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Some Observations on Montaigne's Essays

[The following is the text of a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston for students in Liberal Studies at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University). The document was originally prepared in 1990 and extensively revised in December 2001. The document is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged]

[Quotations from and references to Montaigne's text are from Michel de Montaigne, Essays, translated and introduced by J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin, 1958, and from Michel de Montaigne, The Essays: A Selection, translated by M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 1995.  The lecture was last revised January 15, 2002]

For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston


This week we are reading few selections from the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, a very distinctive voice in our curriculum, and, as I hope to explore, in some respects a very elusive one. In this lecture I would like to describe briefly some features of Montaigne's style which make him, in many ways, rather different from anything we have encountered so far. In the process, I hope to clarify some of the reasons why this writer present unusual difficulties, if what we seek from our reading is a clearly defined and argued position.

Before diving into the text, however, I'd like to remind us all of one important point about the context of these writings. As he prepares and publishes these essays, Montaigne is living through one of the most calamitous periods of European history (to which he frequently calls attention)—the religious and civil confusion resulting from the break up of Christian unity in Europe, the frequently violent disturbances which followed Luther's challenge to Papal authority at the start of the sixteenth century, the constant religious and political fighting throughout Europe, as different people and groups tried to establish or re-establish their authority at a time when the devout religious confidence we have seen in Hildegard and Dante had been badly shattered, a conflict which was not resolved until 1648.  We will not be closely linking Montaigne's opinions with his social context, but it's worth remembering that those frequently paradoxical and elusive views had an important connection with the social and political realities in which Montaigne played a part.

The Essay

What is Montaigne seeking to achieve with these essays of his? And how is this essay form related to his purpose? These questions are important to pose up front, because what we are dealing with here is, in many ways, significantly different from what we have read so far.  The different form of the writing (the essay) is an important part of what Montaigne is inviting us to consider about life.

The term "essay" means "an attempt." And for the most part Montaigne's essays are offered as short "attempts" to explore some features of his own experience, to pass onto the reader a very personal and often digressive reflection on some aspect of his own personality or the personal reflections about people which arise from that exercise. What he has to say is often only loosely related to the ostensible subject matter of the essay (as announced in the title)--it seems more like a convenient springboard for more self-reflection and rumination than the demarcation of a specific area of enquiry.

We might begin by noticing what these essay are not. They are not structured as formal arguments, each with a clear purpose and a specific subject and leading to a firmly announced conclusion. Montaigne explicitly rejects that form of writing. He is primarily concerned, he tells us, to describe himself—or, as he might put it, his many selves. He is not concerned (he says) with man in general, but with one man in particular:

Others shape the man; I portray him, and offer to the view one in particular, who is ill-shaped enough, and whom, could I refashion him, I should certainly make very different from what he is. But there is no chance of that. . . . I cannot fix my subject. He is always restless, and reels with a natural intoxication. I catch him here, as he is at the moment when I turn my attention to him. I do not portray his being; I portray his passage; not a passage from one age to another or, as the common people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must suit my story to the hour, for soon I may change, not only by chance by also by intention. It is a record of various and variable occurrences, an account of thoughts that are unsettled and, as chance will have it, at times contradictory, either because I am then another self, or because I approach my subject under different circumstances and with other considerations. Hence it is that I may well contradict myself, but the truth . . . I do not contradict. Could my mind find a firm footing, I should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions; it is, however, always in its apprenticeship and on trial. (Cohen, "On repentance," 235)

This assertion seems clear and modest enough, and it catches a characteristic tone in Montaigne—the self-depreciating way in which he constantly calls attention to the limited scope of his attempts, the absence of any firm argument or of any push to important conclusions. The subject (his own personality) is too protean to admit of anything other than short inconclusive "attempts" which will, as often as not, contradict each other, because he is wrestling with something indefinable. In any case, he has no lessons to deliver to us, nor any desire to do so:

My sole aim is to reveal myself; and I may be different tomorrow if some new lesson changes me. I have no authority to exact belief, nor do I desire it, for I do not feel myself to be well enough instructed to instruct others. ("On the Education of Children," 52)

The central issue in dealing with Montaigne is trying to sort out the extent to which this stance is a rhetorical ploy, a way of concealing in an agreeable and apparently innocuous conversational style a more serious intention which does lead to some potentially disturbing conclusions. In other words, we need to undertake the challenging task of sorting out the nature of the ironies at work in this style: how much can we rely upon the literal meaning of what Montaigne says and how much do we sense something more (and very different) at work in the apparently disingenuous dismissal of his own significance. If you like, what is that "truth" which Montaigne says he does not contradict?

We might, as a preliminary observation, note the apparent disingenuousness of his plea that his enquiry is limited and very personal.  Yes, that's true enough.  But in making these observations about himself, Montaigne is clearly inviting us to see more than just an idiosyncratic self-analysis.  He is inviting us to recognize ourselves and others in his observations.  It's all very well constantly to remind us that we are dealing with only one person here, but it's also clear that the analysis extends beyond Montaigne himself (the text itself is always straying away from self-analysis into reflections of human beings generally).  Hence, in setting up what he claims is no more than a modest series of self-portraits, Montaigne is also inevitably inviting us to consider wider issues about "man" in general and thus to "shape" our understanding of man and of ourselves.  That this ironic stance is deliberate is, in effect, announced in the typically good humoured but ironically sly final sentence in his opening "To the Reader":

And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book; it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.  Therefore, Farewell.  (Screech 3). 

