Monday, June 18, 2018

The Fate of Gay and Lesbian Studies


I have many interests, though probably my most significant publications are in the field of gay and lesbian studies. 
Spoiler alert as this old dog opens a can of worms. Is the field of gay and lesbian studies still vital? in 1980 I and my collaborators sought, as best we could, to lay the foundations in our Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. 
At that time we assumed that the major obstacle to progress would be lingering homophobic sentiment. Alas, in my view the rot began from within, first from the Social Construction trend, which discouraged transhistorical and cross-cultural studies. Queer Theory assimilated us all to a larger category, but the q-term was divisive. Then gender studies devoured everything.

Of course useful studies are still appearing, especially of hitherto neglected aspects of same-sex relationships in Eastern Europe and Asia.  But postmodernism has thoroughly eroded the theoretical foundations, leaving what survives as little more than the smile of the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

The biggest problem these days is the rise of the concept of gender and orientation fluidity. Back in the day we stoutly opposed demands that we "just get over it," accepting the cure in the guise of "therapy." By contrast, we were convinced of the following truth: whether its origins stemmed from nature or nurture, after its consolidation in youth sexual orientation was essentially immutable. Maybe this was always an overstatement, according little attention to bisexuals, for example.  

Still, there remains personally for many of us a basic stability in this realm. Yet now comes the idea that, as one formula trenchantly puts it, sexual orientation is like a suit of clothes - we decide each morning what dress to wear. This idea appeals to some notion of absolute human freedom. But is it realistic?

The upshot is that in terms of identity there are no homosexuals as such - only on occasion same-sex conduct, "as you like it." Hence the pall that in Western nations at least is gradually shrouding these studies. 

Of course individual work is continuing as I. have acknowledged, but the center of gravity has shifted massively. This shift is the point that I think my critics are missing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Sagas and old Iceland

In my medieval courses I tended to give short shrift to the Vikings as their incursions in Western Europe were so destructive. But there are positive sides as well. I have always liked the art, and now I have gone on to tackle the Icelandic sagas, which I find on the whole to be a pleasant and easy read (in translation of course). 

Strictly speaking these tales are not realistic, but still they tell us something about early Icelandic society, which at first seems a kind of egalitarian, quasi-libertarian paradise. There were no cities in old Iceland, just a network of farms and small holdings. In principle there was no monarch - just the annual meeting of the Althing, in which disputes could be settled. 

Yet there was a dark side as well. There was a lot of violence, based on perceptions that one's honor was violated. One way this could be triggered was to label someone an argr, or passive homosexual. 

The most disturbing feature was the pervasiveness of slavery, the slaves having been obtained via the predatory raids. Slaves did most of the work on the farms. And if they had babies their master did not want, the infants were exposed. So the upshot is that one can have equality for a few if one deprives others of it.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Pound today

Ages ago, when I remarked to my high school English teacher that I was reading Ezra Pound, she pertinently responded: "Wasn't he, well, prejudiced?" Just so, yet Pound refuses to take his place peacefully in the dusty museum of early anglophone modernism. 

Like many others who caught the bug at one time, I continue to ponder him (sic). In different ways, we sense that he is relevant for the present. A recent essay collection, "Ezra Pound in the Present," explores these intimations. 

In summary, the editors single out three main areas of intersection: the excesses of finance capital and how, if at all, they are to be curbed; the renewed importance of China; and the continuing vitality of the American founders, especially Jefferson and Adams. 

The conventional view is that Lord Keynes decisively skewered the amateurish Social Credit theories of Major Douglas. True, but maybe something can be salvaged, since the current liberal remedy of regulation of financial institutions has proved all too easy for capture and dismantling. 

As a longtime admirer of the philosopher, Pound would surely appreciate the formation of Confucius Institutes in many countries. Pound was also interested in Japan; and one cannot afford to neglect that country either. 

