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The Originality of Montaigne

Montaigne: A Biography

by Donald M. Frame
Harcourt, Brace & World, 408 pp., $10.00

Complete Essays of Montaigne

translated by Donald M. Frame
Stanford, 883 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Everyone interested in Montaigne will welcome the appearance of a detailed, reliable, and up-to-date biography of him. Up till now we have still had to go back to Bonnefon’s Lives of 1893 and 1898, and laboriously supplement them with later books and articles. Professor Frame’s biography is written in a clear, unpretentious but expressive style, and, in so far as he is simply narrating the course of Montaigne’s life, his work is admirable. It is particularly valuable to have a full and lucid account of all that is now known about Montaigne’s period of office as Mayor of Bordeaux and about his important role as a politique negotiator between Henry III and Henry of Navarre. This information corrects the picture Montaigne gives of himself as an egocentric escapist. But here comes the difficulty. Montaigne’s Essais are primarily autobiographical; his explicit aim, which he certainly achieved, was to give a self-portrait. In consequence a full biography of Montaigne must inevitably also include a study of his writings (although it would be useful for scholars to have a collection of all the information about him from sources other than the Essais). This is perhaps all to the good; the customary separation of l’homme from l’oeuvre is artificial even where it is possible. But, granting that one should not separate the man from the thinker and writer, I find Professor Frame’s treatment of the Essais not wholly satisfactory, mainly because he does not put Montaigne’s ideas in an historical context. For his life, the necessary historical background, political, social, and economic, is given succinctly and adequately; but this is not true of the intellectual background.

In many ways Montaigne was a startlingly original and independent thinker; but this can be appreciated only if one has some knowledge of relevant contemporary and earlier thought, for the most fundamental of Montaigne’s new ideas and attitudes have now become our own unquestioned assumptions. Conversely, some of his opinions, which seem to a modern reader strange and perverse, such as his belief in inverted progress, i.e., inevitable decadence, in human societies, are merely the universally held presuppositions of his time. The fideism of the Apologie de Raymond Sebond, to which Professor Frame devotes a whole chapter, appears less dangerous when seen as part of a revival of ancient skepticism used for religious purposes, which begins with Gian-Francesco Pico and culminates in the first complete Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus (1569) made by Gentien Hervet, who introduces him, in his dedication to the Cardinal of Lorraine, as a valuable weapon against heretics and unbelievers.

Montaigne wrote of his Essais: “It is the only book in the world of its kind”; and he says this because, as he has just told us, he has taken himself as his subject-matter. Now this statement was, without qualification, true. There are no autobiographical works remotely like Montaigne’s earlier than his, nor, so far as I know, any after his, until Rousseau’s Confessions; there are, of course, many autobiographies of the sixteenth century, but these contain the minimum of personal, intimate matter and the maximum of public events—it was bad manners to write about oneself at length, as it is still today to talk about oneself for much more than half an hour. This rather surprising fact will lead us to the central cluster of ideas and values which seem to me to constitute Montaigne’s main importance in the history of ideas. The reason there are no other books of this kind until the later eighteenth century is that no one but Montaigne gave a high value to what is individual and private, different and original, as opposed to what is general and public, and in conformity with ancient, universal truth. This shift in values is closely and necessarily connected with his skepticism; I mean, not so much the extreme, mainly derivative, skepticism of the Apologie de Raymond Sebond, but his consistent rejection of all dogmatic systems which claim to have reached absolute truth over large areas of thought. If there are such fields of certainty, then, at least within these, one can have personal, original opinions only at the cost of being wrong; it may be very dull and oldfashioned to go on believing that twice ten is twenty, or that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, but we really have no choice. It is perhaps significant that Montaigne reproves Pliny for saying that God could not make twice ten equal anything but twenty, and considers that geometry (“which claims to have reached the highest degree of certainty among the sciences”) was shown to be contrary to experience by its acceptance of asymptotes. But anyway Montaigne was not interested in mathematics, and with regard to other fields of thought he believed that no certain universal knowledge was attainable and that truth could only be endlessly searched for, in many different individual ways, each with its own, personal validity.

