me Lombard rather than Jew, there your economic world was born. Don’t thank me yet.

I was always a Jew in Spain. (Strangely, if I have a country, it is Spain.) When the counts of Castile looked over their empty territorial gains after the Muslim tide surged back, it was population and thus trade which they needed. I became a fosterer of trade, above all, in those slowly rejuvenated borderlands. Religion was in excess, war had been the norm. So I put aside war and religion and traded, confected. I personally taught those western Castilians, who spoke a kind of Portuguese, to make hams and pastries from the meat and fat of beef, till the product was sought out by all, Christian or Jew. They still pay more for those products than for the pork equivalent!

On the bare meseta, along old Roman roads of Trajan (whom I’d met nine hundred years before), the east-west trade came and went. Dissecting this line, through Burgos, passed wool and other riches between north and south. I was even at the ocean’s edge, to haggle with shy Maragato traders, mysterious little race of both mountain and sea! How I loved Spain! My all too brief years in the Juderia of Segovia! What stern elegance!

Truly, I think I am a Spaniard, if I am of any nation. As we prospered there, so we Jews became hated. Soon Spain could afford intellectuals and dogma and regulation. We were dispersed. Trade withered, even as gold poured pointlessly in from the New World.

I passed on to the north of Europe, to Germany and Poland and beyond.

Sometimes I found an ear, to which I could whisper my message. More often, of course, I did not. But among protestants of the north, wherever men were breaking free of remote authority and absentee landlords, I was able to help transplant a little that capitalist spirit which took root first in Italy. I have no power of my own. I speak to the disposed.

When I drifted to the New World – now you will see how fanciful I can be, if your diagnosis of delusions is correct – I was no longer merely a capitalist and protestant. I was also a Quaker! I was actually whipped behind a cart for my abolitionist views! Normally, I avoid such scenes, and I have no idea what purpose was served by the unpleasantness. Perhaps there was an onlooker on that day who was to be impressed by my bloodied back. Luckily, I heal well.

And when I first came here to Australia, as a shrewd Yorkshire cloth merchant, I was able to catch the ear of Governor Macquarie. He was in a wretched state, and would remain in a wretched state. Frustration, opposition and guilt over his own brutality and errors were gnawing at him. But I was able to confirm him in his intention to overstep, to defy, to make this country an abruptly formed, rough-hewn nation for all its inhabitants, rather than a plantation for remote investors.

The thought was his, the governor’s. I merely whispered a confirmation by telling him my story. By this point, lessons and discussion were seldom needed. People like stories, Dr. Wynn. After so many centuries, it is now mostly just the story. Questioning men can find their answers somewhere in my past, now it is such a long past.

You’ll wonder how I persuade such active, practical people of the truth of my immortality. Soon you will see how.

Doctor Wynn, I could go on. You are a man of extended interests, and I sense that the history element of my account is actually entertaining you a little. Such breadth of mind bodes well in a scientist – in this age of the computer model and the facile statistic.

I don’t always tell my story with impunity, but in the era of psychiatry, for example, where there is no risk of torture or incineration as a magus…the worst that can happen to me is hospital food and a forced rest? I’ll risk that.

But I can also see that the practical man in you is resisting the spell. I would expect no less. I am a physician myself. This is the end of the interview, is it not?

Before we end, can I ask you to do something? I’m aware that you have not recorded our conversation. No. Please don’t excuse yourself. I’m a doctor too. Having assumed I am mad, you have merely humoured me. You have also assumed that an elderly man has no knowledge of the advanced aspects of computers. But you know what they say about Jews and IQ! No, it doesn’t matter. I simply ask you to hit any key on your computer after I am gone from this room. You can hardly avoid it, I suppose! I’m not sure it will work, but, after long experience, I sense it will. There will be a recording of my voice, though you are shaking your head a little skeptically.

And now, Doctor Wynn, if you would not mind lending me a copy of your own published work on trauma and delusion. It’s just behind you, on that higher shelf, is it not? I shall treat it carefully.


Doctor Wynn thought for a moment, then decided to lend the book to the old man. The response of Mr. Ashe to his text might well constitute a type of research. He turned, reached up, took the book, and turned back to his patient.

But Mr. Ashe was no longer there.

For a few minutes, the doctor patrolled his room, even looking under furniture and into cupboards. No sign.

Next he opened the door to his rooms, and asked his secretary, Mrs Gibbs:

“Did Mr. Ashe come past here?”

“Mr. Ashe?”

“My elderly patient, Mr. Ashe. Has he passed?”

“Has he entered?”

“Of course he entered. Did he come out?”

“Doctor, I remember a Mr. Ashe among the patients. But…no, I can’t recall him coming to your rooms.”

Doctor Wynn was never impatient or sharp with staff. He simply went tense, muttered a vague “thanks”, then went back inside.

Now he tried to find the old man in earnest, even checking windows, which were hermetically sealed in the air-conditioned premises.

He slumped against his desk and thought, while his eyes prowled still. At last he walked round the desk to his keyboard. A hesitant finger paused over the Y key, as if it were explosive, then he depressed it.