Finally, the American foundation documents, leading to the Constitution, continue to be the subject of much study and debate.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Plato


Admired as much for his incomparable literary style as for his challenging doctrines, Plato ranks as one of the best-known and carefully studied philosophers. He wrote in the middle of the fourth century BCE in ancient Athens. Though influenced primarily by Socrates, so that Socrates figures as the main character in many of Plato's earlier writings, he also attended to the lessons of Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Pythagoreans. In his turn he was the teacher of Aristotle, whose doctrines however are very different.

Plato’s central doctrine is the Theory of Forms.  This concept posits a fundamental distinction between everyday reality vs. the ultimate reality which is normally imperceptible but accessible to the enlightened. In dialogues such as the Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic, the Forms figure as transcendent, perfect archetypes, of which objects in the perceived world are but imperfect copies. According to this view, there is a resplendent world of eternal and changeless forms, the realm of Being, over against which lies a grubby ensemble of Becoming - what Heidegger would later label the Dasein..  This inferior realm in which we are confined, nonetheless partakes, after a fashion, of the qualities of the Forms, and is their instantiation in the sensible world.

Why did Plato adopt this peculiar notion of two worlds? In fact he drew upon a substantial  background in the history of ideas, for Heraclitus and Parmenides, leading pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, broke with the reigning mythological tradition. In this way they initiated the metaphysical approach that strongly influenced Plato and has in some respects lasted until now.

Heraclitus’ thinking stressed the fact that all things are continuously changing, or becoming. Well-known is his signature image of the river, with its ever-changing waters. Plato received the ideas of this philosopher through Cratylus, who stressed even more than his predecessor the idea of change, holding that this vision of pervasive change leads to skepticism, since we can not define a thing that lacks a permanent nature. For his part, Parmenides embraced a contrary vision, advancing the idea of changeless Being, and holding that change is an illusion of the senses.

It seems then that these speculations about change and permanence, or becoming and Being, led Plato to formulate his theory of Forms.

In recent years Plato's ideas about love have attracted considerable interest.  He is mainly concerned with pederasty, or the love of an older man for a youth.  With some reservations he accepted, and even extolled this practice.  Yet in his late work The Laws he stigmatized it as unnatural.

Plato has also been influential as a political theorist, as seen in his accounts of the ideal society in The Republic and the Laws. Yet his ideas have not met with universal approval.

His views were trenchantly attacked in the magnum opus of Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato,” encapsulates Popper's view—namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by Plato's intellectual brilliance and coruscating style. In so responding, Popper argues, they have treated Plato's political philosophy as a benign idyll, overlooking its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarianism,

Popper extols Plato's analysis of social change and discontent, naming him as a great sociologist, while rejecting his solutions. This rejection reflects Popper's reading of the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted "open society."  Plato's distaste for democracy led him, Popper holds, "to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence."

Popper argues that Plato's political ideas are driven by a fear of the process of change that liberal democracies bring about. Moreover, as an aristocrat and a relative of one-time Athenian dictator Critias, Plato sympathized with the oligarchs of his own day, being contemptuous of the common man. Popper also infers that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, wishing to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

Despite lively competition from the Aristotelians, Stoics, and adherents of other schools, Plato continued to be read throughout antiquity. In the third century CE, Plotinus recast Plato's system, establishing Neoplatonism, in which Middle Platonism was fused with mysticism. At the summit of existence stands the One or the Good, as the source of all things. It generates from itself, as if from the reflection of its own being, reason, the nous, or mind, harboring the infinite store of ideas.The world-soul, the copy of the nous, is generated by and contained in it, as the nous is in the One, and, by informing matter in itself nonexistent, constitutes bodies whose existence is contained in the world-soul.[ Nature therefore is a whole, endowed with life and soul. Soul, being chained to matter, longs to escape from the bondage of the body and return to its original source.

In virtue and philosophical thought it has the power to elevate itself above the reason into a state of ecstasy, where it can behold, or ascend to, that one primary Being whom reason cannot know. To attain this union with the Good, or God, is the true function of human beings.  Plotinus' disciple, Porphyry, followed by Iamblichus, developed the system in conscious opposition to Christianity.

