The Importance of Michel de Montaigne, or the Paradox of an Underrated Classic

(cross posted at NewAPPS, a group blog which I strongly recommend for its coverage of current philosophy and the state of philosophy as am academic discipline)

I’ve been teaching and studying Montaigne this semester with an intensity I’ve never undertaken before, though I have dipped into Montaigne previously to teach on friendship, and on skepticism in moral and epistemic contexts. Working right through the Essays  for the first time, I’ve discovered far more about Montaigne, the themes of his work, and the depth of his philosophical achievement. What stands out for me is how much Montaigne sets up major philosophical questions and approaches of modern philosophy, and is at least as deserving as Descartes is to be considered as important to the origins of modern philosophy. Montaigne’s very literary way of writing, his reliance on allusion to history and ancient authors, and the rather rambling nature of his writing are all possible explanations for his relatively marginal place in philosophy, his relatively greater presence in cultural history and cultural theory.

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.

(Note on future cross posting. I will be regularly cross posting my more finished and general interest items at New APPS. I aim to do this once a week, and concentrate in other posts on notes and drafts, which are more part of immediate research)


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