Sunday, May 13, 2018


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.


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