Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy

Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy

by Ann Hartle


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Montaigne’s Essays are rightfully studied as giving birth to the literary form of that name. Ann Hartle’s Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy argues that the essay is actually the perfect expression of Montaigne as what he called "a new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher." Unpremeditated philosophy is philosophy made sociable—brought down from the heavens to the street, where it might be engaged in by a wider audience. In the same philosophical act, Montaigne both transforms philosophy and invents "society," a distinctly modern form of association. Through this transformation, a new, modern character emerges: the individual, who is neither master nor slave and who possesses the new virtues of integrity and generosity. In Montaigne’s radically new philosophical project, Hartle finds intimations of both modern epistemology and modern political philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810129320
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 11/30/2013
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ann Hartle is a professor of philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author of Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher (2003); Self-Knowledge in the Age of Theory (1996); Death and the Disinterested Spectator: An Inquiry into the Nature of Philosophy (1986); and The Modern Self in Rousseau’s Confessions: A Reply to St. Augustine (1983).

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Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy

By Ann Hartle

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2965-8


Reversing Aristotle

In his discussion of Montaigne's ancient sources, Hugo Friedrich says that "traces of readings in Aristotle are weak in the Essais ... It cannot be established to what extent he actually read Aristotle; certainly it was not a thorough study." It is true that the number of explicit references to and discussions of Aristotle in the Essays would give that impression. A quick survey of the index for Frame's translation reveals many more references to Cicero, Plato, and Seneca than to Aristotle. When Montaigne decides to tell his ways of being in public, he calls upon the help of ancient philosophy and discovers, to his surprise, that his ways of being conform to many different philosophical discourses and examples. So it is to be expected that philosophers and philosophical schools of all kinds should appear in the pages of the Essays: he uses them as fragmented and approximate expressions of what he is, but no single philosophical teaching can capture what he is.

However, Montaigne is "a new figure" of the philosopher, a profoundly original philosopher with a philosophical project that is entirely new and all his own. Therefore, it is necessary to look past the quotations in order to identify that original project. What is new and original in Montaigne can be discovered primarily through his relationship to Aristotle. He uses the Aristotelian vocabulary of form and final cause, perfection and imperfection, but he transforms the meaning of these terms. This transformation pervades the Essays even when Aristotle himself is not mentioned.

The philosophy of Aristotle, as appropriated by Scholastic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, was the teaching that dominated the universities. "The god of scholastic knowledge is Aristotle; it is a religious matter to discuss any of his ordinances, as with those of Lycurgus at Sparta. His doctrine serves us as magisterial law.... Nothing in it is discussed in order to be placed in doubt, ... his authority is the end beyond which it is not permitted to inquire" (VS539, F403). Therefore, accepted philosophical beliefs are never questioned but are discussed only to be supported and confirmed. Montaigne criticizes the philosophy of the schools because it accepts Aristotle's teaching as truth "with all its structure and apparatus of arguments and proofs, as a firm and solid body, no longer shakable, no longer to be judged." However, Montaigne regards this foundation as weak. "The reason why we doubt hardly anything is that we never test our common impressions. We do not probe the foundation [le pied], where the fault and weakness lies; we dispute only about the branches. We do not ask whether this is true, but whether it has been understood this way or that." This presumption is both the constraint on the liberty of our judgments and the tyranny over our beliefs. "It is very easy, upon accepted foundations, to build what you please; ... By this path we find our reason well founded, and we argue with great ease." Aristotle's first principles have become our presuppositions, and "whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds" (VS539–40, F403–4).

The centrality of Aristotle for Montaigne's philosophical project is indicated by the fact that the very first presentation of his intention, in "To the Reader," is framed in terms of Aristotle's four causes: formal, final, material, and efficient (e.g., Meta. 1.3, 983a25–32; De An. 2.4, 415b). The end Montaigne has proposed for himself is domestic and private, not public service or his own glory. "My powers are not capable of such a design." He will present himself in his simple, natural, ordinary manner, without striving, for he wants to be seen in his natural form, which includes all his defects. He himself, he says, is the matter of his book. Efficient cause is implicit in the immediate inference that he is also the maker of his book and is explicit in his reference to his power. It is important to note that, in each case, Montaigne weakens the meaning of the cause. His end is merely domestic and private, not the lofty goal of public service and glory. His form is not perfect but deficient and defective. Because he himself is the matter of his book, the reader is warned: "It is not reasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject" (VS3, F2).

Montaigne questions the classical foundations of metaphysics and epistemology in the "Apology" within the context of his discussion of whether it is possible to know even what is most near to us, our own selves. We do not know how a "spiritual impression" can penetrate a body and we do not understand the nature of the connection between "these wonderful springs of action," soul and body (VS539, F402). Montaigne here criticizes Aristotle's account of causality. In his Physics (1.7, 190b16–191a22), Aristotle says that matter, form, and privation are the principles of natural things. Montaigne ridicules the idea that privation can be a principle: "And what could be more inane than to make emptiness itself the cause of the production of things? Privation is a negative; by what notion can he have made it the cause and origin of the things that are?" (VS540, F403). Aristotle claims that what makes the body move is "entelechy" or actualization. Montaigne calls this a "frigid invention," for it refers to "neither the essence, nor the origin, nor the nature of the soul, but merely notes its effect" (VS543, F406).