Montaigne's Attitude to Experience and the Self

One key issue which crops up again and again in these essays is an appeal to experience as a measure of how we ought to behave. What Montaigne means by this term seems to be closely related to a common-sense notion of how we really might live in our day-to-day lives, taking account of our surroundings, our likes and dislikes, our individual capacities, and our shifting moods, without being seduced by dreams of honour and glory, by excessive indulgence, or by dogmatic claims involving matters in which there is no certainty. Experience, Montaigne claims, teaches us that we should live according to Nature—that is, according to the life we have been given:

Nature has put [life] into our hands enhanced with so many favourable circumstances that we have only ourselves to blame if it is a burden to us or escapes from us unprofitably. A fool leads a thankless and anxious life, given over wholly to the future. (Cohen, "On Experience," 401).

What this seems to mean, in practice, is that we should focus on the immediate enjoyments around us which are possible in our own individual lives, guard against excess, and protect ourselves by not falling for or signing onto any agenda that will threaten our independence from the world outside—that includes political activity, intellectual ambition, and religious dogmatism. The world outside our own immediate private lives is, in general, too confusing, too uncertain, and too distracting—there is no certainty any more in the public realm, and no point in trying to find it or re-establish it. So experience indicates that the intelligent man who follows Montaigne's example will retire into his private space, and adopt the role of a spectator, enjoying the pleasures which are possible. Speaking of the present political disorders in Europe, he observes:

As I seldom read in histories of such disorders in other states without regretting that I could not be present to get a closer view of them, so my curiosity makes me in some way congratulate myself on being a witness of this noteworthy spectacle and seeing our society's death, its symptoms, and its nature. And since I am unable to delay it, I am content that I was destined to be a spectator of it and to get instruction from it. ( Cohen, "On Physiognomy," 323)

All my little prudence, in these present civil wars of ours, is employed in seeing that they do not interfere with the liberty of my comings and goings. (Cohen, "On Experience," 353)

Intellectual or religious certainty is as unattainable as political tranquility, and therefore the appropriate stance is a withdrawal from the controversies. Any issue is capable of being interpreted and re-interpreted in so many different ways, that we might as well acknowledge that there is little point in launching an enquiry into what the truth of the matter might be.

Machiavelli's arguments, for example, were substantial enough for their subject, yet they were quite easy to contest; and his opponents have left their own just as open to confutation. In that kind of argument there will always be matter for answers and rejoinders, double, triple, and quadruple, and for that endless fabric of debates which our lawyers drag out to the uttermost in the making of their pleas . . . for our arguments have little foundation except that of experience, and the variety of human events furnishes us with infinite examples of every possible kind. (Cohen, "On Presumption," 216)

In religious questions, as in these others, the important thing is to remember our own ignorance, the impossibility of arriving at a certain understanding, and the danger of challenging a religious authority simply because its doctrine is something we do not understand.

Experience, Montaigne seems to be telling us, must lead to scepticism, a healthy distrust of any claims to certainty and a constant awareness of the arbitrary nature of any system of belief. One's life, therefore, should not be dedicated to the service of such a system, nor should one sacrifice one's independence in a losing game.

But this is more than a matter of having to deal with a confusing external world.  It's also a matter that the inner world of the self is too ambiguous, too shifting, too protean for anyone to make firm conclusions even about himself.  There is no firm model of the psyche for us to measure ourselves against.  Montaigne's decision to use the essay form and his very digressive style repeatedly emphasize this point.  Self-knowledge in the old Socratic sense (for all Montaigne's repeated praise of Socrates) is not available, because the self is not clearly identifiable:

What is commented on in the case of Perses, King of Macedonia (that his mind, settling on no particular mode of being, wandered about among every kind of existence, manifesting such vagrant and free-flying manners that neither he nor anyone else knew what kind of man he really was), seems to me to apply to virtually everybody.  (Screech, "On experience" 379)

Hence, constructing a model of the soul or launching a project to arrive at a better understanding of the soul or to improve the soul is impossible.  All we can do is provide descriptions of what we feel we are at a particular moment, recognizing that this will change into something else soon enough.

I am unable to stabilize my subject; it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness.  I grasp it as it is now, at this moment when I am lingering over it.  I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another . . . but from day to day, from minute to minute.  I must adapt this account of myself to the passing hour. I shall perhaps change soon, not accidentally but intentionally.   This is a register of varied and changing occurrences, of ideas which are unresolved and, when needs be, contradictory, either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold of different attributes or aspects of my subjects. . . .  If my soul could only find a footing I would not assaying myself but resolving myself.  (Screech, "On repenting" 233)

Montaigne is frequently described as having a characteristically modern voice and concerns.  Such a remark becomes understandable when we recognize his repeated insistence that the inner search for meaning in the structure of the soul or the stability of the human personality is as inconclusive as the search for stable meaning in religious doctrine or social and political structures.

Given this marked shift in the basic understanding of the self, Montaigne seems clearly to want to limit or to redirect many traditional activities of the educated person who wishes to reflect upon what matters in life. One important element of this advice is to redirect one's gaze from areas of traditional concern onto the autonomous self, in its many varying and often contradictory manifestations, conceived of as living as freely and independently as possible from others and as little troubled as possible by any difficulties which might arise from unresolved political or religious questions (which one should approach sceptically) or any doctrinaire assertions about the what human beings really are or should be. 

