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In Montaigne: Life without Law, originally published in French in 2014 and now translated for the first time into English by Paul Seaton, Pierre Manent provides a careful reading of Montaigne’s three-volume work Essays. Although Montaigne’s writings resist easy analysis, Manent finds in them a subtle unity, and demonstrates the philosophical depth of Montaigne’s reflections and the distinctive, even radical, character of his central ideas. To show Montaigne’s unique contribution to modern philosophy, Manent compares his work to other modern thinkers, including Machiavelli, Hobbes, Pascal, and Rousseau. What does human life look like without the imposing presence of the state? asks Manent. In raising this question about Montaigne’s Essays, Manent poses a question of great relevance to our contemporary situation. He argues that Montaigne’s philosophical reflections focused on what he famously called la condition humaine, the human condition. Manent tracks Montaigne’s development of this fundamental concept, focusing especially on his reworking of pagan and Christian understandings of virtue and pleasure, disputation and death. Bringing new form and content together, a new form of thinking and living is presented by Montaigne’s Essays, a new model of a thoughtful life from one of the unsung founders of modernity.

Throughout, Manent suggests alternatives and criticisms, some by way of contrasts with other thinkers, some in his own name. This is philosophical engagement at a very high level. In showing the unity of Montaigne’s work, Manent’s study will appeal especially to students and scholars of political theory, the history of modern philosophy, modern literature, and the origins of modernity.



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Date de parution 31 août 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780268107833
Langue English

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O. Carter Snead, series editor

Under the sponsorship of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, the purpose of this interdisciplinary series is to feature authors from around the world who will expand the influence of Catholic thought on the most important conversations in academia and the public square. The series is “ Catholic ” in the sense that the books will emphasize and engage the enduring themes of human dignity and flourishing, the common good, truth, beauty, justice, and freedom in ways that reflect and deepen principles affirmed by the Catholic Church for millennia. It is not limited to Catholic authors or even works that explicitly take Catholic principles as a point of departure. Its books are intended to demonstrate the diversity and enhance the relevance of these enduring themes and principles in numerous subjects, ranging from the arts and humanities to the sciences.
Life without Law

Translated by Paul Seaton
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
Copyright © 2020 by the University of Notre Dame
Original French edition, Montaigne: La vie san loi.
© Flammarion, Paris, 2014.
Translated from the original French text by Paul Seaton.
All Rights Reserved
Published in the United States of America
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020940880
ISBN: 978-0-268-10781-9 (Hardback)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10784-0 (WebPDF)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10783-3 (Epub)
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at
Contents Translator’s Foreword Introduction: The Word and the Promise PART 1 THE WAR OF HUMAN BEINGS 1 To Save One’s Life 2 To Compare Oneself PART 2 THE POWERS OF THE WORD 3 From Rhetoric to Literature 4 The Word and Death PART 3 THE MYSTERIES OF CUSTOM 5 A New World 6 Commanded Reason 7 Three Conditions of Human Beings PART 4 LIFE WITHOUT LAW 8 Governed Human Beings 9 Nature and Truth Notes Index
Translator’s Foreword
The eager reader can go directly to Manent’s own text. In this foreword I place it in two relevant Manentian contexts; then I indicate something of what awaits the reader. The contexts are Manent’s own oeuvre and his developing understanding of modernity’s origins. What awaits is an explication de texte by a master reader.

In Montaigne: Life without Law, Pierre Manent (1949–) is at the top of his game; truth be told, he’s been there for some time now. Long ago he did the homework, an intensive study of the classics of political philosophy and social theory. A close apprenticeship with Raymond Aron (1905–83) and private reading of Leo Strauss (1899–1973) completed his first formation. Then he struck out on his own.