The Platonic Academy revived during this period.  Its most renowned head was Proclus (died 485), a celebrated commentator on Plato's writings. The Academy persisted until Byzantine emperor Justinian closed it in 529.

In nineteenth-century Britain the translations of Benjamin Jowett sought to exploit Plato in the service of Victorian ideals. More recent interest in Plato among professional philosophers has been selective, emphasizing his contributions to logic and mathematics.

A recent, quirky response Is Rebecca Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex.  In addition to a straightforward account of the philosopher’s thought, the writer offers sections where Plato visits the Google office, helps an advice columnist counsel people on problems with their love life, debates a cable-news character, shares the stage with a tiger-mother character and a psychoanalyst to discuss child upbringing, and debates free will with a neuroscientist.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Love


As presented by the Reverend Curry at the royal wedding,  the eulogy of "love" was rousing, but simplistic. In his book on the theme, John Allen Lee recognized six major types of love. The Greek New Testament was careful to make the distinction between agape and eros. The Latin Vulgate introduced a third term: caritas. So matters are not as straightforward as they may at first appear. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_wheel_theory_of_loveManage

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Observation

Political polarization takes several forms these days. After I made some remarks urging a nuanced position regarding I/P issues, a German friend opined that I must be a Zionist. I am not, but what if I were? I am aware of excesses committed by the Israeli authorities. Yet I cannot support the Palestinians.

As one journalist admitted, many Palestinians not only claim the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied land but also Tel Aviv. Expelling the Jews from Eretz Israel is not going to happen, but advocating this form of ethnic cleansing is heinous. 

I have another reason for distrusting the Palestinians. They persecute and even kill gay men. This unacceptable behavior recalls the Nazi persecution of the Pink Triangles. I would have thought my German acquaintance would show more sensitivity, given his country's history.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Cervantes


Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1616) was born in Alcalá de Henares. His father Rodrigo de Cervantes was a physician of modest means. Cervantes seems to have studied with the Jesuits in Córdoba or Seville and perhaps in Salamanca as well. It is fairly certain that he was a pupil of López de Hoyos in Madrid. 

In 1569 he went to Italy as part of Cardinal Acquaviva's retinue. After enlisting as a soldier in 1570 he fought in the battle of Lepanto aboard the galley Marquesa. For the rest of his life he would boast of the wounds that he received in his hands and on his forehead. Subsequently, he fought in the Corfú, Navarino, and Tunis campaigns. 

On his way back to Spain in 1575, the galley El Sol was attacked by Turkish ships and Cervantes was taken to Algeria as a captive, where he may have been sexually abused. During his five years of captivity he wrote the Epístola a Mateo Vázquez. Juan Gil obtained Cervantes's freedom in 1580 in exchange for 500 ducats. 

Once back in Spain, he became a commissioner collecting funds for the supposedly Invincible Armada. He had one daughter, Isabel, from his liaison with Ana de Villafranca. He married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios in 1584. He was twice imprisoned for embezzlement and for failing to pay his debts. He was sent to jail in 1603 when the corpse of Gaspar de Ezpaleta was found on his doorstep, but was released for lack of evidence. From 1613 onwards one of his books was to appear every year until the last one, Persiles, with its dedication in which he takes leave of his readers signed three days before his death, on April 23, 1616. 

Cervantes wrote poems, but they are little read nowadays.  Analysis has also diminished the reputation of his plays, but two of them, Los tratos de Argel and La Numancia, made a significant impact and were not surpassed until Lope de Vega appeared. Cervantes's overall production included 16 dramatic works, among which were eight full-length plays He also wrote eight short farces (entremeses).  Cervantes's farces, whose dates and order of composition are not known, seem not to have been performed in their time. Cervantes endowed them with novelistic elements such as simplified plot, the type of description normally associated with the novel, and character development.