These are, in effect, things we should not waste our time inquiring into, and there are other things, particularly those pleasurable activities most immediate to our own private lives (like sexuality, food, and books), to which we should accord a higher priority. In encouraging such a change, Montaigne appears to be endorsing the private sphere as opposed to the public forum and placing a concern with our various private identities (a concern which will never find closure) much higher than any concern for public obligations.

In those places where we have to enter the public forum, Montaigne recommends that we follow the customary practices of our immediate society, not because those practices are right but because they are there, because they help to maintain the order on which the security of our our private life depends. The laws may be unjust, corrupt, and in many ways unsatisfactory, but they are better than the absence of any authority: "Now the laws maintain their credit, not because they are just, but because they are laws." And the same is true of religion. No matter how corrupt we may think society has become, in religious doctrine we ought to accept the status quo established for us by tradition in our own communities and not push our inquiring minds into questions which, for Montaigne, do not admit of an answer.

By leaving me alone, they [the people who ignore his advice] follow my declared wish, which is to wholly self-reliant and self-contained. It pleases me not to be interested in the affairs of others, and to be free from responsibility for them. (Cohen, "On Repentance," 247)

The worst thing I find about our state is its instability, and that our laws are no more capable than our clothes of settling into a fixed shape. It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it. It is very easy to arouse people to a contempt for their ancient observances: no man has ever attempted this without succeeding. But to establish a better state of things in place of what he has destroyed—many a man has failed in his endeavours to do that. (Cohen, "On Presumption," 217 )

One obvious conclusion from a reading of Montaigne is that he has resigned himself to certain conditions in the public forum (in politics and in religion especially) and sees little point in directing one's passionately creative energies in that direction, in the way which we have seen as so central to Dante and Hildegard or, for that matter, St. Paul.   Nor should we, in our private space, be overly concerned with trying to make ourselves better than we are by any of the traditional ways--through philosophical speculation, learning, or religious discipline which goes against the grain.  If we limit our aspirations and redirect our attentions to the joys which are possible, and especially if we give up our craving for dogmatic certainty and our desires to fight about competing dogmatic certainties, then we will all be living better.

That mention of Dante might remind us of an important point in this regard.  Montaigne uses his reason and appeals to reason to endorse his position: a sound common-sense reason, he indicates, should encourage us to limit our attempts to understand experience and accept the limited space we occupy and the pleasures it affords.  Now, Dante (in the Inferno) also appeals to reason (in the figure of Virgil), but not as a means of turning away from confronting ultimate questions.  In Dante's poem, reason can only take us so far, but we need to go beyond that, rather than turn back from the one true faith.  We need, that is, to make a commitment in faith in order to continue our journey, to enjoy the most spiritually enlightened understanding of what it means to be a human being.  For Dante reason contains within itself the means of reminding us of the need to move beyond reason; for Montaigne reason is constantly reminding us not to stray into that beyond, merely to accept what we are given to understand about it.  Montaigne, in effect, urges us to abandon the metaphor of life as a journey into a better understanding of or commitment to anything and recommends that we stay at home.

The difference in emphasis is important, because it indicates a change in direction.  Montaigne is not attacking religious belief or a particular religious institution (at least not overtly), but he is insisting in his good-humoured and urbane way that there's no point in attempting a difficult spiritual pilgrimage.  The best we can do is accept religion as we find it in the society around us, because reason is no longer a spur to further enquiry but an important voice urging us to be sceptical about going beyond.  While this stance may not be a direct challenge to religious belief, there's an important radical challenge latent in it, because it takes little extrapolation from Montaigne's position to arrive at the conclusion that any particular religious belief (and perhaps religious belief itself) is merely a historically derived accident in one's social surroundings.  Montaigne certainly does not push his position that far, but it's not difficult to see how the ironies of his scepticism might push one in that direction.

The central moral tenet Montaigne offers to us again and again is his doctrine of the mean, moderation in all things.  This, of course, is based on an important re-interpretation of Aristotle's central ethical principle (a re-interpretation which Montaigne inherited), for Aristotle certainly did not mean by his doctrine that there were not some situations where the morally correct thing to do is to move to an extreme (especially since Aristotle values competitive excellence as a spur to moral achievement).  For Montaigne, however, as for so many others, Aristotle's authority is invoked here to impose a much simpler moral rule--stay calm and don't get too passionately involved in anything, least of all in public competitions for honour.  Our moral concerns, in any case, should focus on our behaviour at home, not in the public sphere:

Anyone can take part in a farce and act the honest man on the trestles: but to be right-ruled within, in your bosom, where anything is licit, where everything is hidden--that's what matters.  The nearest to that is to be so in your home, in your everyday actions for which you are accountable to nobody.  (Screech, "On repenting" 236).

How are we to react to this? Is this an admirable, intelligent answer, especially given the circumstances, or something of a loss, a retreat from what stood so admirably at the very heart of Dante's and Hildegard's imaginations? Is this a question which is fair to ask, given that Montaigne's social and personal circumstances are so very different from theirs? I don't want to attempt any answers to those issues here. There isn't time. But I would like to make a couple of personal comments in response

In reading Montaigne, my own feelings vacillate. I do like the intelligence at play here and the consummate prose stylist, exploring how one should live a life suitable to a chaotic age. And I like the sense of a detached, amused, but very tolerant anti-dogmatism. All these are insistently there. At times, however, I get really irritated by the false modesty, given that Montaigne occupies a particularly privileged place in that society, with a landed estate (which has the same name as he does) and more than enough money to follow his own advice (as he tells us), and I do wonder about the value of declaring that one's purpose in life to play the role of a spectator simply because the outside world has become too complicated. So I find it difficult not to get rather irked at something like this:

For I centre my affection almost entirely on myself, bestowing only a very little on others. All that others divide among an infinite number of friends and acquaintances, to their glory and to their grandeur, I devote entirely to my mind's repose and to my own person. What escapes from me into other channels, does not really do so with my deliberate consent.

