Of course Montaigne is know to many, in a series of familiar reference and assumptions. A lot of people know that Montaigne paralleled, and possibly influenced, Shakespeare’s moral concerns. Any sketch of the history of the philosophy of friendship will mention Montaigne’s thoughts about Etienne de La Boétie. Montaigne’s essay on ‘Cannibals’ is a standard reference when discussing skepticism and relativism in the Renaissance. Accounts of conservative political thought are likely to mention Montaigne as a skeptical form of conservative, aware of injustice but afraid of the consequences of radical change. An outline of of the literary aspects of the classics of philosophy will probably mention Montaigne alongside Pascal, between Augustine and Kierkegaard. There is a regular nod to his status a major sceptic between Sextus Empiricus and Hume, but with the sceptical aspect of Descartes’ philosophy receiving more attention. Montaigne’s remark about his cat playing with him as much as he is playing with his cat is well known as a whimsical remarks on the agency of non-human animals.
Beyond that what? And these things which people ‘know’ about Montaigne are certainly open to challenge. Certainly many passages of the Essays, suggest a strong anti-monarchist republican, who would like to challenge the French state, but finds it to be an ambition out of season, for now anyway. Montaigne does not just comment on his cat playing, but on the general capacities of animals, the overlap with human capacities, and his unwillingness to kill when out hunting. Montaigne’s comments on cannibals do not just refer to the differences between moral standards in different parts of the world, but strongly challenge the justice offered by his own society.
Apart from the Cambridge Companion to Montaigne and How to Read Montaigne, in the Granta ‘How to read…’ series, there is really very little about Montaigne in the various introduction and companion series on Great Philosophers. Beyond Ann Hartle, how many scholars in philosophy departments have made a name from Montaigne studies? I do not mean to dismiss the value of what Montaigne commentators in other academic branches are doing, or those philosophers currently working on Montaigne, and I am not suggesting iron disciplinary distinctions, but when someone like Montaigne has so much to say about philosophy, and so few philosophers are among the commentators, something is wrong. There is always going to be some debate about who the greats are, but in Montaigne’s case the greatness is assumed, and then ignored.
I will finish with an outline of the areas in which The Essays address themes of importance in various topics of philosophy, without ever quite getting the appropriate recognition.
There is an ontology which proposes the existence of the maximum possible number of forms in nature and the equality of those forms. It also proposed that differences between objects are never purely of spatio-temporal location, anticipating Leibniz. Stoic ethics are taken up, but also challenged with regard to the complexities and inadequacies of human nature, anticipating Scottish Enlightenment thought on the matter, and probably inspiring to some degree La Rochefoucauld’s moral scepticism. His thoughts on Stoic and other antique theories of virtue, along with his modification of them should give him a major place in virtue theory. Passages of Pascal repeat Montaigne in order to put him in a theistic context. Montaigne has thoughts on the equivalences between human and non-human animals which are hardly found in philosophy again until Bentham, and not much again until recent decades. An understanding of Montaigne is necessary for a proper grasp of the history of republican ideas, as the Essays overflow with examples from antique city state politics. His view of himself as existing through writing, but of writing as inadequate to life, along with the unlimited possibilities of interpretation, and interpretations of interpretation, make him a precursor of the Derridean approach to philosophy, and of Proust’s approach to literature. His emphasis on the importance of honesty and of frankness in speaking make him part of the pre-history both of Rousseau’s notion of sincerity and Foucault’s idea of parrhesia. Montaigne clearly anticipates Popper’s falsificationism, referring to the endless nature of the experiments which which falsify a theory. His treatment of Scholasticism and Natural Theology is just as sharp and critical as David Hume’s, even if his critical purpose is not so clearly signalled.
All evidence that Montagne is a bit less placed on a pedestal and then ignored than I am suggesting will be greatly received, and I realise that he has a major place in the French education system Nevertheless, I do not expect to see sufficient evidence to challenge my concern here.
(Cross posted from Stockerblog)
(Note on future posts. I have thought about separate posts here from my personal blog, but for the present at least, the most appropriate strategy is for me to cross post from my personal blog where the posts are most well formed and less part of my immediate research process, and so can be detached from my personal blog and put in a more collective general context. There are some great posts and debates here about the state of the profession, the institution of higher education, various problems in acadmic philosophy and so on, which would take me away from my personal blog, but my mind is not working in that way at present.)
