Thursday, March 22, 2007

Getting The Message in Montaigne's Essays

Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 165-184
Patrick Henry

There is no doubt that, after a significant absence, the question of ethics is back in literary studies. Even if ethical inquiry does not dominate the critical scene as textuality and historicism commanded the 1970s and 1980s respectively, it constitutes major literary-critical interest as we enter the new millennium. But, as Lawrence Buell points out in his excellent introduction to the January 1999 issue of the PMLA, which itself is dedicated to the "new resonance" of ethics in literary criticism, there is no univocal ethics movement. It is rather a "pluriform discourse" 1 constituted of various and competing voices from many literary and philosophical traditions.

These differences emerge sharply when critics of an ethical bent converge on a single author. We have already seen this to be the case in the preceding articles on Montaigne and I would like to examine it further here. Arguing that Montaigne is neither a moral relativist nor a moral skeptic, Ann Hartle finds "a very well-defined, coherent ethics" in the Essays. For her, Montaigne's "accidental," "non-authoritative" philosophy "does not teach or form, it discovers and tells" (p. 140). When the essayist writes: "I do not teach, I tell," 2 Hartle takes him to mean that "the authority of his moral standards is not grounded in or derived from his (or any other) philosophical account" (pp. 138-39). Although he does not blindly submit to tradition, his authority in moral matters, as she sees it, is "the classical-Christian tradition that he inherits" (p. 139). [End Page 165]

In his essay here, but more generally in his recent groundbreaking study, Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy. Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais, David Quint combines literary analysis and philosophical inquiry to mount a convincing case that the author of the Essays transcends his skepticism and transforms his stoicism to offer a positive and urgent message to his contemporaries. This message constitutes a new ethics--one of "pliant goodness," "fellow-feeling," and trust--that counters the model of heroic virtue dominating his culture and his class, as practiced by "the constant Stoic, the honor-bound aristocrat, [and] the religious zealot." Directed principally to the nobility of a nation torn apart by civil and religious conflict (which forms the backdrop of both Montaigne's and Quint's book), this message, which eschews violence and cruelty and is part of the "civilizing process," urges those French nobles to realize that "they have no choice except to give way to one another," and "to submit to the authority of the French monarchy, the only possible guarantor of civil order." 3 Viewed from a different angle, Montaigne's sustained moral argument, as understood by Quint, depicts the deflation of extreme humanist aspirations toward radical and divisive individualism and, in the name of a "shared humanity," a common human nature, manages to promote a new form of human dignity. Here, then, is a didactic reading of the Essays whose author is a moralist with a political project that would put an end to the practice of cruelty and vengeance and accomplish "[the] ethical reform of his class." 4

Jerome Schwartz, for one, will have little if any of it. He sees the problem of freedom at the ethical center of Montaigne's book and studies its evolution throughout the Essays. For him, the essayist's ethics are founded upon "an unstable, fragmented, contradictory being" whose "critical method . . . dissolves authoritarian certainties and ethical givens in a general revolt against the didacticism of Renaissance humanism" (p. 154). In his seventh footnote, Schwartz registers "a certain dissatisfaction" with Quint's book because it tends to emphasize "moral doctrine" and "moral teaching" over other issues (p. 163).

The most sustained argument of recent vintage against a didactic Montaigne, however, is found in Alexander Nehamas's The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. This is an honest, very personal book whose author attempts to practice the aesthetic self-fashioning he finds in the various philosophers he analyses. Regarding the Essays, Nehamas does an excellent job of showing the extent to which Montaigne's Socrates has been pieced together from Xenophon, Plato, [End Page 166] Cicero, and Plutarch, and he proposes an intriguing explanation of what he terms Montaigne's notion of "progressing to nature." 5 Nehamas goes on to stress that, just as his Socratic sources only "taught Montaigne a few general precepts, like 'Live according to your power' or 'Follow nature,' which do not describe their end and offer no instructions for reaching it" (p. 126), so too we get no substantial advice or concrete counsel from Montaigne. "Socrates has no specific lesson to teach," he continues, "and neither does Montaigne: 'I do not teach, I tell'" (p. 124), notes Nehamas as he cites the essayist. He concludes that ". . . what we learn from Michel is that we must know ourselves" (p. 124). This is certainly true, but it is not all we learn from Michel...


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