We are here, for better or worse, apparently dealing with a sensibility quite far removed from "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"; this is the sensibility of man apparently happy enough to make his own ease, pleasure, and personal liberty the highest priorities in the good life and to leave his serious engagement in social issues to the ironic effects of his prose. 

In Montaigne's celebration of his private space, for example, there doesn't seem much room for charitable concern for those in his immediate surroundings on whom the existence of his private space depends (for example, the workers on his own estate). Montaigne constantly reassures us that he is sensitive to other people's feelings, especially to the condition of those who work on his land (he claims that he grew up among common people, something which hardly seems to square with the fact that his father raised him in an environment where he heard nothing but Latin).  And he can talk with equanimity of the wretched suffering and injustice these peasants suffer--culling from their social experience amusing stories and general examples--without seeing any connection between their work and his leisurely celebration of his private pleasures or between their suffering and his social responsibilities.  And when he reassures us that that's all right because peasants are, well, different from us and derive pleasure from their poverty (as he does in "On experience"), one wonders about the extent to which his obsession with himself is a case of special pleading.

Apart from his celebration of military life, his directions for living don't seem to provide for any significant social action or rich social connections (of the sorts to which Aristotle gave such a high priority).  His library is obviously much more important to him than his servants or the labourers on his land or, for that matter, his friends.   Interestingly enough, his essay "On three kinds of social intercourse" turns out to be a celebration of his private occupations, culminating with a tribute to his library.

Of course, we cannot fairly denigrate Montaigne for not being a socialist ahead of his time.  But the moral tradition he inherited (from Christianity and the Classics) puts interactions with others, living up to one's obligations and responsibilities at the heart of one's living duty, as central to the good life.  About these Montaigne is almost wholly silent and, it would seem, deliberately so ("I make no mention of the [occupations] I owe the world through my obligations to the state" (Screech, "On three kinds of social intercourse"). And, as I shall discuss later, at times he seems deliberately to be re-interpreting his favourite hero, Socrates, to stress the private man over the public servant.

One of Montaigne's favourite images is of life as an amusing spectacle—a circus entertainment or a farce, at which the chief pleasure is looking on, making pithy observations from the security of a comfortable grandstand box. Given the evidence he includes about the political and religious disputes of his own times, one can appreciate the appropriateness of this image. But one has to wonder about the extent to which the steadiness and pleasure which he seeks from life might come at a high price—reducing life's possibilities to some common denominator, lowering what one ought to do in order to make the goal relatively easy and pleasurable to attain (at least for Montaigne himself).

In a sense, this amounts to a redefinition of virtue—or the revival of an old definition, changing it from a public social matter arising out of one's dealings with others (either Aristotelian eudaimonia or Christian "faith, hope, and charity") and stressing the primacy of one's understanding and treatment of oneself in private. Much of the time this stance seems to recommend a deliberate turning away from anything else: "there is nothing I will bite my nails over except life and health, nothing that I am willing to purchase at the price of mental torment and constraint" (Cohen, "On Presumption," 202). Since events are too unpredictable to anticipate or shape, the important matter is to adapt oneself to them as they occur. Moderation, self-control, steadiness, a harmony between ones pleasures and one's common sense—these are more important than any outstanding achievement or any attempt to become better than the person Nature has made. As for standards of excellence and role models, these are hardly available any more in present society—hence, the importance of the past.

Given this stance, it's not surprising that Montaigne's firmest attempt to define his sense of his own moral worth turns out to be largely negative:

It is no light pleasure to know oneself to be saved from the contagion of a corrupt age and to be able to say of oneself: 'Anyone who could see right into my soul would even then not find me guilty of any man's ruin or affliction, nor of envy nor of vengeance, nor of any public attack on our laws, nor of novelty or disturbance, nor of breaking my word.  And even though this licentious age not only allows it but reaches it to each of us, I have nevertheless not put my hand on another Frenchman's goods or purse but have lived by my own means, in war as in peace; nor have I exploited any man's labour without due reward.' (Screech, "On repenting" 235)

In any comparison with previous moral visions of the good life (in, say, Exodus or Homer or Plato or Dante) this stance surely emerges as extremely modest, complacent, and (perhaps) self-serving--I lived on the money my father left me and didn't ever complain about anything or steal from anyone.  That's the natural way to live.

