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The Faith of a Skeptic

Montaigne and Melancholy

by M.A. Screech
Susquehanna University Press (Cranbury), 208 pp., $24.50

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 this approach to Montaigne has succeeded very well in this book, it must be admitted that it is a somewhat strange and paradoxical one, for several reasons. First, as Screech himself shows, it is doubtful whether Montaigne considered himself to be melancholic; his character was a blend of the sanguine and the melancholic. He did, however, think he was liable to temporary fits of melancholy. Indeed he attributes the origin of his writing the Essais to “a melancholy humour”—though adding, “a humour very much opposed therefore to my natural complexion”—produced by the solitude of his retirement; this melancholy fit filled his imagination with bizarre and alarming fantasies.

Screech, in his exegesis of this passage, gets near, I think, to penetrating the central mystery of the Essais: how a sane, educated, and very conservative provincial gentleman in sixteenth-century France ever conceived, and carried out, the extraordinary project of searching for his own personality and writing an account of it. As Screech reads this passage, Montaigne himself thought “it was the kind of notion that might have occurred to a lunatic,” and he meant “that people might judge his undertaking to be insane.” Furthermore, Screech accepts this statement as true—that it did occur to a lunatic; so that the origin of the self-portrait, and the revolutionary reversal of basic values that it entailed, was in a temporary fit of melancholic near-madness. This I find convincing—it needs an inspired madman to think of something totally new and to dare to break ancient social and literary taboos; and I think it is perhaps the most important among the many new insights in Screech’s book.

Secondly, and this is a more serious objection, one of the few generalizations that one can safely make about Montaigne’s views is that he always, and more firmly as he grows older, refuses to allow any value to experiences in which a man claims to transcend himself, to any kind of enthusiasm or emotion that takes us out of ourselves. This is of course one way of taking “all forms of ecstasy and mania very seriously indeed,” but a purely negative one. There are, however, some exceptions to this generalization: the aesthetic ecstasy produced by really great poetry, the mystical experiences of some Christian saints (though Montaigne carefully excludes himself from any pretensions to these), and finally the very rare love that binds two friends together and makes their separate personalities into a complete unity, such as Montaigne enjoyed during the few years of his friendship with Etienne de la Boëtie.

Since Montaigne was seriously looking for his own personality, writing a large book about the search, and hoping to find some permanent, underlying “form” in the kaleidoscopic flow of experience, of course he did not want to be taken out of himself, even if it were to be snatched up to the third heaven, like St. Paul. This, I think, is an obvious and sufficient explanation of Montaigne’s rejection of all kinds of ecstasy. But I would also suggest that a subsidiary cause may have been the wish not to spoil by any second-best substitute the memory of the supreme ecstasy of his friendship with La Boëtie, by which he did not so much lose his own personality as gain that of his friend.

With regard to the difficult subject of Montaigne’s religion, I am sure that Screech is right to maintain that he was, as he himself claimed, an obedient and, within reasonable bounds, pious member of the Roman Catholic Church. But it seems to me that Screech overlooks (or, at least, he does not mention) the extremely upsetting effect that the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” must have had on Montaigne’s contemporaries. For, although the use of ancient skepticism for Christian apologetics had a history going back to Savonarola and G.F. Pico. and up to Gentien Hervet’s translation of the works of Sextus Empiricus (1569), the “Apology” is also a ruthless and eloquent demolition of a very well established and widely accepted anthropocentric world view, foreshadowed by Plato and the Ancient Theologians, and firmly embedded in the christian tradition. One of the most important and common of rational arguments for the existence of God, and one that figures prominently in Raymond Sebond’s Theologia Naturalis, which Montaigne was supposed here to be defending, is the argument from design. This is based on a system of both efficient and final causes, and the whole structure of the latter centers on man—the design of the cosmos created by God is wholly anthropocentric. Montaigne attacks this anthropocentric teleology with peculiar intensity:

Who has persuaded man that this wonderful motion of the vault of heaven, the eternal light of these lamps that turn so proudly above his head, the terrifying movements of this infinite sea, have been established and continue so many centuries for his use and commodity?

This man-centered world view is not of course a necessary element in Catholic doctrine—few modern Catholics, I imagine, would lift a finger to defend it; but one must remember (and Montaigne appears to forget) that God chose to be incarnated as a man and not as any other animal or as an angel. Another disquieting aspect of the “Apology” from the point of view of Catholic orthodoxy is Montaigne’s great emphasis on man’s total dependence on divine grace for salvation, on his utter impotence faced with the infinite power of God; this fideism seems to me nearer to the theology of Calvin or Pascal than to that of the Council of Trent.

Another strand in Montaigne’s thought to which I wish Screech had given more attention is primitivism; Lovejoy and Boas’s wonderful (but alas, unfinished) History of Primitivism is not mentioned in his bibliography, although he lists there Boas’s The ‘Happy Beast.‘ In their works on primitivism these great American scholars set out to examine the history and development of a cluster of interconnected assumptions that derive from the supposed superiority of what is natural to what is artificial, such as “primitive man is morally better than civilized man,” “instinct is better than reason,” and so forth. They thus provide an invaluable guide for interpreting Montaigne’s uses of the terms “Nature,” “natural,” etc. As eulogistic terms these are disconcertingly fluid and vague in meaning but they are central to Montaigne’s thought.

  1. *

    The New York Review, November 11, 1965.

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