Listed chronologically, Cervantes’ novels are La Galatea (1585); El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha I (1605); Novelas ejemplares (1613); Segunda parte del ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha (1615), and Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda, historia septentrional (1617). Los trabajos attests not only to the survival of Greek novelistic themes but also of the survival of forms and concepts of the Spanish novel current during the Renaissance. 

In 1605 Miguel de Cervantes published the first part of his novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha. An unprecedented success, six editions appeared in the first year and it was translated into English in 1612 and into French in 1614. Given to reading books of chivalry, the protagonist, influenced by the exploits of his heroes, loses his mind and decides to become a knight, go out in search of adventure and impose justice according to the code of the knights errant. Cervantes's work, a keen critique of the literature of his time, presented the clash between reality and the ideals which Don Quijote sought to revive, and at the same time originated the theme of the clairvoyance of insanity. 

Don Quijote has been termed the first novel, which does not seem quite right as their were novels in Greco-Roman antiquity.  Yet Cervantes created a new, more capacious model of the novel, synthesizing earlier precedents such as the tales of chivalry and accommodating voices of various social classes in a polymorphous whole.

In 1614 Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (possibly a pen name) published a spurious Segundo tomo del Ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in Tarragona while Cervantes was working on his own part two, which appeared in 1615. Part one interpolates peripheral episodes into the main plot. This structural aspect was criticized in Cervantes's time and continues to be so in the present. This criticism influenced Cervantes in composing the second part, where these stories no longer appear. In his full maturity, Cervantes demonstrated a mastery of theatrical illusion which, absent from part one, achieves its proper narrative function in part two. 

Some years ago in my blog (Dyneslines, 2005) I posited some views of my own regarding the innovative character of Cervantes’ masterwork. I asked whether there might a deep affinity between Cervantes and Einstein. We may start with this proposal: in the social world Cervantes anticipated some aspects of the principles of modern physics in the natural world. Arguably the central theme of Don Quijote is the problem of illusion and reality. When the Knight sees two clouds of dust in the distance he assumes that they are two fighting armies advancing on one another for a great battle. Approaching more closely, he finds to his discomfort that they are really just two herds of sheep. Not so, says the Don. If Sancho will follow them, he will find that the armies had been merely temporarily enchanted, and will resume their former shape.

Unlike some of his Spanish contemporaries Cervantes did not flatly pronounce "la vida es sueño," life is a dream. Rather, we must accept a constant oscillation between reality and illusion, or perhaps better, between two (or more) illusions. The role of the observer, sometimes confident sometimes bewildered, is paramount. As the twentieth-century dramatist Luigi Pirandello noted, “Così è, se vi pare,” that’s the way it is, if you think so." Many have found this situation disconcerting. Yet it seems inseparable from the full embrace of the modern experience.

Perhaps the ultimate basis of the posited Cervantes-Einstein affinity is this. In megahistorical terms Don Quijote is about the clashing of two tectonic plates. These plates reflect the shift from the medieval worldview to that of modern times. However, since the medieval tales of chivalry that so influenced Cervantes’ hero had so little connection with reality, there is a second clash: between fantasy and lived experience.

Lost to most modern readers is the intertextual aspect: the interplay with the various older romances of chivalry still widely current in the early seventeenth century over against which Cervantes places his narrative. These books are of course the “cocaine” of the hidalgo’s addiction. They are generally considered pernicious—but not all: note the drastic "literary Inquisition" scene of Chapter Six in Part One where the Don’s friends decide which works to commend to the flames.  Some survived.

I am not the first to detect a similarity with certain currents of the modern scientific world view. In an influential 1948 essay on the perspectivism of Don Quijote the brilliant Austrian-American philologist Leo Spitzer detected a kind of indeterminacy in Cervantes. Spitzer starts with a basic, seemingly trivial issue: the instability of personal names in the novel. For example, sources suggest that the name of the hero may have been Quijada, Quesada, or Quijana. (And even today some write Quixote instead of Quijote.) The philologist goes on to discuss puns, hybrid word formations, different levels of speech (including argot and dialect), and the refraction of events and actions through inconclusive dialogue.