Both privation and entelechy refer to Aristotle's teaching concerning final cause. Final cause is the completion or perfection of a being in accordance with its nature or form. Final cause moves the being toward its perfection. In that sense, it is really first, for it initiates movement. Privation implies a lack of something that must be there if the being is to become a complete and perfect member of its species. Therefore, privation entails "striving" for the perfection of form, for the good. Final cause, then, is the good.

Form is "what" a thing is. All of the members of a species have the same form. Thus form is universal. Form is actuality: it is the realization of the being in the activities that are proper to it (e.g., Meta. 9.8, 1050b2). So, for example, the form of the eye is sight. Final cause is the completion of form: the final cause of the eye is also sight. Both the "what" and the "why" of the eye are sight. Aristotle says that "if the eye were an animal, the soul would be sight" (De An. 2.1, 412b18–20). As sight is the actualization of the eye, so the soul is the actualization of the body. The actualization or realization of form is the movement from potentiality to actuality. The perfection, the completion of the form of any being, is simply to be a perfect member of its species, capable of the activities proper to that species. This understanding of being and becoming entails a grounding in the eternal and the divine as first unmoved mover, as necessary being, and as pure actuality.

Montaigne breaks with Aristotle on every major aspect of his metaphysics: form, final cause, potentiality and actuality, perfection, the good, and the eternal and divine. And he reverses Aristotle's understanding of philosophy itself: he reverses the philosophical act. Montaigne uses the vocabulary of form and end, perfection and imperfection, because these are the terms available to him: he has no new words in which to express his originality. But he transforms the meaning of these terms in a way that allows him to display just what is new in his thought and to introduce notions of diversity, power, and freedom that amount to an understanding of philosophy, of nature, and of politics radically different from Aristotle's.

The Particularization of Form

Montaigne changes the meaning of form entirely by particularizing form. He often refers to the great diversity and variety of forms, especially in reference to men and to human action: "the perpetual variety of forms of our nature" (VS973–74, F744). Nature, he says, has become variable and particular to each man (VS1049, F803). There is, then, not simply one single human form. The clearest instance of the particularization of form occurs in his introduction of the idea of the "master-form" in "Of Repentance." "There is no one who, if he listens to himself, does not discover in himself a form all his own, a master form" (VS811, F615, emphasis added). The description "all one's own" emphasizes the possession of the form by the particular, in contrast to the notion of the particular "participating" in the universal form of human nature.

At the beginning of his essay on Cato the Younger, Montaigne explains the way in which he regards other men in terms of the particularity of form: "Because I feel myself tied down to one form, I do not oblige everybody to espouse it, as all others do. I believe in and conceive a thousand contrary ways of life; and in contrast with the common run of men, I more easily admit difference than resemblance between us.... I consider [each man] simply in himself, without relation to others; I mold him to his own model" (VS229, F169). He does not judge other men by the standard of a common, universal human form or nature. Rather, he sees each man as he is in himself, in his own form.

The way in which Montaigne changes the meaning of "form" calls into question the relationship between the individual and the species and introduces a new notion of particularity. For Montaigne, particularity cannot be grounded simply in the body. He particularizes form itself and claims that there is greater variety among minds than among bodies: "Variety is the most general fashion that nature has followed, and more in minds than bodies, inasmuch as minds are of a substance suppler and susceptible of more forms" (VS786, F598). Whereas for Aristotle, the particular is not the object of knowledge because knowledge is the apprehension of the universal form, the Essays are a philosophical attempt to reveal the intelligibility of a particular human being.

This is why there is little talk of essences and universals in the Essays. I believe that there is only one place where Montaigne refers to his "essence." In "Of Practice" he tells us: "What I chiefly portray is my thoughts, a subject unformed, which is not able to manifest itself in action. I am barely able to couch them in this airy body of words.... These are not my deeds that I write, this is me, this is my essence" (VS379, F274). They are his thoughts, his own thoughts. And they are "unformed." He seems to be suggesting a contrast between the universal essence of man as "reason" (man defined as "the rational animal") and the particularization of essence (each man as his own thoughts). This amounts to the particularization of the mind in contrast to the Aristotelian view of mind as the same in all men: it is the same because it is simply a receptivity to the world. It seems, then, that whereas for Aristotle the mind is public, for Montaigne it is private: one's own.

Final Cause and Infinite Desire

Francis Slade argues that "the repudiation of end in the sense of telos" is "foundational for all modern philosophy." In the tradition, final cause or "end" is completion, the completion of form. "End" does not refer to a temporal finish, the last moment in a temporal sequence, but rather to a condition in which nothing is lacking for the perfection of the being in question. For Aristotle, the end of human life, the human good, is happiness, which he describes as both final and self-sufficient. All men by nature desire happiness, and all of their actions, whether they deliberately intend it or not, are directed to that end.