What is necessary to make this vision of the good life possible is a certain degree of freedom to live life as one chooses, without interference, combined with a disposition which does not wish to get involved, even though one is in a position to do so: "True freedom is to have complete power over one's own activities" (Cohen, "On Physiognomy," 322)—and if that means turning one's back on wider issues, so be it:

I doubt whether I am honest enough to confess at how small a cost to my peace and life's repose I have spent half my days amidst the ruin of my country. I pay rather too little for my tolerance of misfortunes which do not touch me personally; and when inclined to pity myself, consider not so much what is taken from me as what remains safe, both within and without. (Cohen, "On Physiognomy," 323)

I have no wish to quarrel with the admirable aspects of this role model. But, as I say, from time to time it strikes me that there something too detached, too urbane, too complacent about such a stance in the middle of a confusing world in which one occupies a privileged place.. Somehow it all seems much too easy at times. In writing about his traveling habits, Montaigne states:

When travelling, I prefer to avoid steep and slippery slopes, and to follow the beaten track, however deep the mud, for though I may sink in, that is the lowest I can fall, and I choose it as a measure of safety. (Cohen, "On Presumption," 204)

To this observation I have a desire to raise a question: Just how deep does the mud have to get before one might start thinking about possible alternatives? What does one do about one's fellow citizens who do not have the luxury of a carriage and have to trudge through the mud with no shoes, especially over that part of the road for which one is personally responsible?  What about the people drowning in the mud? Montaigne sometimes talks feelingly of the acute distress suffered by the labourers on his own lands, but his ideas here lead him away from any sense of his own moral obligation to assist into wider and more pleasant reflections. His workers are part of his observations about human nature—as remote from his daily life as the examples he draws from antiquity—certainly nothing to challenge his desire to life as independent of human social obligations as possible.

In this respect one has to be careful about accepting too quickly Montaigne's invocation of some classical authorities as endorsements of his position.  He is very fond of appealing to Aristotle and Socrates, for example.  Yet, he has in some ways misrepresented both of these figures, especially by really downplaying their commitment to a public role.  From them Montaigne draws selectively to underline his own position (especially in misrepresenting Aristotle's doctrine of the mean and Socrates' commitment to continuing to search for the truth as a strenuous life-long activity which had, for Socrates, serious public consequences).

Whether or not that is an entirely fair point to make, it is the case that these essays were enormously influential in shaping the sense many middle-class Europeans, especially in France, developed of themselves--the role of the so called honnête homme, the polished, economically independent, detached observer of the scene, ready to offer honest and reasonable advice to or criticism of his friends candidly and often amusingly but not plunging into the affairs of the world and certainly not ready to speak up in an energetic defence of any position or, for that matter, of any urgently needed reform (other than, like Montaigne, in very general terms). This character will be quite familiar to readers of Molière's or Ben Jonson's plays. It's an attractive model for life (especially for a gentleman with a significant independent income), understandable enough as a response to certain social conditions, but it comes with a price--one has to wonder, for example, at the risk of making a giant leap, about the extent to which Montaigne's attitude helps to reinforce the gap between the rich and poor by detaching the rich from any concern they might have about their obligations to the poor, a process that, more than anything else, contributed eventually to the violent overthrow (in France) of the privileged order.

The Ironic Qualification

The above remarks so far have depended upon taking Montaigne literally, that is, accepting the surface estimate he makes of himself. And there's no doubt that that approach is an important part of Montaigne's legacy. There are, after all, good grounds for taking him as the first distinctive voice of a detached modern scepticism—a refusal to be taken in by any of the competing claims to knowledge, a rejection of truth as attainable in the political and religious spheres, an acknowledgement of ignorance about the most important things in life, including any firm sense of his own psychic identity, a desire to base life on attainable private pleasures (in moderation), in the absence of grounded truths, and a constant preoccupation with the demands of an elusive inner self, unconcerned about social connections.

But clearly there's more going on here than that. For no matter how much modesty and lack of ambition Montaigne may mix into his essays, the radical potential of what he is saying is hard to escape (as I have already mentioned), even if the question about how far he intends us to pursue his scepticism is not always easy to answer. For Montaigne, however urbanely and quietly, is consistently attacking (at least implicitly) old authority, traditional political and religious belief, and he cannot do that without invoking authority, that is, without raising the issue of a justification for an alternative course of action. In other words, there's potentially a good deal more than scepticism involved in the stance he is adopting. There is a persistent irony at work underneath the self-deprecating tone (the repeated references to Socrates, among other things, should alert us to this). In order to appreciate some aspects of this ironic quality, I'd like to spend some time in looking at a prominent feature of Montaigne's style—his constant invocation of the classical past.

Montaigne and the Past

We do not have to read very far in Montaigne to realize that we are in the presence of an imagination which has a special relationship to the past, particularly to the Classical past of Greece and Rome. Montaigne is so evidently at ease among Classical authors, so fluent in his use of them, that we sense we are worlds apart from the imagination of Hildegard or Dante. For Montaigne appears to us as someone for whom the works of Seneca, Cicero, Plato, and others are so deeply embedded that, as he thinks and utters his reflections, he makes use of those authors by reflex, often shaping them so effortlessly to his own point of view, that we sense he has grown up with them (as indeed he has). These authors from the past are his friends, he is from a long acquaintance thoroughly familiar with them, and he calls them into his conversations with us spontaneously and without apparent effort.

Yet Montaigne wears his learning lightly and elegantly. For all the frequency of his quotations, he does not cram his learning down our throat nor ever create any sense that we simply cannot understand what he is talking about if we are not as familiar as he is with the authors to whom his imagination returns again and again (although he could count on the fact that many of his readers would be very familiar with some of them, especially Cicero and Seneca). At the same time we cannot escape the sense that here is a man to whom the classical past matters, and matters a great deal, because it offers an enormous wealth of insight into the whole range of human experience. For all his frequent disparagement of learning and his praise of ignorance, Montaigne's own prose style is a constant tribute to the importance of his education in classical literature.

