David Brooks, Montaigne, converso Judaism, and modern Western civilization

Montaigne’s Jewish ancestry is not widely known, but is critical in understanding his idiosyncratic view of life and how influential it was in the future development of European Humanism.

Michel de Montaigne (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Michel de Montaigne
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
New York Times columnist and PBS News commentator David Brooks is an important representative of a new kind of Jewish intellectual. Deeply tied to the Conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan, fiercely supportive of the wealthiest members of our society, and ostensibly committed to traditional social and intellectual values, Brooks has made his sense of cultural elitism and smug superiority quite apparent in his many writings and public presentations.
In February 2012 Brooks outlined his reactionary view of things in an article called The Talent Society which was largely a rehash of many of the stale ideas being presented by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
As our financial system was in an intense state of collapse and economic insecurity was increasing in perilous and unforeseen ways, Brooks continued to beat the Conservative drum over individual initiative and the integrity of the market system; a system that had been shredded by Wall Street and corporate malfeasance.
Later in 2012 we learned that Brooks, known for an over-inflated sense of his own intellect and importance in society, was teaching a class at Yale on the subject of humility.
This, naturally, led to a mocking chorus from his many detractors.
Salon’s Alex Pareene takes on Brooks’ hubris by attacking his membership in the pundit class; presenting opinions for a living as if endowed with some special powers unique to the chosen few in that rarefied profession.  Indeed, in the battle of makers and takers so central to modern Conservative political thought, the pundit class does not do much to create anything tangible for society.  What we see from this opinionated sector is an endless presentation of their purported intellectual skills and prognosticating capabilities.
In his work as a pundit Brooks often deploys religion, specifically Judaism, as a means to make moral points.
What is interesting in Brooks’ praise for the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn – the community I happen to live in – is that rather than expound on its intellectual-religious values, he holds to a materialistic and consumerist definition of success; blindly ignoring the massive internal problems that exist inside the Orthodox Jewish world.
So when Brooks recently presented another of his pompous dissertations on intellectual matters in a piece called Ease and Ardor, this time on the French essayist Michel de Montaigne and the British literary critic Samuel Johnson, as a Sephardic Jew I paid very close attention.
As is usually the case, Brooks picks on themes and contrasts meant to support his weltanschauung while at the same time showing off just how clever and knowledgeable he thinks he is.  After all, it is not often that one sees such fancy names on the op-ed page.
Interestingly, in his discussion of Montaigne, Brooks does not mention the great essayist’s Sephardic Jewish lineage. His biting argument against Montaigne’s philosophy reflects a deeply Conservative ideology that elevates self-flagellation over tolerance based on the values of Religious Humanism and its critical pluralism.  It was Montaigne’s converso experience that informed his unique understanding of human existence that Brooks seems to be at odds with.
So even though he is obsessed with religion and society – he has written endlessly on the subject – he does not seem to know that the key to understanding Montaigne is to know that he was the descendant of Iberian converso Jews.
Jose Faur has discussed the matter in some detail in his classic book In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity.
In order to better appreciate the historical grounds for [Francisco] Sanchez’s and Montaigne’s skepticism and religious outlook, a few remarks on the converso population at Bordeaux and the College de Guyenne will be helpful.  As a result of the racial persecutions ravaging the Iberian peninsula, a large contingent of New Christians flew to the southwest of France.  Among these refugees there were some of the most brilliant minds of their time – great humanists and scientists – who found it extremely dangerous to function within the oppressive atmosphere of Spain and Portugal.  Bordeaux soon became a haven for these refugees.  Many of them were not interested in openly returning to Judaism.  Some had become devout Christians.  Others, like Pedro Rodrigues, were indifferent to formal religion, and did not mind conforming to the religious conventionalism of the society in which they lived.  The converso communities in the southwest of France were never dominated by the type of converso who wanted to live in a thoroughly Jewish fashion…
It seems that it was at Bordeaux, in the avant-garde intellectual atmosphere of the newly arrived converso population – particularly at the College de Guyenne – that the skeptical problem was first identified and properly formulated, thus unleashing the skeptical crisis that would rage through seventeenth-century Europe. (pp. 108-109)
Montaigne’s Jewish ancestry is not widely known and his knowledge of it has been contested in some quarters, but is critical in understanding his idiosyncratic view of life and how influential it was in the future development of European Humanism.  The philosophical revolution that Brooks reduces to a facile schema in a way that is meant to support his own reactionary sociological presuppositions is actually part of a much larger historical complex whose roots can be found in the classical Sephardic Jewish experience and its many violent vicissitudes.
I have discussed the matter of conversos and their worldview in my essay Conversos between Judaism and Christianity.
In that essay I pointed to the fractured consciousness in converso writers that has been critical to the evolution of Western philosophy, religion, and science:
Their works are necessary correctives to a view that teaches only Judaism or Christianity in dealing with conversos.  Their “beliefs,” if that is what such nihilistic critiques can accurately be called, are larded with disillusionment, fear, anxiety, loathing and gallows’ humor. Texts such as Le Celestina and La Lozana Andaluza and others such as Lazarillo de Tormes, the Libro de Buen Amor, Guzman de Alfarache and the religious writings of Luis de Leon, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, must all be read as part of the complex multiplicity of the converso identity.  All of these writers are cognizant and deeply affected by the mechanisms of anti-Jewish suppression and persecution in Spain and the Inquisition is never far from their minds – no matter how far away they pretended to be in their waking lives.
I have also recently made note of new English translations of two of these seminal texts, Fernando de Rojas’ La Celestina and Luis de Gongora’s Soledades that are a critical part of this unorthodox Iberian literary tradition so closely connected to the Jewish problem
Brooks takes a very generic view of the matter which does not allow him to really see what propelled Montaigne to understand the world as he did and how he articulated his ideas.  They were formulated in the embittered converso experience of Catholic Europe and its persecuting society seen out of skeptical eyes rooted in the Spanish Inquisition.  Such an argument might be inconvenient for a Conservative like Brooks who seeks to bring disparate religious values into harmony under the superficial Judeo-Christian rubric.
Alas, the reality is far different.  Brooks would be better able to intelligently discuss the subject if he has actually knew something about Montaigne’s complex Iberian ancestry and its connection to a Jewish civilization that remains unknown to many at the present time.
David Shasha is the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York designed to raise awareness of the history and culture of Arab Jews.  He publishes the Sephardic Heritage Update, a weekly e-mail newsletter available on Google Groups.  He has written for publications such as The Huffington Post, Tikkun magazine, The Progressive Christian, and The American Muslim.  You can contact him at david.shasha.shu@gmail.com.