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Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) is principally known today as a literary figure--the inventor of the modern essay and the pioneer of autobiographical self-exploration who retired from politics in midlife to write his private, philosophical, and apolitical Essais. But, as Biancamaria Fontana argues in Montaigne's Politics, a novel, vivid account of the political meaning of the Essais in the context of Montaigne's life and times, his retirement from the Bordeaux parliament in 1570 "could be said to have marked the ...
Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) is principally known today as a literary figure--the inventor of the modern essay and the pioneer of autobiographical self-exploration who retired from politics in midlife to write his private, philosophical, and apolitical Essais. But, as Biancamaria Fontana argues in Montaigne's Politics, a novel, vivid account of the political meaning of the Essais in the context of Montaigne's life and times, his retirement from the Bordeaux parliament in 1570 "could be said to have marked the beginning, rather than the end, of his public career." He later served as mayor of Bordeaux and advisor to King Henry of Navarre, and, as Fontana argues, Montaigne's Essais very much reflect his ongoing involvement and preoccupation with contemporary politics--particularly the politics of France's civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. Fontana shows that the Essais, although written as a record of Montaigne's personal experiences, do nothing less than set forth the first major critique of France's ancien régime, anticipating the main themes of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire and Diderot. Challenging the views that Montaigne was politically aloof or evasive, or that he was a conservative skeptic and supporter of absolute monarchy, Fontana explores many of the central political issues in Montaigne's work--the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious toleration, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes.
[Fontana's] reading of Montaigne, combined with the readability of her prose (a welcome thing in any scholarly work) and the brevity of her book (fewer than 150 pages, not counting notes) make this an effort one with only passing interest in the subject can read with both pleasure and profit.
— Donald D. Wells
"Far from being politically detached, Montaigne served in his provincial parliament. His famed guardedness in writing derived from his practical and theoretical reflections upon the French civil wars of religion, unceasing throughout his mature life. The certainty of partisans and the confusion of authorities alike pointed him toward skepticism concerning all claims to rule. Fontana nonetheless defends Montaigne from suspicions of religious unbelief. Fontana equally defends Montaigne against charges of Machiavellianism, rightly considering him less openly audacious. Fontana prudently directs new readers of the Essais not to begin by thinking Montaigne Machiavellian."--W. Morrisey, Hillsdale College, for CHOICE
"By enriching our knowledge of the political and historical background of the Essais, Fontana has made it easier to link what Montaigne has to say about his own particular time and place to his political philosophy which transcends that time and place."--Ann Hartle, Review of Politics
"[Fontana's] reading of Montaigne, combined with the readability of her prose (a welcome thing in any scholarly work) and the brevity of her book (fewer than 150 pages, not counting notes) make this an effort one with only passing interest in the subject can read with both pleasure and profit."--Donald D. Wells, Sixteenth Century Journal
"[Montaigne's] political theory and practice are skillfully dissected by Biancamaria Fontana in Montaigne's Politics. . . . After reading this clear argument some scholars will have to change their minds. Good books always change minds. This is one. They also point up problems to consider further."--Bibliotheque d'Humanisme et Renaissance
For over four hundred years, since his death in 1592, Michel de Montaigne has proved a difficult subject for portrait. The small group of loyal friends who first tried to celebrate his qualities and achievements-as the news that the author of the Essais was dead spread slowly across Europe-may have found some comfort in the panegyrics, tributes, and praises they lavished upon his memory. But the man who invented a radically novel, breathtakingly modern way of writing about the self had fatally undermined the future efforts of interpreters and commentators, keeping for himself all the original insights, and leaving for posterity only the dry bones of conventional rhetoric and of standard literary formulas. There is simply nothing anyone can say about Michel de Montaigne, about his temperament, experiences, and ideas, that has not been said more interestingly and effectively by himself.
The choice that is made here of selecting one particular dimension of Montaigne's contribution-focusing upon those aspects of his reflection that are relevant to the understanding of politics-may also seem (and perhaps is) a self-defeating exercise. It goes against the spirit of the writer's work, which deliberately rejected any specialized approach to theunderstanding of human reality, and it contradicts his deliberate blurring of the contours of his private and public persona. The very nature of the Essais, which stand as an intricate, closely knit unit, in which the world is apprehended through the unique filter of the self, seems to preclude any clear separation of domains of inquiry. Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that what Montaigne offered as self-portrait was in fact just a profile, a carefully selected perspective; whether he was right or not in his judgment, I intend to follow his suggestion: a profile view is what I shall be attempting in this book.