Toward the end of the Cold War, he noted a worrisome “depoliticization” and attendant “denationalization” of life and thought in Western Europe. In the decades that followed, he tracked and criticized this attitude as it engaged in its defining project, “the construction of Europe.” He became one of the European Union’s best-known critics. In doing so, he went to the fundamentals. Its guiding “Idea of Humanity”—as “virtually integrated,” with “no significant collective differences”—is patently false and politically debilitating, while its byzantine structures and bureaucratic rules resemble a return of enlightened despotism. 1 At the same time, and positively, he became a defender of the nation-state. 2 Manent did all this from a distinctive point of view, that of political philosophy.

As the reference to the old-fashioned term “political philosophy” may suggest, going back as it does to Plato and Aristotle, contemporary concerns were always situated in broader contexts and pursued with an eye to the deepest issues. Tocqueville, an early guide, famously considered European man under two vastly different orders, aristocracy and democracy. Manent followed that expansive lead in an early book, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1982). Eventually, the context encompassed the entirety of the Western political and spiritual adventure, and among the regularly treated issues was that of the human soul. One was reminded of Plato’s Republic, with its dual focus on soul types and regime types.
At first, Manent tended to proceed by discrete comparisons and contrasts of ancient and modern arrangements and thoughts, but eventually he put it all together in the magisterial Metamorphoses of the City: On the Dynamism of Western Civilization (2010). This book was the fruit of a course he regularly gave at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris on “political forms.” The ancient Greek city had known a variety of regimes, as had the modern nation. But neither the city nor the nation was a regime, and each was different from the other. Regime analysis, therefore, the focus and forte of classical thought, had to be supplemented by a new science of political forms. Manent went about the task of producing one, and he found that the Sonderweg, the special path, of the West could be rendered intelligible as a series of distinct forms of human association.
These were the city, the empire, and the nation, with the Christian church, yet another form of authoritative human association, enriching and complicating matters. The political forms were so many efforts on the part of the Western political animal to fulfill his nature after the limits of previous forms had shown themselves, while the Christian church was found to provide the most satisfying response to the human desire for access to the transcendent divine. Its founder, the God-man, squared the circle of infinite distance respected and bridged.
However, even this enormously wide-ranging investigation was not the only thing that occupied Manent and his teaching at the time. He also taught courses on “the modern soul,” in which Montaigne, Pascal, and Rousseau and their archetypical explorations of the human condition and the modern situation were compared and contrasted. In a nice counterpoint to the moderns, he also conducted an ongoing seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics during the period.

It was very much in an Aristotelian spirit that he wrote Beyond Radical Secularism, published in France in 2015. 3 In it, the French Catholic philosopher explicitly adopted the perspective of the public-spirited citizen, asking, What needs to be done, what can be done, in order to bring unincorporated Muslim communities into the national community? What followed was a sustained and candid “deliberation,” richly informed by French history, political philosophy, and discreet Christian faith. In it, all parties were included, all were addressed, all were challenged. Here, as was classically the case, deliberation was an attempt to articulate a possible action in view of a common, or shared, good; it was a logos that addressed and sought to knit together the parts of a community in just such a common endeavor. 4
Bookending it, as it were, were two books, including the one before you. There are many important points of contact between the two. 5 Montaigne: La vie sans loi appeared in 2014, and La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme, originally given as the prestigious Étienne Gilson lectures at L’Institut Catholique de Paris in 2017, appeared in published form in 2018. 6 One notes that “law” ( loi ) is found in both titles, although it is paired and contrasted with two other items: with “life” ( la vie ) by Montaigne, with “human rights” ( les droits de l’homme ), according to the Zeitgeist. Montaigne attempted to articulate a satisfying human life totally apart from “law,” whether natural or divine, whereas in later modern thought, a new teaching of natural rights broke with traditional natural law, and the older concept was reworked accordingly. Eventually, rights were emancipated even from this altered shell.
Traditional natural law is thus something of a ghostly middle term spanning the works, conspicuous by its absence in Montaigne and among “us” ( nous )—us who are partisans of rights and who want law—all law, any law— to serve rights and us. Modern thought, thus construed, was the critical endeavor to replace old authorities and establish new ones. We are this effort’s heirs, often unwittingly. Both investigations by Manent therefore promised increased self-knowledge, by way of a reconsideration of founding fathers and founding thoughts.