Sometimes the indeterminacy is due to nothing more than the difficulty of coordinating such a long, unwieldy story. In Part One Sancho’s donkey is stolen, and then it reappears without explanation, than disappears again, before finally reappearing once more. Apparently, Cervantes noted a discrepancy and tried to fix it, but the printer got the instructions backwards and turned the donkey into a kind of Schrödinger’s cat. However, the matter is deeper than that, as one sees when the Don concedes that what he takes to be Mambrino’s helmet may be just a barber’s basin after all-—or something else entirely (I, 25).

A fundamental uncertainty concerns the function of the author. On the one hand, the writer Miguel de Cervantes is a kind of divine figure, visibly manipulating his characters and events. On the other, he claims that for the most part he is merely transcribing and augmenting an earlier Arabic text by the mysterious Cide Hemete Benengeli. With such machinery on display, the novel Don Quijote may be classified as a reflexive work—a literary creation that comments on its own existence. As such it conforms to the principle of "foregrounding the devices" identified by the Russian Formalist literary critics. This principle ricochets through modern creativity of all sorts. An example is the presentation of "raw" concrete in Le Corbusier’s late works, a procedure that calls upon the visitor to reflect on the process of construction.

Towards the end of Part Two, the faithful sidekick observes "I am Don Quijote’s squire who is to be found also in the story and who is called Sancho Panza—-unless they have changed me in the cradle—-I mean to say at the printer’s." Here is Spitzer’s comment: "In such passages, Cervantes willingly destroys the artistic illusion: he, the puppeteer, lets us see the strings of his puppet show: 'see, reader, this is not life, but a stage, a book: art; recognize the life-giving power of the artist as a thing, distinct from life!'”  In addition, Spitzer wrote of "the general spirit of relativism which has been recognized by most critics as characteristic of the novel." While relativism and relativity (in Einstein’s sense) are not the same thing, we must reckon with such general similarities—where perception plays a large part-—in assessing relevant connections. 


Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1582) easily ranks as one of the most important figures in the late French Renaissance, both for his literary innovations as well as for his contributions to philosophy.  To his great credit as a writer, he developed a new form of literary expression, the essay.  This form offers a brief and admittedly incomplete treatment of a topic germane to human life - a treatment blending philosophical insights with historical anecdotes and autobiographical details, all unapologetically presented from the author’s own personal perspective. 

Montaigne was born in southwestern France at the family chateau near Bordeaux.  The family was wealthy, for his great-grandfather, Ramon Felipe Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant; he had bought the estate in 1477, thus becoming the Lord of Montaigne.

Montaigne’s education began in early childhood in keeping with a pedagogical plan his father had devised to ensure that Latin would be his first language. His father hired only servants who could speak Latin, and they were also given strict orders always to speak to the boy in Latin. 

After university training, he began a career in the local legal system. In 1557 he was appointed counselor of the Parliament in Bordeaux (a high court). Montaigne served several terms as the mayor of Bordeaux.  He also achieved national renown: from 1561 to 1563 he was  a courtier at the court of Charles IX.  While serving at the Bordeaux Parlement. he became very close friends with the humanist poet Etienne La Boétie, whose death in 1563 deeply affected Montaigne.

All his literary and philosophical work is contained in his Essais, which he began to write in 1572 and first published in 1580 in the form of two books.  In their final form the Essays comprise three books, with a total of 107 chapters of varying length. Over the next twelve years leading up to his death, he recently added to the text of the  first two books and completed a third, bringing the work to a length of about one thousand pages.  While Montaigne made numerous additions to the books over the years. These additions add to the unsystematic character of the books, which Montaigne himself conceded incorporated many contradictions. 

