Michel de Montaigne: An Unexpected Lens on Professions in the 16th Century and in the 21st Century
While I am student of the professions, I have not studied their history systematically. Of course, I realize that there were educators and physicians in the classical Greek era; the Romans created many pivotal political and military roles, as well as highly skilled practitioners in engineering and architecture (and that’s not to mention what has been wryly dubbed “the oldest profession”). Still, in my “mental model” of the professions, I have conceived of them as a modern phenomenon—distinctly different from medieval guilds and trades—closely tied to the creation of formal educational institutions, legal requirements, ethical codes, and the possibility of losing one’s license.
Stimulated by Sara Bakewell’s remarkable book How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, I have been reading through an old translation of the essays of Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne lived in France in the 16th century (1533-1592)—a time so different from ours. Life was short and dangerous, most children did not survive the first days or years of life, war was constant, and cruelty towards enemies was accepted and even encouraged. Royalty had tremendous power but was also vulnerable to upheavals, typically sudden and violent; members of the upper social classes, particularly men, were accustomed to being protected and served around the clock by members of the lower classes. Over the centuries, Montaigne has been widely read and widely cherished (though for two centuries, he was on the Catholic Church index of forbidden books). He wrote about his own life with unprecedented directness, candor and wit. And he did so in scores of short pieces in which he poured out his thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness manner. For that reason, he is considered to have invented the literary form called the essay.
While I was reading the essays and (to be frank) daydreaming, I was quite surprised—and awakened!—to encounter the following passage:
“In reading histories, which is everybody’s subject, I use(d) to consider what kind of men are the authors; if they be persons that profess (NOTE THE WORD!) nothing but mere letters, I, in and from them, principally observe and learn style and language; if physicians, I then rather incline to credit what they report of the temperature of the air, of the health and complexions of princes, of wounds and diseases; if lawyers, we are from them to take notice of the controversies of right and wrong, the establishment of laws and civil government, and the like; if divines, the affairs of the Church, ecclesiastical censures, marriages and dispensations; if courtiers, manners and ceremonies; if soldiers, the things that properly belong to their trade, and principally, the accounts of the actions and enterprises wherein they were personally engaged; if ambassadors, we are to observe negotiations, intelligences, and practices, and the manner how they are to be carried on” (p. 13-14, Essays of Montaigne, Xist Classics).
The wording of the era may seem exotic, but the list of the professions, and what Montaigne expected to obtain from their respective practitioners, is quite familiar—lawyers dealing with controversies in the law, physicians focused on wounds, diseases, and general health. In a subsequent moment of day dreaming, my thoughts leapt to a ceremony—dating back almost to Montaigne’s time—that I witness each year. I refer to the Commencement (graduation) ceremonies held in late spring in Harvard Yard. The President, and other leaders of the University, confer degrees on individuals from a dozen different faculties, and in each case, note the privileges and obligations attendant to those who will practice those respective professions. And the list is quite like Montaigne’s—scholars (Arts and Sciences); physicians (Medical School); lawyers (Law School); religious leaders (Divinity School); ambassadors (School of Government).
Taking off from Montaigne’s musings, if we were to undertake a schematic analysis of the sweep of the professions over five centuries, what might some of the similarities and differences be? Here’s my stab:
-Professions address fundamental human needs—tending to sickness, resolving disputes, educating the young, protecting citizens from harm.
-Often, professions tackle complex issues that are not readily resolved.
-Professions take advantage of the latest knowledge and lore; sometimes this is kept under wraps (privileged knowledge).
-Certain individuals are recognized as practitioners, and perhaps masters of that lore; others are made fun of (e.g. in the plays of Molière or Shakespeare—“Let’s kill all the lawyers” [Henry VI, Part 2]).
-Apprentices seek to identity and learn from masters of the specified professions.
-New professions arise, others fade away. Barbers are no longer seen as professionals; journalists are aspiring professionals; going forward, those who design the “rules of the internet” are likely to be considered professionals.
-There are now formal educational institutions and requirements. In the United States, following the publication and dissemination of the Flexner Report (1910), fly-by-night medical training institutions were phased out, and a far more rigorous set of criteria applied to institutions that could award medical degrees (such highly regulated institutions are less the rule in some other countries, and that’s why students who are not admitted to medical school in the U.S. often acquire degrees in other nations). Relatedly, medical curricula are now scrutinized (for example, by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
-Numerous ethical codes that are published; to take one profession, physicians are expected to adhere to them and, at least in principle, one can lose one’s medical license (even if in practice, physicians are rarely expelled from the profession unless they are convicted of crimes).
Taking a perspective that stretches back to Montaigne’s time, while also looking ahead, what trends might we expect?
In the traditional professions (e.g. law, medicine, engineering, university teaching), there will be continuing efforts to establish and monitor training and to maintain and even increase the status of these professions. I don’t think that these efforts will be successful. So many occupations strive to have the status of professions; various educational interventions, many disreputable, are once again springing up. Expertise is not held in high regard (unless your own health or well-being is at stake). Unless the traditional professions can demonstrate unequivocally that their graduates can perform in a way that others do not, it’ll be difficult to maintain the hallowed status of, say, a degree from a flagship law school.
Also, there will continue to be a proliferation of paraprofessionals, who carry out more specific tasks, and these often well-trained experts are likely to blur further the line between the traditional professional and her close colleagues. Finally, as more tasks traditionally associated with the professions are carried out by computational algorithms and devices, the unique contribution of “the professional” will be more difficult to discern.
As readers of this blog will know, I am not sanguine about these trends—I continue to hope that the special status of the professional will endure. If it is to endure, I think it will have less to do with technical knowledge and years of schooling of the professional. Rather the survival of “the professional” will come to be associated with the way she comports herself—in terms of relations to colleagues and clients, ability to communicate effectively, monitoring of relevant trends (positive and troubling) in the broader society, and, most important, being able to give clear, objective, and disinterested advice, knowledgeable syntheses of what is known and what is unclear, and wise recommendations within her sphere of competence.
Interestingly, these desirable human traits go way back in history—even in pre-history. We can see them in Plato’s descriptions of wise rulers and in the Biblical portrayal of judges. By implication, we can also see them in Restoration comedies—when professionals are ridiculed, it is because they do not live up to the expectation of excellence that we hope for. And they are also discernable, in a positive sense, in Montaigne’s writings.
In the best of both worlds, we will continue to have individuals who possess high levels of knowledge as well as acute judgment and shafts of wisdom, and who merit the comment, “She is a true professional.”