The Essays: A Brief History
The whole of the text presented in modern editions of the Essays was actually published in several different editions, a fact that has led to controversy within Montaigne scholarship. Within his lifetime, Montaigne published two editions of his work, in 1580 (at which point only the first two books were written) and 1588 (which included a third book and significant additions to the first two). A third edition, published in 1595 under the supervision of Montaigne’s adoptive daughter Marie de Gournay, remained the authoritative model for publishing the Essays until the early 20th century, when a copy of the 1588 edition, containing hundreds of annotations and additions in Montaigne’s handwriting and known as the “Bordeaux copy”, became the basis for modern critical editions of his work. This trend, started by a desire to adhere to a version of the text with an unequivocal link to its author, has seen some reversal during the first decade of the 21st century, as several French editions of the Essays have reverted to the 1595 model (some going as far as removing paragraphs from the text, which did not exist in Montaigne’s time). This change can partly be attributed to efforts made in rehabilitating Marie de Gournay, long accused of tampering with the Essays but now often acknowledged for her own writing career, including many proto-feminist treatises such as The Equality of Men and Women, first published in 1622.
Writing the Self in Troubled Times
Montaigne’s writings make it clear that they will take their author as their subject by demonstrating the strength (and weaknesses) of his judgment and opinions through repeated “attempts” (“Essay”, in the French of the time, signified a try or attempt, and the modern English use of the term to mean a form of non-fiction writing was coined by Montaigne). Despite their introspective focus, the loosely structured reflections that make up the Essays often deal with the social and political events of Montaigne’s time, if only to illustrate a point or provide an example. In particular, Montaigne uses contemporary history as a counterpoint to analogous situations or phenomena drawn from antiquity.
The historical period that encompassed the majority of Montaigne’s adult life was one of the most tumultuous in France’s history, as decades of civil war ravaged the country. The wars of religion (1562-1598) unleashed brutal fighting and destruction as they pitted Catholics, for the most part supported by the king, and Huguenots, an often tenuous confederation of French noblemen and followers of the Reformation, against one another. The conflict between these two camps, which quickly fractured into several different groups, often forced Montaigne to act as an intermediary, and he eventually became associated with a group of moderate Catholics known as the Politiques, who favored peace with the Protestants over unconditional victory.
Montaigne was quite active in this capacity in the years after 1570, which he often describes as the time of his retreat from the world’s affairs. Apart from his tenure as mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne was also asked to act as official mediator between a group of extremist Catholics known as the Holy League and his Protestant friend Henri de Navarre (later Henry IV of France) during the 1570s, and was instrumental in keeping the citizens of Bordeaux loyal after Henry’s accession to the throne in 1589. He was also active in the courts of Henry’s predecessors Charles IX and Henry III (to whom Montaigne was even sent as a secret envoy from the future king in 1588). Just as the turbulent historical period surrounding the Essays contrasts with the leisurely life that represents Montaigne’s personal ideal, so, too, have scholars often noted the disparity between the image he gives of himself as idle and isolated and the heightened political activity of his later years.
The importance of these circumstances for Montaigne’s writing is obvious: apart from taking political and religious questions of his time as premises for his reflections, Montaigne partly constructed his portrayal of the human condition from the events unfolding around him. Living in uncertain times, he presented a portrait of himself and humanity which focused on the inability of the mind to arrive at absolute truths beyond those divinely revealed. This uncertainty applied to the political and social as well as the personal, and led him to advocate a skepticism that remains one of the Essays’ most significant contributions. In the face of truth’s inaccessibility, Montaigne offers the suspension of judgment as a means of achieving stability and peace of mind. The Essays’ mistrust of human reason and avoidance of dogmatism when observing the self and its capacities proved to be greatly influential on the philosophers that would follow Montaigne, thinkers such as Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon.
Composed by: Paul Wimmer, Graduate Student in the Columbia University Department of French.
Texts consulted: Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Apology for the Woman Writing and Other Works. Trans. and Eds. Richard Hillman and Colette Quesnel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Ullrich Langer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. "Montaigne, Michel de 1533-1592." Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. London: Routledge, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 28 December 2010. Albert Thibaudet, Montaigne. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1963.
For more information, see: Foglia, Marc, "Michel de Montaigne", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/montaigne/