Montaigne and Melancholy
Michael Screech’s book on Montaigne is, as one would expect, intelligent, clear, very well-informed, and most illuminating. His wide first-hand knowledge of sixteenth-century literature, French, Latin, and English enables him to give this extremely difficult author the necessary intellectual background; for, as I argued long ago in this journal, only with such a background can one appreciate Montaigne’s startling originality and oddity. His extraordinarily daring reversal of basic contemporary values has now become part of our unquestioned presuppositions, and hence is invisible. We now all value highly what is individual and private, different and original, as opposed to what is general and public, and in conformity with ancient, universal truth—and the younger among us are anxiously searching for their own personality.
These new values are necessarily involved in Montaigne’s project of making his Essais a self-portrait of an intimate, personal kind. This project broke ancient and powerful social and literary taboos, and in fact, as Montaigne claimed, no one before him had written such a book, and, as far as I know, no one after him until Rousseau’s Confessions. Good manners forbade a gentleman—and Montaigne was very conscious of being a gentleman—to talk (still less to write) about himself at length. These taboos were so powerful that the Essais as a new kind of autobiography had little or no impact until well into the eighteenth century.
But another factor in the shift of values entailed by Montaigne’s self-portrait did have an immediate and slowly growing influence on other thinkers, namely his skepticism, not so much the extreme skepticism of the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” (Essais, II, xii), as his consistent rejection of all dogmatic systems that claim to have reached certain truth in large fields of thought. With the sole exception of the Christian religion, guaranteed by the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, Montaigne believed that no certain universal knowledge was attainable, and that truth could only be endlessly sought in many different individual ways, each with its own, personal validity. When and how we came to accept Montaigne’s new values I do not know; but, apart from the skepticism, I would guess that the shift does not go further back than the early Romantics, and here Rousseau, though he denigrated Montaigne’s autobiography, would be an important link between Montaigne’s time and our own.
On the other hand, sometimes where Montaigne’s views and values seem to us strange a thorough knowledge of the period may show that his outlook was by no means exceptional or unorthodox, for example, his approval of suicide (II, iii), which Screech demonstrates to be well within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy; I wish he had had space to write more on this very interesting subject.
In his preface Screech writes: “The case made out in this book can be resumed succinctly: the melancholy element in Montaigne’s complexion encouraged him to take all forms of ecstasy and mania very seriously indeed.” Although …