That is what makes Montaigne one of the best examples of what we call Renaissance Humanism derived from the Classics. Thoroughly familiar with many classical authors and yet not the slightest bit pedantic about what they mean and how he understands them, Montaigne defined for many generations (especially in France) the purpose of a Classical education in a landed gentleman: as an aid to imaginative reflection, as a source of useful examples, as a remarkably potent source of critical ironies, and as a suitable adornment for an elegant style. The classical works matter because they can educate our minds and our writing habits and methods of reflection in the right ways. If we want to understand one of the reasons why an education in the Classics was for so long (that is, right up until the generation after mine) considered an essential part of the education of a literate person, we cannot discount the influence of Montaigne.

But there is more than that to the matter. For Montaigne's use of the past is clearly different from, say, Dante's. The latter, in the Divine Comedy, appropriates the past (often rather roughly and uncritically, for in many cases he had no first-hand knowledge of important works or events) into the service of his Christian vision, so that in Dante, as we discussed, there is, in effect, no significant difference between the past and the present; they are both a part of Christian history, and all the details can be interpreted to fit that vision. The Classical past may be over, but it serves to confirm our present vision; in that sense it is part and parcel of modern events which, like it, confirm the unrolling of God's Christian purposes in history (after all, in Dante's Inferno the stoutest defender of the Christian vision of Hell is Virgil).

In Montaigne, the effect is rather different. The past is definitely the past, in the sense that it is different from the present; however, it is also present, because these authors possess an eternal wisdom which can tell us a great deal about the present, since they address concerns still very much with us. The ancient pagan authors provide a wisdom on their own, without Christian reinterpretation, that we would do well to heed, since that advice in Montaigne's favourite authors reinforces his view of how we ought to live. There is thus in Montaigne's use of the past a latent critical attitude not present in Dante. He uses the past as something of a Trojan horse—not as confirmation of the present system of belief but as a critical challenge to it. Montaigne lets the classical authors speak for themselves in their own language and, thus, implicitly contrasts them with modern beliefs; Dante represents them (and often misrepresents them) to fit the scheme he wants to illuminate (that is, to confirm his beliefs).

The critical attitude emerges from the fact that Montaigne is so constantly invoking the authority from the pre-Christian past. The mentors he so frequently refers to are pagans, and their wisdom does not consist of any specifically Christian view of life, nor does Montaigne make the slightest attempt to "Christianize" what they have to say. Nor is Montaigne's preference for particular authors based upon any sense of how they might confirm or anticipate Christian doctrine (in the way that, for example, many medieval writers endorsed and used Virgil or Ovid). The authority of their wisdom is, for Montaigne, at least to judge from the frequency of his use of them, superior to the scriptures or to the work of any specifically Christian writers (the scarcity of references to Christian scriptures throws even more emphasis on Montaigne's preferences). Because they knew how to live according to nature, in the way that Montaigne especially recommends, they have important things to reveal to us.

The critical potential of this attitude to the past should be obvious enough. It involves setting up, as an authority for living in a Christian country, pagan thinkers and writers; thus, by implication, at least, it calls into question the adequacy of prevailing Christian traditions, especially at a time when those seem, in many ways, to have failed. And many of the doctrines Montaigne endorses have specifically pagan roots and lead to conclusions quite removed from traditional Roman Catholic Christianity.  The critical effect of such a process, Peter Gay describes (in The Enlightenment, I, 72) as follows:

To make the Greeks into the fathers of true civilization--the fathers, in a word, for the first Enlightenment--was to subvert the foundations of Christian historiography by treating man's past as a secular, not a sacred, record.  The primacy of Greece meant the primacy of philosophy, and the primacy of philosophy made nonsense of the claim that religion was man's central concern.

But this critical attitude remains latent throughout most of Montaigne. That is, he does not, for the most part, exploit his use of the past to develop any overtly searching criticism of those values and institutions most important in his own time. He is obviously being very cautious here. Since Montaigne is careful not to engage us directly in any potentially difficult questions about Christian faith or political allegiance (at least in the essays we are reading), nor to turn the full critical force of classical examples against the major institutionalized powers of church and state directly, that critical attitude remains, as I say, latent.

[We can see a similar attitude in his treatment of the inhabitants of the New World, in which Montaigne uses cultural differences as a critical evaluative method for directing reform sentiments at existing French institutions. But here, too, Montaigne is careful about how far he is prepared to go, either because, as he tells us, he supports those institutions or because he's finely tuned to just how much one can push apparent anthropological differences without raising suspicion, or because as a supremely ironical writer he wants us to respond to the influence of these matters gradually, without an insistent direction from a clearly reform-minded writer. Later, of course, in the hands of writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, the ambiguously sly and ironic tone changes and the use of the past or of different cultures becomes a major method of very strong and often very obvious attacks on existing institutions.  In fact, in Montaigne we get our first ironic hint of what is going to emerge as a major critical strategy, especially in the Enlightenment two centuries later--using history and anthropology (or what we call anthropology) to undermine present European authority.  The consequences of that strategy, as we shall see, have been overwhelming in all areas of human thought]

The fact that during his own life time Montaigne did not create trouble for himself with the religious and political authorities and could be received by the Pope quite warmly testifies to the extent to which his use of the past was not seen as having any serious critical sentiments that anyone in power needed to worry about very much. A century later, of course, the situation had changed rather, and Montaigne's book was put on the Index of Forbidden Books. Maybe by then the critical implications of what he is doing had become more obvious to the defenders of orthodox doctrine.