As a rule, those intellectual historians who are interested in the political and ideological implications of Montaigne's work prefer to avoid any direct confrontation with the intrusive personality of the author: they concentrate instead upon the text of the Essais taken as a distinct, disembodied entity, or upon the discursive contexts surrounding it. Such approaches offer the advantage of methodological coherence and can certainly help to clarify the language and structure of Montaigne's writings, but they still leave open the question of their interpretation. Recent attempts to place Montaigne's career in the context of sixteenth-century literary and political patronage have the great merit of injecting some historical substance into our reading of the Essais; such studies, however, are less preoccupied with Montaigne's own intellectual project, than they are with the definition of some wider category (patron, author, political professional) that he might be taken to represent.
Though the Essais are generally regarded as a landmark in the history of modern European thought, we have no clear understanding of what they represent or stand for in any ideological or political context; similarly, the labels currently employed to describe the author's position-such as skepticism, neo-stoicism, civic humanism or humanism tout court, individualism, libertinage-seem far too hazy, and remain on the whole peripheral to the actual content of his work. As a result, there is a lack of proportion between the elevated status of Montaigne the writer-established by a vast and ever growing stream of literary scholarship-and the uncertain reputation he enjoys as moralist, philosopher, and observer of the social and political reality of his time.
Modern historians are not alone in finding Montaigne's work difficult to interpret and to classify; this state of affairs began long ago, possibly among the first generation of readers of the Essais. But instead of resulting (as one might expect) in a variety of conflicting pictures of the author, the uncertain responses of those early interpreters and commentators converged very early on upon a single, enigmatic persona. In fact, unlike other major intellectual figures, Montaigne has never been the object of much controversy, except perhaps on a few particular aspects of his work: the image of the writer promoted by his admirers, and the one set forth by his detractors, are surprisingly similar, and differ in tone and coloratura rather than in substance. This shared image has changed very little through time and the commonplace views currently held about the Essais were already firmly established in the interpretative tradition by the beginning of the eighteenth century.
To the audience of his friends and imitators-from Justus Lipsius to Pierre Charron, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Voltaire-the writer appeared as a benevolent sage, a tolerant, compassionate man who kept his distance from partisan struggle; a sparkling intellect, perhaps a little too frivolous and aloof if one considers the dramatic historical events that formed the background of his life. Mme de Lafayette effectively summarized these sentiments when she described Montaigne as someone it would be nice to have as one's neighbor, thus promoting the reputation of the writer as the embodiment of renaissance refinement and gentlemanly virtues, to the detriment of any possible role as maître à penser.
This same image of Montaigne as wise and witty occupant of his chateau can be found in the writings of his enemies, from Blaise Pascal and those dévots who followed his lead-Malebranche, Garasse, Berulle, Bossuet- down to Sainte-Beuve, with the difference that, far from wishing to have him living next door, they strongly disapproved of him and denounced his relaxed style and disengaged attitude. In their eyes the writer's levity and detachment appeared as a guilty lack of commitment, while the digressive, self-referential style of the Essais was stigmatized as an indecent display of authorial vanity.
Admirers and detractors have also been united by a shared mistrust of the writer's Christian sentiments and of his professed loyalty to the Catholic Church. The question of Montaigne's religion is one of the few truly controversial issues in scholarly interpretations of his life and work. In the seventeenth century Pascal and the dévots accused Montaigne of hypocrisy, denouncing the Essais as an apology not just for skepticism, but for incredulity; their campaign of denigration led to the inscription of the book on the Index of forbidden works on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in 1676, thus reversing the decision of the sympathetic Roman censors who had accorded it the imprimatur in 1580. Protestant commentators thought that Montaigne's professed Catholicism was an excuse to avoid addressing any serious doctrinal issues, clinging instead to a religion of external forms and rituals. Freethinkers and libertines for their part were ready to rally to the judgment of the dévots, adopting Montaigne as a fellow traveler who had taken the prudent option of disguising his true opinions under the appearance of conformity. All parties harbored the uneasy feeling that the writer's real intentions eluded them; all chose to believe that he had deliberately misled or deceived them, thus promoting the tenacious legend of his ambiguity and duplicity.
It would be easy to suggest that, when Pascal denounced Montaigne's obsession with self-analysis, or when André Gide dissected and exposed his ambivalence, they were in fact projecting upon the author of the Essais some intimate traits of their own. Yet it remains true that Montaigne's credibility as moralist and as a political thinker has been seriously undermined by a double indictment that bears at the same time upon his work and upon his personal position. The first accusation is one of quietism. In short, it is claimed that, if Montaigne produced a series of lucid critical insights about contemporary society and about the exercise of power, he failed to suggest any remedy or propose some alternative political model. A conservative at heart, he disapproved of all initiatives directed toward the subversion, or even the radical reform, of existing institutions, either because he thought they would prove ineffective or because he believed they would generate disastrous side effects. In so far as he held "liberal" views, he did so from the purely negative perspective of the protection of the individual sphere of the self from external threats.