In "Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions" Montaigne presents the traditional philosophical notions of consistency and perfection as the direction of all of one's actions to a single end. Whoever has not directed his entire life to a certain end (fin) cannot order his particular actions. It is necessary to have the "form" of one's whole life, and a certain "design" of one's life, in one's head. Our projects go astray because they have no determinate direction and end (but) (VS337, F243). It is, in fact, a very rare achievement to direct all of one's actions to a single end. Very few men, perhaps a dozen among the ancients, have actually attained such perfection. We see, then, that Aristotle's account of human action does not capture the lives of most men for it judges by the standard of "what ought to be," not by what is in its imperfection.

To locate human happiness in a self-sufficient perfection not only misjudges what is, but also fails to account for the nature of human desire. Montaigne says that the sages distinguish between desires that come from nature and desires that come from the unruliness of our imagination: those of which one can envision the end (bout) are nature's, whereas those whose end (fin) we cannot reach are our own, that is, produced by the imagination (VS1009, F771). He calls this a "subtle" distinction, suggesting that it is merely verbal. In fact, there is no end to our desires, or at least to those that involve the soul and not only the body. In "On Some Verses of Virgil" Montaigne advises those men who are astonished at the "unnatural and incredible" sexual appetite of women to look at themselves where they will find the same insatiability. "It would be, perhaps, more strange to see there some stop [arrest]; this is not a passion simply corporeal; if one finds no end [bout] in avarice and ambition, there is none either in lust. It lives still after satiety, and it is possible to prescribe neither constant satisfaction nor end [fin]: it goes always beyond what it possesses" (VS885, F675). Desire without end means that there is no permanent satisfaction and no completion or fulfillment of desire; rather, desire extends through the whole of life and ceases only in death. All satisfaction is temporary and temporal. Montaigne says that death is the end (bout) but not the end (but) of life; "this is its end [fin], its extremity, not its object" (VS1051–52, F805). Death is the finish, the stop, of life. Montaigne here conflates the meanings of bout, but, and fin. When he says that death is the end of life, he uses the term fin for "extremity," meaning the last point in time. The sense of the extreme as the last temporal moment shows the infinite character of desire, because that last moment is not a completion or perfection or actualization.

For Aristotle, the desire of the philosopher, implicit in the beginning of philosophy in wonder, is satisfied in contemplation. But for Montaigne, the desires of the mind are without end. In "Of Experience" he writes: "There is no end [fin] to our investigations; our end [fin] is in the other world." The pursuits of the mind are "without end [terme], and without form," and the movement of the mind is "irregular, perpetual, without a model, and without end [but]" (VS1068, F817–18). Our end is in the other world and therefore there is no end, in the sense of perfection and completion, in this world.

Montaigne contrasts those Christian ascetics and contemplatives who desire permanent union with the eternal and divine in this life with "that brattish rabble of men that we are," distracted by our desires and thoughts. These ascetics are "venerable souls, exalted by ardent piety and religion to constant and conscientious meditation on divine things," who anticipate, "by dint of keen and vehement hope, the enjoyment of eternal food, final end [but final] and last stop [dernier arrest] of Christian desires, sole constant and incorruptible pleasure" (VS1114, F856). Even the final end of Christian desires is the "last stop."

Power: Producing Effects

Montaigne replaces Aristotelian ends with effects, transforming the meaning of human action from the actualization of potentiality to the production of effect. In book 1 of the Metaphysics Aristotle explains that final cause is "the counterpart" to efficient cause, for final cause is "the purpose of a thing and its good—for this is the goal of all generation and movement" (1.3, 983a25–32). Efficient cause cannot be understood apart from final cause, because movement is initiated by the end. The end is the beginning; final cause is the naturally given end, the good. The rejection of final cause means that efficient cause is now cut off from its connection with final cause and thus from its role in the attainment of the good. Efficient cause, then, becomes "power." In Montaigne's metaphysics, beginnings are not ends. Aristotle's "entelechy" or actuality is no longer the essence, origin, or nature of the soul but only its "effect."

Excerpted from Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy by Ann Hartle. Copyright © 2013 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction xi

Note on the Texts xxi

Part 1 The Transformation of Philosophy

Chapter 1 Reversing Aristotle 5

Chapter 2 Sticking to the Old Ways: Montaigne and Sacred Tradition 29

Chapter 3 The Philosophical Act (I): Judgment 51

Chapter 4 The Philosophical Act (II): Ending in Experience 77

Part 2 The Invention of Society

Chapter 5 Overcoming Natural Mastery 99

Chapter 6 The Primacy of the Private and the Origins of a Free Society 135

Chapter 7 The Character of the Free Individual 155

Conclusion: The Invisibility of Philosophy and the Light of the Good 181

Notes 185

Works Cited 207

Index 213

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