And what does Montaigne celebrate in these classical writers? What does he hold up as their contribution to present concerns? Well, the obvious answer is that they help to define what he means by living according to nature or to reason (both very elusive terms, of course). In his view, they limited the demands they made on life to what nature provided in front of them—instead of reaching for unattainable or transitory honours or of responding to intellectual ambition, they shaped their lives in accordance with their given natures, taking into account their present circumstances.  They exemplified the following advice:

It is easier to follow art than nature but it is also much less noble and commendable. The soul's greatness consists not so much in climbing high and pressing forward as in knowing how to adapt and limit itself. (Cohen, "On Experience," 399)

That sense of the value of the classical past as an example with a critical edge informs Montaigne's excessive admiration of Socrates, whom he sees as "a pattern and ideal of every kind of perfection" (Cohen, "On Experience," 399). What's interesting here, of course, as I've alluded to, is that many of the things for which Montaigne praises Socrates (and on which Socrates' reputation rests) run somewhat counter to the sort of life Montaigne seems to be advising us to follow (as Montaigne himself admits in places). For Socrates actively engaged in challenging his society's traditions by reminding people that what they thought they knew was, in fact, merely opinion, and lost his life as a result of that challenge. Socrates may have encouraged people to think about taking an "inward turn" in their thinking about their own life, but that action earned him public attention and he paid a public price. And his enquiries were not informed by an overtly sceptical intention--quite the reverse.  He was on a search for the truth.  

One wonders about the extent to which Montaigne sees himself as doing the same thing, only much more cautiously—his public space is, in effect, the world of his readers, and his essays may be intended to engage them in questions much larger than simply a sceptical withdrawal. For Socrates' thinking (as Plato portrays it) is much more overtly radical than Montaigne is apparently prepared to be.  The teasing issue is this: How much does Montaigne expect us to recognize that?

This issue of Montaigne's real agenda depends upon how deeply one is prepared to see his ironies cutting. At times, the critical attitude seems clear and severe enough, as for example, when he says of cannibals:

I am not so anxious that we should note the horrible savagery of these acts as concerned that, whilst judging their faults so correctly, we should be so blind to our own. I consider it more barbarous to eat a man alive than to eat him dead; to tear by rack and torture a body still full of feeling, to roast it by degrees, and then give it to be trampled and eaten by dogs and swine—a practice which we have not only read about but seen within recent memory, not between ancient enemies, but between neighbours and fellow-citizens and, what is worse, under the cloak of piety and religion—than to roast and eat a man after he is dead. (Cohen, "On Cannibals" 113)

Here the irony gives way to moral indignation and the critical intention is sufficiently clear (although the remarks are very general). And there other similar moments where the urbane tone switches to something much more searing:

I am not referring here to those venerable souls, exalted by the ardour of devotion and religion to a constant and scrupulous mediation upon divine things. I do not confuse them with the monkey rabble of us common men, occupied with our vain thoughts and desires. Anticipating by the strength of their strong and vigorous hope the enjoyment of eternal nourishment, the final and highest stage of Christian desires, the sole constant and incorruptible pleasure, they scorn to attach themselves to our poor, fleeting, and dubious possessions, and readily leave to the body the provision and enjoyment of sensual and temporal food. Theirs is a study for the privileged. Supercelestial thoughts and subterrestrial conduct are two things, let me tell you, that I have always found to agree very well together. (Cohen, "On Experience" 405)

At other times, however, where we are supposed to go with the ironies is less clear. It may seem, for example, that when Montaigne urges us to follow the religious and political authorities of our region because that avoids public disorder that he is endorsing the present arrangements. But behind this recommendation stands his claim that the law is not necessarily just nor the religious belief true—we follow them for pragmatic reasons (public order). Such a stance invites us to reorient ourselves to authority in a much more sceptical way—and hence serves to undermine that very authority (especially any justification for that authority which rests on dogmatic claims), in the very process of urging that we follow it.

That's why (to repeat myself) the portrayal of Socrates is so interesting. Montaigne is among the first to set Socrates up as a pre-eminent role model (in moving from Dante to Montaigne, we should note the significance of the switch from Virgil to Socrates as the paragon of Classical virtue—a switch signaling a change from reconciling the classical past with Christian doctrine to using the classical past as a direct challenge to Christian authority.  Socrates, significantly enough, is not allowed to speak in the Inferno--one suspects that, if he had been allowed to do so, the effect on the poem might have been disastrous). Montaigne stresses, above all else, Socrates' self-discipline in the service of moderation (an important part of what Montaigne means by living according to Nature), and apparently fails (as I mentioned) to appreciate the revolutionary implications of Socrates' teachings (at least as Plato presents them). But merely putting Socrates on this pedestal brings that revolutionary edge into play (especially among a readership increasingly familiar with the Classical Socrates), at least implicitly, and invites us to see Montaigne's agenda as considerably more sweeping and decisive than he pretends it is.

And, no matter how much Montaigne may pay lip service to (or, for that matter, be stating his honest views about) the notion that our nature (which we should follow) comes from God ("Life must be studied, relished, and mediated upon, so that we may give adequate thanks to Him who grants it to us," Cohen 401), his stance drives a wedge between Nature (our guide) and religion or at least between Nature and contemporary organized religious institutions (who have their own agenda they want us to follow)—especially since our main guides as to what Nature really requires come from the pagans (as the frequent quotations remind us).

Montaigne's "On Some Lines of Virgil"

By way of exploring in more particular detail some of the points I mention above, let me pause for a moment to look at one of Montaigne's most amusing (and surprising) essays, the one which includes his extensive discussion of male and female sexuality--"On Some Lines of Virgil."