Not visible in the titles is that Manent is willing to let the scorned authorities have their say as well. In his rendering, however, these authorities are anything but hoary or hidebound. His Aristotle is as fresh and contemporary as human nature itself, his Pascal and Augustine remarkably relevant interlocutors. These are not Homer’s bloodless shades, or relics of a superseded past. Aristotle in particular provides a robust conception of reason, what Manent intriguingly calls “commanding reason,” while the Christian thinkers are invoked to indicate how Christianity broadened human horizons and deepened the human soul, especially with the notion of “conscience.” In sum, august representatives of premodern reason and faith, nature and grace, are powerfully (and sometimes pointedly) present.
Socrates too is present, not just as a subject of study or an illuminating point of contrast (although he is that) but in his philosophical spirit, the spirit of probing dialectics, which presides over both investigations. The gigantomachia of the West—its great debates—live and breathe in these works of the French Catholic philosopher.

Modernity and its creations, modern times and the modern world, have often been scrutinized and assessed, perhaps starting as early as the day after modernity was first declared. Be that as it may, several archaeologies, genealogies, and accounts have been given of modernity. Several judgments leveled, too. Manent joined in this investigation early in his career. It was, he believed, an essential part of the human endeavor of seeking self-knowledge, since we are self-proclaimed modern men and women. What does that mean, “modern”? Initially, he followed Leo Strauss in locating the origin of modernity with Machiavelli, or, more broadly, in modern political philosophy. Whereas Strauss was most interested in the fate of philosophy at the hands of these authors, Manent’s interest was in the genesis and ideational content of modern politics. He was guided by the twin thoughts that the regime provides the first authoritative statement of who and what we are and that “the world” in the first instance is “the human world” and the human world first comes to view as a politically articulated one.
More than one reader, however, while impressed with the readings he provided and the remarkable light they shed on “the statics and dynamics,” the basic structure and wellsprings, of actual political orders, nonetheless wondered about the adequacy of the account. What about religious modernity? What about Luther and Calvin? Didn’t they help shape, decisively, the modern world?
Now from time to time, Manent had brought in one or the other Reformer in his expositions of modern philosophical thought. Pascal, too, had been summoned to contribute to that task. These appearances, eccentric but apposite, indicated that he knew there was more to the story of modernity than the Straussian approach typically acknowledged. In time, therefore, he turned more directly to these religious founders, or refounders. He did so, however, as he always did, from the perspective of political philosophy. What contributions did they make to the formation of new authoritative communities in Europe? More specifically, what did they contribute to the genesis and substance of the distinctively European political form, the nation-state?
Protestantism worked an all-important “de-mediation” of the most important aspect of people’s lives, their spiritual lives. The priesthood of the faithful entailed the rejection of the ordained priesthood, and sola scriptura placed each believer on his own before the saving Word of God. The Catholic church, heretofore the mediator between human beings and the divine, was decisively excluded from the spiritual governance of human beings. This religious critique worked in tandem with modern philosophers’ critiques (in Hobbes’s terms) of “the Kingdom of Darkness” and its intellectual underpinnings, “Christian Aristotelity”
Two consequences flowed from this decisive operation: the temporal power of secular princes was augmented, and the community of the faithful now tended to be identified with the national community. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) and, especially, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), with their cuius regio, eius religio, cemented the authority of the prince, while the Lutheran reform was simultaneously a revolt from Rome and a German rallying cry: Luther addressed “the Christian nobles of the German nation [ deutscher Nation]” Remarkably, Hobbes saw this twofold development as well and in his own way endorsed it. His Leviathan was not solely the absolute sovereign, but also a “Christian Commonwealth.”