The unsystematic nature of the Essays meant that Montaigne received relatively little attention from Anglo-American philosophers in the twentieth century.  Nonetheless, in recent years he has been embraced by many as an important figure in the history of philosophy not only for his skepticism, but also for his treatment of topics such as the self, moral relativism, politics, and the nature of philosophy.

All in all, the most salient aspect of Montaigne’s thought is skepticism. So far, so good - or so it seems.  Just what exactly his skepticism amounts to is a matter that has engendered considerable scholarly debate. 

In  his “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne expresses great admiration for the Pyrrhonists and their ability to maintain the freedom of their power of judgment by avoiding commitment to any particular theoretical position. Elsewhere, as in the very first essay of his book, ”By diverse means we arrive at the same end,” Montaigne marshals skeptical arguments to facilitate the suspension of judgment concerning practical matters, such as whether the best way to obtain mercy is by submission or defiance. 

At one point in  the ”Apology for Raymond Sebond,” for instance, he seems to suggest that his allegiance to the Catholic Church is due to the fact that he was raised Catholic in a country where this religion was dominant.  This position has led some scholars, such as Richard Popkin, to interpret him as a skeptical fideist who is arguing that because we have no reasons to abandon our customary beliefs and practices, we should remain loyal to them.  Indeed, Catholics would employ this argument in the Counter-Reformation movement during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

While many scholars, then, justifiably speak of Montaigne as a modern skeptic in one sense or another, others emphasize aspects of his thought that separate him from the skeptical tradition.  Such scholars point out that many interpretations of Montaigne as a fundamentally skeptical philosopher tend to focus on “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne’s most skeptical essay.  When we take a broader view of the Essays as a whole, we find that Montaigne’s employment of skeptical tropes is more limited, so that for him it does not extend to his abandoning his beliefs. 

Montaigne's stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record "some traits of my character and of my humors." The Essays were first published in 1580 and cover a wide range of topics.

All of Montaigne’s philosophical reflections are found in his Essays.  To readers today, the term “essay” denotes a particular literary genre.  But when Montaigne gives the title Essays to his book he does not intend to designate the literary genre of the work so much as to refer to the spirit in which it is written and the nature of the project out of which it emerges.  The term stems from the French verb “essayer,” which  Montaigne employs in a variety of senses throughout his Essays, where it conveys such meanings as “to attempt,” “to test,” “to exercise,” and “to experiment.”  Each of these expressions captures an aspect of Montaigne’s endeavor in the Essays.  To translate the title of his book as “Attempts” would reflect the modesty of Montaigne’s essays, while to translate it as “Tests” would affirm the fact that he takes himself to be testing his judgment.  “Exercises” would communicate the sense in which essaying is a way of working on oneself, while “Experiments” would convey the exploratory spirit of the book.

Clearly, as presented, The Essays amounts to an unsystematic work.  The text addresses a wide range of topics, including  knowledge, education, love, the body, death, politics, the nature and power of custom, and the colonization of the New World.  There rarely seems to be any explicit connection between one chapter and the next.  Moreover, chapter titles are often only tangentially related to their contents.  The lack of logical progression from one chapter to the next creates a sense of disorder that is compounded by Montaigne’s style, which can be characterized as deliberately nonchalant.  Most essays include a number of digressions.  In some instances the digressions seem to reflect Montaigne’s stream-of-consciousness style,  while in others they stem from his habit of inserting additions into essays years after they were first written.  Finally, the nature of Montaigne’s undertaking itself contributes to the disorderly style of his book.  

The great goal of his effort, he tells us at the outset, is to paint a portrait of himself in words. For Montaigne, this task is complicated by his conception of the nature of the self.  In “Of repentance,” for example, he announces that while others try to form man, he simply tells of a particular man, one who is constantly changing.