On the face of it, a great deal of this essay seems to involve a very digressive stroll through a number of explicitly sexual and often ribald stories and quotations from the classical past in an (at times) fanciful and amusing discussion of male and female sexuality.  It does not appear to lead to any firm conclusions about anything.  If Montaigne at times admits that the customs of the day don't treat women very well, he also seems to indicate that he has no great desire to change things, since for him the social conventions of flirtation, courtship, and seduction are (he says) as much a part of the appeal and the pleasure as anything else.  It would be easy enough to read this essay as the stylish but innocuous ramblings of an old man making up in his prose for what he can no longer carry out in the salon or the bedroom (as Montaigne repeatedly tells us).

But merely putting on the table a discussion of the importance of sexuality in human life, of the way it affects men and women biologically and socially, and of the ways in which social conventions can run counter to human pleasure with unwelcome results (especially in the case of women) establishes an important challenge to prevailing sexual attitudes and middle-class customs.  Montaigne is inviting his readers to think about our attitudes towards sex, especially as these become frozen in social conventions and law.  There may be nothing radically daring in such an attempt, but the stress he puts on facing up to the issue of women's sexuality honestly and recognizing how our misconceptions simply encourage things we would like to avoid indicates over and over again his concern that in sexuality, as in everything else, we should use our reasonable common sense, recognizing the importance of sexuality as one of the supreme pleasures of life, but not driving ourselves into permanent anxiety over it or frustrating our pleasures with false notions of the importance of sexual matters.

But the truly remarkable feature of this essay is Montaigne's use of the past to further his discussion--particularly the quotations.  For these indicate to the reader, in an amusing and even shocking way, the extraordinary candour and explicitness with which classical poets could discuss sexual matters and celebrate all the varieties of sexual experience in their culture, from the impressive or diminutive size of a particular penis to the radish shoved up someone's backside.  Even in our sexually jaded times, reading the translations of these short quotations provides something of a shock.

These quotations (and the frequent references to stories from the classics) in a sense constitute a continuing radical critique of contemporary society, by raising an implicit question: Why, if the pagans could talk this openly and candidly about sex--celebrating it as something important, funny, satisfying, ridiculous, and so on--cannot we do the same?  Why, if they could acknowledge the sexuality of women openly (especially the power of women's own sexual desires), as an important feature of the human personality, do we cover it up in conventional pretense, hypocrisy, misogyny, and oppression? 

But such questions move one (implicitly) beyond sexuality, as well.  For at the heart of this discussion is Montaigne's quiet but repeated insistence that in thinking about human life we should not arbitrarily determine unnecessary limits to what we can and cannot enjoy:

Philosophy does not do battle against such pleasures as are natural; provided that temperance accompanies them . . . she teaches moderation in such things not avoidance. (Screech 322)

May we not say that there is nothing in us during this earthly prison either purely corporeal or purely spiritual and that it is injurious to tear a living man apart; and that it seems reasonable that we should adopt towards the enjoyment of pleasure at least as favourable an attitude as we do towards pain?  (Screech 323)

In making such a plea, Montaigne is obviously gently calling into question, not merely the various rules we presently live by (in sexuality and other matters), but also the authorities who insist upon the importance of those rules (and who have a strong vested interest in retaining their authority).

Anyone seeking a more polemical stance on social and gender issues will, no doubt, find this rather low key.  But (to invoke a favourite metaphor from Liberal Studies) I wonder about the effect of this essay (and others) on, say, the conversations of a man and woman both of whom had just read Montaigne.  It strikes me that there is material here sufficiently provocative and amusing (that is, non threatening) to invite them to discuss the issue anew, to begin a shared exploration of some fixed attitudes. To be sure, this would be a private conversation in their own homes, but that may in some cases be a better place to initiate some important reforms than on the nearest street corner.

A Final Comment

Throughout this lecture I've been stressing the dual nature of Montaigne's writings and calling attention to some ironic possibilities which arise when we attend to both aspects of what he is doing.  If my conclusions seem rather tentative, well, that may come with the territory.  It's obviously the case that Montaigne is concerned, in large part, to privilege the private space at the expense of the public realm, that he is far more concerned about the vagaries of his own elusive self than about anyone else, and that he consistently invokes a potentially paralyzing scepticism and cultural relativism where all larger questions are concerned.  At the same time, he obviously does have a "message" for us in his concern that we become more alert to what we are as human beings (understood in a very common-sense way) who have opportunities to ameliorate our lives but who too often squander those in various overly ambitious schemes or unnecessarily stringent restrictions.

Finally, we should note the political implications of urging reader to turn away from political commitments in order to focus on themselves. This may be (indeed almost certainly is) most commonly a response when the political world becomes too unstable and uncertain (as in Socrates' Athens or Montaigne's Europe), but any call to find the purpose of one's life in self-inspection, in arranging one's private life to suit one's immediate pleasures—rather than in some form of public commitment—is demanding, for better or worse, a radical reorientation to a traditional model (including traditional authority) which sees interdependency, the complex intertwining of reciprocal obligations and responsibilities, as the heart of human existence in the community. The political consequences of a call to withdraw from an active political life (other than to support the institutions where one happens to live) are obvious enough. And if we keep in mind the figure of Socrates, Montaigne's advice may well be a subversive summons to think our way through to some very different political arrangements from the ones we presently have.


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