In these ways, concluded Manent, “the break with Catholic mediation contributed to the strengthening of elements that will be decisive in the constitution of modern Europe, that is, the sovereignty of national princes and the authority or force of the national principle.” 7 Religious modernity and philosophical modernity, in conspiring against a common enemy, unwittingly conspired to produce results both could claim, albeit from quite different perspectives.

With Montaigne we encounter a third modern founder, a third founder of modernity, a third type of founder. Manent tells us that he was late coming to this recognition. It took him, he says, several years of wrestling with Montaigne’s labyrinthine Essays before he felt that he had captured “at least part” of his thought and, equally importantly, how he conveyed it. The payoff, however, was significant. The discoverer of new lands on the continent of modernity was discovered.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–92) lived in unsettled, rather precarious, times. Throughout his adult life, France was painfully wracked by religious and dynastic rivalry and war. The French wars of religion (1562–98) saw three million die of war, famine, and disease. The classical age was still in the future. The absolute monarchy had yet to find its footing and would wait until Richelieu to do so. To add to the fermentation, the New World had been recently discovered, and the first reports of exotic human beings and customs had made their way back to Europe. What did they mean? What did they entail for the traditional understanding of the human? All in all, a wholesale reevaluation of authorities and basic thoughts appeared to be in order, at least for some.
Now as it happens, thirty years earlier, in An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Manent had commented at some length on a Hobbes who found himself in comparable circumstances in seventeenth-century England. 8 Hobbes lived at the time of the English Civil War (1642–51), which pitted royalists against proponents of Parliament, both invoking contending versions of Christianity. Here too Christianity was rent, authority contested, the body-politic distempered. The conflict eventually led to the beheading of Charles I in 1649. The Leviathan, Hobbes’s diagnosis and solution to the ills of his country, appeared two years later.
Hobbes, however, saw in his contentious times far from an anomaly. Rather, in particularly dramatic form they revealed “the natural condition of mankind,” which is “a war of all against all,” absent recognized and acknowledged authority. Thus, Manent pointed out, Hobbes moved from an analysis of his time and place to the discovery of the permanent condition of mankind. With the fundamental problem always and everywhere the same, the solution—sovereignty—must be as well.
This little précis allows one to see three important differences between Hobbes and Montaigne. Hobbes was the philosophical architect of the modern state. His advocacy highlights its absence in Montaigne. Montaigne was no proponent of the state as the remedy to civil-religious discord; in his Essays he does not lay out its raison d’être, its genesis, its nature and scope. This lacuna prompts Manent to wonder, Why did Montaigne think he could do without what for centuries people after him thought was the sine qua non of secure and civilized existence, civilized because secure? What does the human world look like absent the towering presence, the orienting presence, of the state?
These are questions not without contemporary relevance in Europe and various other parts of the world. Here Manent is interested in the way of looking at the human world that consists in articulating it in terms of “customs” and “cultures.” Montaigne paved the way to what we call “cultural anthropology.” Its Montaignan origin is here duly considered, contrasted with a powerful Aristotelian alternative, and incisively critiqued in Natural Law and Human Rights. A powerful advocate for political philosophy, Manent has long critiqued the dubious methodological presuppositions of “the human and social sciences.” 9 In so doing, he seeks to wake his fellows—social scientists and European citizens—from their antipolitical slumber. Here, with a seminal thinker, he continues his long-standing criticisms of “depoliticization,” theoretical as well as practical, in order to help revive politics itself and what he calls “the political perspective.”
The Leviathan state is the response to “the natural condition of mankind.” While Montaigne does not have the state, he does have an analogue to the natural condition of mankind. He gave it a name that had a great career, not only in philosophy but in letters: la condition humaine, the human condition. Montaigne is the Columbus of this terra nova, this terra incognita. Tracking Montaigne’s discovery and exploration of this new land is one of the chief aims, and achievements, of Manent’s commentary.