The field of Montaigne’s search for truth was himself; and within this limited, though endlessly rich, field he attained a positive result. Towards the end of his life he wrote:

Because I feel myself tied down to one form [engagé à une forme], I do not oblige everybody to espouse it, as all others do. I believe in and conceive a thousand contrary ways of life; and in contrast with the common run of men, I more easily admit difference than resemblance between us. I am as ready as you please to acquit another man from sharing my conditions and principles. I consider him simply in himself, without relation to others; I mold him to his own model…. I have a singular desire that we should each be judged in ourselves apart, and that I may not be measured in conformity with the common patterns.

There are two points to notice here: first, Montaigne is “engagé à une forme“, secondly, that he and everyone else is to be judged “sur son propre modelle,” i.e., on criteria peculiar to, and different for, each individual. If you are going to value individuals very highly, you must hope that they, and you, really are individuals, that is, have some unity and permanence, and are not just Russell’s “bundles of sense-perceptions,” mere agglomerations of diverse and contrary feelings and actions in a continual state of flux. Here, I think, was the chief aim of Montaigne’s self-investigation: he was looking for this “form,” this underlying permanent unity. He was acutely and fully aware of the difficulty of this task; again and again he emphasizes the extreme complexity and fluidity of his own and everyone else’s personality. Nevertheless he did think that he had discovered this form, the form of his own personality, not fully, clearly, or finally, but enough to be assured of its reality and to use it in regulating his own life:

There is no one who, if he listens to himself, does not discover in himself a pattern all his own, a ruling pattern [une forme sienne, une forme maistresse], which struggles against education and against the tempest of the passions that oppose it.

Now all this is very familiar, as Professor Frame points out in the last pages of his book. We all value individuality and originality, have an “open” conception of knowledge, and are skeptical enough to be tolerant; no respectable young intellectual can fail to have a crisis of identity, and even after it to go on searching earnestly for his own personality. But to Montaigne’s contemporaries, and to several generations following him, these ideas and values were so new and paradoxical as to be incomprehensible. Even a personal friend and admirer of the Essais, like Etienne Pasquier, has to excuse Montaigne’s self-investigation as a weakness of old age. And later Pascal, so deeply influenced by Montaigne, refers contemptuously to “le sot project qu’il a de se peindre.” Montaigne himself is very much aware that his self-portrait is breaking a powerful social taboo; and he is always, more or less defiantly, excusing himself for his bad manners.

Another aspect of Montaigne’s thought which can only be adequately understood in its historical context is his primitivism, which, in contrast to his individualism, rests on ancient traditions. Here the work of two great American scholars, George Boas and the late A. O. Lovejoy, is indispensable. If, for example, one does not take into account the background provided in the former’s The Happy Beast (1933) to the animal primitivism in the Apologie de Raymond Sebond, one runs a grave risk of misinterpreting this crucial chapter. Montaigne, in abasing man’s intellectual arrogance by bringing him down to the level of the animals, was writing in a long and still living literary tradition of paradox; and he was putting forward a thesis which could have appeared nothing but paradoxical to an age in which man was still, though only just, at the physical and teleological center of an Aristotelian universe. I believe that Montaigne was maintaining this thesis quite seriously; but the tradition of paradox accounts both for the exaggerated and sometimes self-contradictory way in which he presents it, and for the fact that his contemporaries failed to see his radically iconoclastic intentions—in 1581 the Roman Inquisitors found nothing to censure in the Apologie. Another way in which Lovejoy and Boas are invaluable for interpreting Montaigne is as guides to his uses of the terms Nature, Natural, etc. As eulogistic terms these are central to his thought, but bewilderingly vague and fluid in meaning. Any serious writer on Montaigne should at least have a shot at a detailed analysis of his use of these terms.

For the passages quoted above I have used Professor Frame’s excellent translation, which has now appeared as a paperback. This translation is as close to the original as possible, so close that one can profitably use it as a crib (which cannot of course be said of the delightful Florio version), and will therefore also be useful to those who can read this very difficult writer in French.

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