The second accusation is one of concealment, the charge being that in the Essais the author deliberately failed to make explicit the most radical and subversive implications of his reflection, especially in sensitive matters such as religious belief, hiding them behind a smoke screen of ambiguous rhetorical formulas. A certain obscurity surrounds the relation between the first and the second accusation: it is not clear, for example, if Montaigne is supposed to have feared the philosophical implications of his views, or their practical consequences; whether a frank admission of his true beliefs may have resulted in an altogether different line of action in public life. Yet coherence is hardly the point here: what matters is the diffuse feeling, persistent through centuries of commentaries and interpretations, that the writer has somehow betrayed the expectations of his readers, by failing to fulfill the promise of his novel and provocative literary enterprise. In other words, if the Essais was the first great contribution to the critique of the ancien régime written in the French language-in line with works such as Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique, Montesquieu's Esprit des lois, or Diderot's Encyclopédie-it was a contribution that never really came into its own, because the author was unwilling or unprepared to announce his true colors. As to the promotion of the Essais to the status of a literary monument that transcends all particular historical and political context, this exalted position, in its blandness, is no compensation for the ideological battle (for which cause, against what enemies?) that Was never engaged.
ThE Politics of Survival
The widespread feeling that, if Montaigne's work addresses a number of crucial social and political issues, it still falls short of its original promise, is partly based upon a misunderstanding of its intentions and significance. It is also sustained, in the first instance, by two external circumstances: firstly, the production of the Essais apparently coincided with the author's resolution to withdraw from public life by giving up his parliamentary office; secondly, it has generally proved difficult to associate Montaigne with one or other of the political factions involved in the protracted civil conflict that dominated most of his adult life.
The writer's professed intention of leaving all other business to serve the Muses-famously recorded in the inscriptions that appear on the beams across the ceiling of his library-finds apparent confirmation in the chronological sequence of events: Montaigne began to work on the early drafts of the Essais after selling his office in the parlement of Bordeaux in 1570. The date itself is not without importance, since Montaigne "abandoned" his parliamentary post shortly before the tragic events of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre: in particular, he was no longer a conseiller in October 1572, when the parliament voted, against the passionate pleadings of its président Lagebaston, the death of some three hundred Huguenots, who were held in custody by the town's authorities. Montaigne's subsequent reluctance to make any direct reference in his writings to the events of 1572 (refraining from any celebration of the massacre of the kind produced by some of his famous literary friends such as Guy de Pibrac or Pierre de Ronsard, but also from any explicit condemnation) is inevitably perceived by the modern reader as a disturbing omission.
Montaigne's contemporaries would have recognized the image of the writer isolating himself from the world to pursue his vocation for what it was, a literary formula, embedded in classical rhetoric and in tune with the language of the learned academies that flourished under the Valois-a conventional posture, which announced the writer's intellectual ambitions and his philosophical colors rather than describing his practical projects. Posterity, possibly influenced by the sequence of historical events, or simply oblivious of Renaissance literary conventions, has taken the idea of retirement more seriously, as an accurate description of the writer's position; it has also read the author's insistence on the "private" and "domestic" character of his work quite literally, as a profession of disengagement from public responsibility. Recent scholarship has done its best to correct this view, showing that Montaigne's "retirement" was far from being a quiet and sheltered retreat, and arguing that the writer continued to take active part in political life until his death over twenty years later. Yet these incontrovertible historical claims have failed thus far to reverse the impression transmitted by tradition, possibly because the surviving evidence on Montaigne's political contacts and diplomatic activities is patchy, and his role difficult to characterize.
Montaigne was twenty-nine years old when the first religious troubles broke out in 1562; when he died, thirty years later, in 1592, the conflict was only just approaching its conclusion; it would still take several years before the new king, Henry IV, achieved a complete pacification of the country, while the marks of destruction across French territory would remain visible for decades afterwards. The protracted character of the French crisis-with civil war becoming a permanent and almost "normal" state of affairs-should be kept in mind, since it helps to explain how people in Montaigne's generation tried to shape their lives both away from and around public events, alternating moments of intense participation with intervals of disaffection and despair, falling in and out of the projects and initiatives that were subsequently hatched to provide a political solution.
Whatever his feelings about the political situation, Montaigne's resolution to sell his office in 1570 was largely circumstantial: at that particular time he had just inherited his father's estate and felt some obligation, as the eldest son, to look after the family's land and properties, an occupation of which, admittedly, he soon tired. His activity at the Bordeaux parliament, limited as it was to the chambre des requêtes, was rather dull: unlike the grande chambre, the main assembly of parliament in which all the affairs of public importance were discussed, the chambre des requêtes was an administrative subcommittee that dealt essentially with ordinary litigation; Montaigne's office involved much tedious paperwork and offered limited possibilities of advancement, especially to someone whose family was already well represented within that same institution; the number of members of the same family who could sit in the grande chambre was in fact restricted by law, and Montaigne-who had married into a prominent parliamentary family, the de Chassaignes-had to face the competition of older relatives and in-laws. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Montaigne's Politics by Biancamaria Fontana
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