In delineating the human condition, Montaigne does not go to the opposite extreme from Hobbes, as will Rousseau: war and death continue to figure essentially in his rendition. But war is paired with honor and civilized by what Montaigne calls “conférence,” vigorous intellectual exchange, and death can be properly addressed without the instrument of the state. Likewise, while the human condition does give rise to the problems human beings inflict upon themselves, it remains the norm of a life well lived. It needs to be inhabited, not overcome.
Manent sums up Montaigne’s analysis in three terms: virtue, pleasure, and death. The conventional terms, however, mask radically new understandings, neither pagan nor Christian. Definitely not Christian, as Pascal pointed out and Manent amply demonstrates, while Montaigne’s admiration for Cato and Socrates not only does not incline him to imitation, but his Socrates is a fabrication shorn of eros and the Ideas, and his republicanism finally cedes to a life shorn of ties to others or participation in a collective endeavor. What results is a self-sufficient private life that, by writing, creates “the public” that is invited to become privy to its candor and human wisdom.
A third contrast takes us to the character of the Essays and of Manent’s commentary on them. Hobbes was one of the most systematic of thinkers and writers, Montaigne, among the least. He was acutely aware of the strange character and challenge of his literary form. He was also quite explicit about its innovative uniqueness: at most, it had two or three ancient antecedents, but they were lost to history (nor does he deign to name them). New content required new forms. However, even that formula is too indebted to old thought.
What is presented in the Essays is a new form of thinking and a new form of living, not the material of a teaching, not a thought that can be systematized. Systematization presupposes thought that is in complete control of itself and its material. That is beyond thought’s real abilities; it cannot be its true aim. It is not thought’s true relationship to life. So the Essays take us into a new form of thinking and living; they take us along on the journey of a truly thoughtful life.
Manent responds with docility, attentiveness, and the requisite learning. Docility allows him to follow Montaigne’s lead; attentiveness, to notice subtle shifts and shocking statements; and learning, to be able to appreciate Montaigne’s use as well as abuse of classical texts. If Montaigne takes seven essays before he explicitly states the purpose of the Essays, this fact is duly noted and the previous seven essays are considered in the light of their preparatory character. One can thus see how an analysis of the contemporary scene leads to, and requires, Montaigne’s intervention and enterprise. Likewise, if, many essays later, Montaigne adds another statement of purpose, it too is noted and brought into illuminating contact with the earlier statement. The intervening text, again, will have prepared and occasioned the new formulation. The philosophic reader, as a friend of mine once said, has a keen sense of the obvious.
There is more to the reading of a philosophical text, of course, especially one as complex as Montaigne’s. Themes must be pursued, connections made, developments and qualifications noted. Significance drawn out as well. It is in connection with the last that Manent particularly shines. Between exegesis and eisegesis is a space for independent philosophical illumination. Manent, as we suggested above in connection with Socrates, tends to do so by way of comparison and contrast. There is exquisite art here, tactful and telling. The gigantomachia lives.
But Manent also has his own categories that he brings to bear on Montaigne’s novel thinking. As befits a philosopher at the peak of his powers, these are often the most elemental of categories. As the reader will soon discover, Manent makes great hay out of two basic pairs: speech and action; active and passive. While Montaigne philosophically considered human life in action and activity, especially among the ancients, he himself opted for a speech that tracks the passive movements of his self. And while he was quite aware of the philosophical discourses of Socrates as presented by Plato, he himself opted for a discourse dominated by “moi,” whose “argument” and “subject” was “[him]self.”
While recognizing the audacity, and tracking the consequences, of this great “reform” of the basic elements of human life, Manent wonders whether we might do well to reconsider the options of speaking and acting that Montaigne thought worthy of considering but ultimately rejected. In this precise and expansive commentary, he therefore reopens the horizons of human speech and deed that Montaigne’s founding work worked to reduce. 10
Paul Seaton
St. Mary’s Seminary & University
Feast of St. Joan of Arc
The Word and the Promise
If there is a shared diagnosis of the causes of the European malaise, no doubt it is the following: we have lost confidence in our own powers. One could also say: we have made promises that we cannot keep, we know that we cannot keep them, and we have neither the strength nor the courage to renew them or to conceive others. In a profound peace, in complete liberty, in a prosperity that is still enviable, we no longer have the strength to promise anything to ourselves, whereas in terrible disorders, in servitude and misery, our forebears conceived the hopes of science and power, of liberty and happiness, on which we have lived during three or four centuries. What has the promising and enterprising animal become? What has the European become?