By now, doctor, you will have sought me and not found me. You will have noted that I have only left behind a vague memory of me in your staff and patients. Had you tried to record my account of my life, you should have recorded nothing, except these words I now utter. And there will be no record of these words, except in your mind.

Please do not think that I am in control of any of this, or that I am endowed with special knowledge. I am a man, I am real, I was really here. What I have is a story, that is necessarily more compelling with time and the aggregation of new experiences. I am the Past, I am History and I have a purpose.

I was not the patient. You were my client. Yes, you were meant to hear my story. The reason is not clear to me, since I am not in charge of this force, this destiny. Through my story, I am meant to whisper something to you, the same thing as to all the others: Reform and make new. But the nature of that reform is unknown to me, especially since I was only meant to be with you briefly. With my next client, I may live and work twenty years, and I may never tell him or her my story. Sometimes I am to acquire new experience laboriously, since I am still a human, with the common human burdens of learning and blundering. Sometimes I tell my tale and I am gone in minutes. Mostly, now, it is just the tale. People so like stories!

I have made a guess. I have guessed that the human mind will be the subject of study in the coming age. Its capabilities, its disorders, its contradictions will soon be examined in the light of parallel new knowledge: artificial intelligence, physiology, accelerated evolution…but what do I know? It is time for old things to be proven wrong before new things are assumed right before those new things are old and proven wrong. This I know, because it never changes.

My guess is that you will be at the centre of this explosion of research and interest, which will dwarf the efforts of the twentieth century in the field of mind. My story is meant to correct and balance, but only you can determine how. Reform. Make new.

Is it the spiritual that will be lacking? Not necessarily. I am no God botherer. Neither is God a New Ager. Perhaps you just need to know that the immediately visible and ascertainable are not truth, they are merely what they are. They are good enough in their cramped way, but they are not truth. It is extraordinary how many men who call themselves scientists lack this most fundamental of understandings. The eclipse of so many hard-held theories never gives them pause, as they rush to publish and dogmatise anew. Now they have computers!

That you should advance patiently without hubris. That you should gape at the black enormity of what you can never know…and still advance. This is my best guess at why you have been made my client. But look more to my story than to this sketchy interpretation. Reform. Make new.

I am a kind of midwife, placed where there is great groaning, a great pregnancy of the spirit. The stiff, habituated mind resists. And that is when I whisper, as I whisper to you now: Make change, Dr. Wynn.

Make change and yet do not be changeful. The changeful mind is peevish, unobservant, claiming certainty, rushing ahead of change. Do not love the novel, because it will too soon be stale again. Let all things ripen, fall in their time, and then…make new! Observe the time. Be watchful by the vat and kiln. Let every brew ferment and expend its bubbles and its warmth. Let every kiln cool slowly, so slowly…Ah, but then seize, act, control, exert!

This is what I have learned, and what you needed to hear.

Please believe I was actually here. I, History. I, the Past. How you interpret my words is up to you. But my words are, as always: Reform and make new!

Everything decays. Everything! You must reform and make new!

I have a real name, not Ashe, though I have gradually ceased to use it since a chilly spring day in Jerusalem.

You see, as I walked out of a bootmaker’s shop in my eightieth year, I stumbled across an execution procession. The Romans were the most extraordinary mix of the brutal and refined. Crucifixion may seem coarse, yet consider! After a messy and showy preparation, a victim dies by toxic shock or suffocated by his own weight at a very slow rate, even over days. So Roman.

The victim in this procession would not last days, so appalling was his state. As he chose to rest right in front of me, I, as physician, simply said: “Go quicker, fatigue yourself, lose blood and end it sooner!”. My comment has been reported as a complaint at having my way obstructed, but it was not so. Quite the contrary.

Yet it really does not matter whether I was impatient or compassionate. The victim said something like: “I shall indeed hasten, but you will stay till the end of the world.” I took that to be a delirious comment, thought little of it, and removed myself from the pitiful scene.

It was a brief occurrence, to be put out of mind, since I am not the type to linger over painful spectacles. And I do not now regard myself as having been cursed. Knowing now who that victim was, it seems unlikely that he would be interested in cosmic paybacks and ironies. Rather, it seems to me that this was always to be my lot: a life of wandering and a life which does not end. Some people would like that! For me, it is just my role. As the Greeks of my youth might say: it is ananke, it is necessity. And, through this ananke, I say this final time: Reform and make new!

I am History. I am the Past.

I am Ahasuerus, of whom you may know, mistily, through distorted legend.

I am the Wandering Jew.


  1. Jim, a fascinating thread by Richard Drake @ Bishop Hill, discussing
    users of multiple pseudonyms or the single pseud with multiple real
    world individuals contributing, RD calls this ‘Bourbaki’ useful for zealot

    Meself as a serf, I enjoy a bit of playfulness but not intent ter deceive.(
    I like this from Richard Drake, ‘The problems of online interaction run
    deep but the rewards can be great.’ Thoughtful comments by Hilary
    Ostrov on the thread a case in point.

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