Montaignes Most Important Essays

 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 word “essay,” a familiar literary term today, was coined by Montaigne, but the word had a meaning that is different from its modern meaning. Essay derives from the Latin word exagium, a weighing, and from the French word essai, a trial or test. Montaigne’s writings were weighings of himself and his beliefs, in the same way that one would weigh, or “assay,” precious ore to determine its worth. They are equally a test of his judgments, a testing of ideas and random thoughts, and an attempt to assess himself and his experiences at various points of his life. The subject of his essays, as he says in many places, is always himself, and his task as an author is to see himself as accurately as he can and to be truthful about what he believes.

Montaigne, however, never thought that his own life and thoughts would hold fascination for centuries of readers. What, then, has attracted readers to Montaigne over the centuries? First, there is his common sense and universality. He is attractive to readers precisely because he is so much like them that his thoughts often seem commonplace. Second, preceding Sigmund Freud, Montaigne had a strong sense of the divisions within the human psyche, the conflict of humanity against itself, and the inability of human reason to solve all of humankind’s problems. What Montaigne seeks is what one would today call “the integrated personality,” a unified sense of being and an orderly view of life. Finally, readers appreciate Montaigne’s clarity of thought and expression, his confessional style, and his mordant wit—all qualities found in the best contemporary essayists such as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.

Exactly how to categorize Montaigne’s thought, however, is not an easy task. He has been called a hedonist, a skeptic, a stoic, and even an existentialist, but none of these seems fully adequate. He is a hedonist in his love of life and enjoyment of sensual pleasures, but in essays such as “De la moderation” (“Of Moderation”), he warns that a person can become a slave to his or her senses. His essays on idleness, lying, cruelty, cowardice, vanity, and drunkenness testify to his skeptical view of humankind’s innate goodness, but these are equally balanced by essays on constancy, friendship, virtue, repentance, and moderation. Montaigne’s stoicism is clear in his thoughts on death, and he titles one of his essays “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (“To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die”), but he also emphasizes the enjoyment of this life. Finally, like the existentialists of the twentieth century, Montaigne sees life in a continual flux, making the attainment of absolute truth impossible. Yet if the absurdity of the human condition prevents people from having true knowledge, they can at least know themselves in their perpetually changing condition.

Perhaps the best term for Montaigne is one suggested by Donald Frame, professor emeritus of French at Columbia University. Montaigne is an “apprehensive humanist,” a lover of reason and books, and a student of human custom and behavior, who is uneasy about the human condition. While the mass of humans may be ignorant, stupid, lazy, and lustful, they can still accomplish occasional great things. Life is paradox and contradiction—composed, Montaigne says, of contrary things—and one must learn to accept human contrariness.

Finally, Montaigne’s use of paradox and irony, of balanced phrase and metaphor, are masterful, and perhaps no one has written in the French language with greater elegance and grace. The Essays are stylishly written reflections upon the oppositions of humanity and God, good and evil, action and inaction, faith and reason. If Montaigne reaches no conclusions, his journey consists of fascinating intellectual twists and turns; and if he continually asks, “What do I know?” he always does so with wit, modesty, and candor.

“Of Cannibals”

First published: “Des cannibales,” 1580 (collected in Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957

Type of work: Essay

What people call barbarism is merely vanity and ignorance on their part, for the behavior of “civilized” people surpasses the barbarism of supposedly “uncivilized” people in every way.

Montaigne’s age was one of adventure and exploration, and many travelers returned to Europe with tales of strange and fascinating people elsewhere. During a French expedition to South America in 1557, the explorer Villegaignon encountered a tribe of cannibals in what was then called “Antarctic France” but what is now called Brazil. Some of them returned with the crew. Montaigne not only met one of these cannibals at Rouen in 1562 but also employed a servant who had spent a dozen years...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

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