This profound change in our relationship to ourselves and to our future causes us to look with astonishment at who we were for so long a time, and it encourages us to consider attentively the one who promised, projected, and undertook. The promise that seemed so clear when it bore us becomes so mysterious when it abandons us! What did the promising animal then resemble? What did he promise, and how? How we would love to see with his eyes and to will with his will! To be sure, answers to such questions come in great number, clothed in majuscules. Our fathers promised themselves “the relief of man’s estate” 1 . They promised that man would become, “as it were, the master and possessor of nature.” They promised us the freedom “to pursue happiness.” These promises, moreover, were not so poorly kept, but that does not tell us what was the source of the promise, what the one who promised such great things saw, and how he readied himself.

To be sure, the promise aimed at something unseen, but it was not simply something conceived by the “imagination.” The one who promised intended to make it real, to “realize” the thing that was imagined, and he was confident in his ability to carry through with this realization. Is that all? No, it is not all, and, in fact, it misses the essential. What we just said only concerns ordinary promises, those that are inscribed within a given order of things and only aim to modify it, to simply draw from it something worthwhile. The promise that interests us, the promise that made us what we are, or still were yesterday, the promise that is coextensive with Europe, is something else as well because it is a promise that aimed to change the very order of human things. Where could such an idea have come from? The imagination of poets has always invented other worlds, but worlds in speech, or in sculpted stone or painted walls. But here it was a matter of really bringing into being a new world, or at least a renewed, or reformed, one. The last word is the best: not to invent elements of the human world that did not exist, but to radically reform, to give a new form to, the constituent elements of the human world, by radically reforming the political order, the religious order, and the order of knowledge. Perhaps one can say in a synthetic way that it was a matter of reforming actions and words and the way in which they were related or were connected to each other. The promise of modern Europe, the promise that astonishes us and that seems to have exhausted its strength, was the promise of a new action and a new word, the promise of a new relationship of word to action and of action to word.
The last formulation, however, causes us to pause, to hesitate. Action and word, these are the two halves, distinct but inseparable, of man’s being. How can one change them without changing the central organ (if I can put it that way) of man’s humanity? If we radically reform that . . . then, adieu to man! This, however, is what we did, without abolishing humanity but by profoundly transforming the human world. Once again, how did we do that?
Man is the speaking animal, and he is the acting animal. One cannot do anything to change that, except by destroying man. What one can change perhaps, what in fact we were able to change, was the relationship between the two. The simplest form of the relationship is distance. One can bring action closer to or move it farther from speech, and the same with speech vis-à-vis action. If, for example, the believer receives the rules of his action from a church that interprets scripture for him, the word that regulates action is doubly removed from the action that it regulates. Between word and action are the church and scripture. As everyone knows, it was by suppressing the mediation of the church that the Reformation brought the action of the Christian closer to the Christian word.