Yet this is not all there is to it.  Biancamaria Fontana, while acknowledging that the Essais record Montaigne's personal experiences, nonetheless asserts that they also offer the first major critique of France's ancien régime, anticipating in this way the main themes of such Enlightenment theorists as Voltaire and Diderot. Challenging the view that Montaigne was politically aloof or evasive, or that he was a conservative and supporter of absolute monarchy, Fontana has isolated several central issues inherent in Montaigne's work--the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious toleration, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes

With all this complexity, why should one read The Essays?  In fact their charm is undeniable.  Montaigne wrote in a carefully crafted mode designed to intrigue the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought way from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured exposition that gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work.

It is a curious fact that Montaigne anticipated the contemporary vogue of the blog.  With their highly personal character, blogs deal, often unpredictably, with a variety of topics presented in the form of essays of various lengths.

It is sometimes asserted that Montaigne invented the genre of autobiography.  This is untrue as there were a number of exemplars from classical antiquity, culminating in Augustines’s Confessions.  In Montaigne’s own time there were autobiographies by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and the polymath Girolamo Cardano.  Yet Montaigne’s book stands out for his linking of his self-analysis with larger concerns.  In fact, the insight into human nature provided by his essays, illuminated by countless examples from his reading, is closely linked with his introspection.

Though the implications of his essays were profound and far-reaching, he modestly did not intend, nor expect his work to garner much attention outside of his inner circle, prefacing his essays with, "I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

Montaigne wrote during a period pervaded by Catholic and Protestant ideological tension. In the course of the sixteenth century, Protestant authors attempted to mitigate the severity of Church doctrine by applying their own reasoning and scholarship. In this context, skepticism appealed to some Catholic advocates as a device for blunting reason and scholarship, fostering an acceptance of Church doctrine through faith alone. 

His curiosity was boundless, sometime leading to unexpected results.  Cautiously he explored the dangerous issue of same-sex passions among men, though his personal affinities were more homosocial than homosexual - that is, devoid of physical consummation.  This concern inspired his composition "On Friendship" in the Essais. There he asserts that friendship is more passionate than the "impetuous and fickle" love for women and superior to marriage, which one can enter at will but not leave. He concedes that physical intimacy between males "is justly abhorred by our moral notions," while the "disparity of age and difference of station" which the Greeks demanded "would not correspond sufficiently to the perfect union that we are seeking here." Montaigne rejects pederasty because of the age asymmetry between the partners, "simply founded on external beauty, the false image of corporeal generation," while approving fully of intense friendship between men of the same age, "friendship that possesses the soul and rules it with absolute sovereignty.”

He criticized European colonization of the Americas because of the suffering it brought upon the indigenous peoples.

It is generally accepted that Montaigne's essays had a significant influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, given their similarities in language, themes, and structures.  And Shakespeare’s England was also riven by violent religious controversy

Montaigne's essays made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy before Descartes, who is decidedly less popular.

During the twentieth century Montaigne attracted little attention from anglophone philosophers, in part because he showed little interest in the details of logic that was, arguably, their central preoccupation.  With the revival of interest in ethics, though, he became topical in certain quarters.  There was also interest in Montaigne’s engagement with ancient philosophy, including Socrates, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism.

It has long been clear to readers that, as result of his prolonged dialogue with himself, Montaigne offered perspectives on how to live.  Over the centuries readers have come to him in search of companionship, wisdom, and entertainment.  These concerns they have framed in terms of a search for themselves, the same quest that Montaigne pursued so avidly.

Recently, in her bestselling book, How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (2010), Sarah Bakewell offers a sustained response to these questions. According to the book's webpage, How to Live addresses the following matters: "How to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to adjust to losing someone you love—such questions arise in most people’s lives. They are all versions of a bigger question: How do you live?” 


Bakewell also posits that the empathy Montaigne has elicited "derives partly from the free-style form of the prose as it follows the 'thousand paths' of one man's 'random' reasoning, and partly from the author's confessed inadequacy."  But the path is not entirely rosy. She maintains that only being allowed to speak Latin in his early years “benefited him in exactly the areas where it also damaged him,” making him an independent thinker, but also imposing detachment.