Let us take a closer look at this operation of the Reformation. Here we are not interested in the theological issues or in historical developments, but only in the human gesture implied in the Reformation. Calvin puts this gesture before our eyes in the very first chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He begins by observing that while God manifests himself to human beings in a thousand ways by his works, by their own fault humans show themselves incapable of seeing such a clear thing. His works being ignored, God made himself known directly by his Word, “which is a more certain and familiar mark to know him.” 2 We thus have scripture alone to know the divine truth. Calvin then objects to the “very pernicious error” of the Catholics, who make the interpretation of scripture depend upon the consent of the church, which is equivalent to subjecting the eternal truth to the “[good] pleasure of men.” 3 To the objection, How, then, can we know that Scripture is the Word of God?, Calvin responds: “Scripture shows no less evidence of its truth than black or white things do of their colors, or sweet or bitter things of their taste.” At the end of the chapter, Calvin summarizes his argument by saying that, for the believer, God “gives himself to be as sensed by experience, as he declares himself by his word.” 4
This very condensed summary brings to light the audacity of Calvin’s procedure. He suddenly places human beings—who wander about in ignorance of God or who, under the cover of the church, use scripture for their purposes—before the evidence of a “sensed” where experience merges with the Word. The demoralizing dispersion of the signs of truth suddenly gives way to adhesion to this truth without any distance. Reduced to its core, Calvin’s gesture consists in overcoming an infinite distance, in leading human beings from the greatest distance to proximity, and even coincidence, with God, or at least his Word. The decisive point does not reside, first of all, in the free interpretation of Scripture. “Christian liberty” is an effect before it is a cause. It results from the gesture by which the Reformer, intervening in the half-light in which the truth is both given and hides itself, separates the clear from the obscure and isolates a circle of light in which evidence reigns. It is true that contemporaries, and even more historians, have tended to see in the Reformation above all the liberation of the individual vis-à-vis an external rule and institution—in our language, a victory of autonomy over heteronomy. Be that as it may, this liberation presupposes taking up a position from which we relate the truth to the immediate evidence of a sense or a sentiment, and in this perspective we reject everything that introduces distance and mediation. The procedure of the Reformer thus proposes resolutely putting aside or even systematically eliminating everything that could hinder or complicate our ever-more-direct and immediate grasp of the truth of things. The liberty in question, no doubt quite real, is suspended from the promise of coinciding with the truth that is, at last, entirely appropriated. Faith in the saving God finds its certification in the certainty of the believer’s personal salvation.
To be sure, the Reformer does not enact this gesture except to liberate the truth from the human intermediaries who confiscate or disfigure it. His intention is certainly in this vein. He would be horrified by the “autonomy” of the modern subject. But by envisaging an appropriation without an intermediary, by promising it, he commands himself, and he commands us, to bring all the signs of truth toward ourselves, ever closer to us, to the point of coincidence itself, which entails reducing as much as possible the distances by which the human world is ordered and disordered. Sola scriptura contains the promise of a coincidence between the Christian and the truth, but the command to seek this coincidence engages us in a process that cannot end with the suppression of ecclesial mediation. It will not be long before scripture itself, at first the medium of this coincidence, becomes the obstacle to it. All the constitutive distances of the human world, of whatever order, are summoned to be suppressed. Such is the command, such is the promise.
The commonplace according to which the Reformation inaugurated the modern revolution is thus well founded, as long as one specifies that the decisive gesture does not concern liberty but the truth, or our relationship to it. We will find a confirmation of this by considering another innovation, another reform, which is strictly contemporary with the Reformation, but whose project exclusively concerns this world, and even with a very sharp point directed against Christianity. I am speaking of Machiavelli’s enterprise, which aims at suppressing, or in any case reducing, the too great “gap” that the Christian religion installed between humans’ words and their deeds. Human beings speak in a certain way, and they act in another. Their words, however, are not without effect, since their actions are different from what they would be if they did not speak that way. For example, the Christian religion commands love of one’s enemies. Since this is not the best way of defending oneself, Christians continue to defend themselves against their enemies by the ordinary means, but they do so with a divided will, hence with lessened powers. The Christian word, as distant as it is, does not have the force to command action and get human beings to act like Christians, but it retains enough force to prohibit them from acting in accordance with their nature. Machiavelli therefore undertakes to bring to light what he calls the effectual truth of political things, 5 what one could call the art or logic of action when it is not shackled or falsified by any word, Christian or other. On Machiavelli’s horizon is a world where the human agent would coincide so perfectly with his action that he would not have any need of a word.
Thus at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Luther and Calvin on one hand, Machiavelli on the other, make opposite claims, but claims that betray a strange resemblance. As we just saw, the principle of order reveals itself to be the principle of disorder, that is, the authority of Christian words which command without being obeyed. There is therefore an immense gap to overcome between Christian words and the real actions of human beings. While Luther and Calvin aim to suppress the obstacles that are placed between Christians and the Word of God, Machiavelli aims to suppress the obstacles placed between the prince, or the political agent, and the founding, or refounding, action that Europe needs. If one remains in the Catholic arrangement of things, the disorder cannot be overcome, because in it the Word is distinct but inseparable from the actions of Christians brought together in the church. Since the Catholic “circle” is formed of elements that need one another, it is impossible to rest on any one of them and there to find an incontestable foundation. Scripture founds and announces the church, and the church validates and interprets Scripture; in the same way, miracles confirm doctrine, and doctrine interprets miracles. Hence in the Catholic dispensation the connection between words and actions contains lots of play, and this play is the cause of a disorder in which it is impossible to remain indefinitely. Luther and Calvin on one hand, Machiavelli on the other, entertain opposed hopes and different ends; nonetheless they address the same command to humans, a human command bearing upon the human order: it is urgent to suppress the play and overcome the distance between action and word.
This one and double command is the cause of the immense amplitude and ambiguity of the modern movement. The endeavor to overcome the Catholic disorder encounters the following operational necessity: in order to reduce the distance and play between words and actions, in order eventually to join them adequately, one must first rigorously separate them. In the Catholic disorder, or in the Catholic situation that appeared to be a disorder, action and word are distinct and inseparable as scripture and church are distinct and inseparable. In the reforming project, it is necessary to separate the action and the word that are confusedly mixed in the church in order to join them closely together in the immediate contact of the Christian with scripture alone. One could say in general terms that in the Catholic situation the two halves of the human world are distinct and inseparable, while in the modern project, which bears the Reformation and is borne by it, they are to be separated and joined anew —separanda et conjungenda. An unlimited process or movement is thus unleashed, because the two halves are never separated enough, nor ever joined enough. Never separated enough: the state is never neutral enough, and its actions are therefore never separated enough from civil society and its words. Never joined enough: the government is never representative enough, and its actions are never joined enough to civil society and its words.
To be sure, here we will not get into the intertwined histories of the neutral state and representative government. However, we can make the following general observation: borne along by the movement I just characterized, we have never arrived at finding a stable formula, a stable arrangement, of separation and union between words and actions. Never has our effort to overcome the Catholic disorder allowed us to find repose in an assured order and a lasting equilibrium. Moreover, during all this time the Catholic church, constantly dying but still immortal, has not ceased to oppose to the current of the modern river the irregular obstacle of its singular association. Resistant to separation as well as joining, it is the great speed bump on the path toward this recomposition of the human world promised and commanded us by the Reformers.
However, as imperious, as “revolutionary,” as the modern movement may be, as inaccessible as the repose of a stable order has remained, with a bit of attention we can recognize the most durably significant formula according to which words and actions have been separated and joined in modern Europe. That to which the modern regime tended, and in which for a long time it found all the stability that it could receive, was the reunion of the neutral or lay state and the nation of Christian mark. 6 If we brush aside the clouds and the fog, if we attend to what truly ordered the history of modern Europe, then we encounter the association composed of the neutral state and the nation bound to a Christian confession. That’s it.
The moment of the Reformation therefore does not merely provide the beginning and the impulse of the movement of modern Europe, but fixes, as it were, the terms of the European problem. However, the political agent and the religious person were not the only ones affected by the Catholic disorder, by the relaxed play between words and actions. While the former sought to liberate political action from every shackle issued by the word or action of the church, and the latter sought to experience the interior evidence of divine truth in the reading of scripture, how are those going to go about their lives who, lacking political ambition and little concerned with piety, nonetheless have to lead their lives? The gesture that we saw so well sketched by Calvin, the gesture consisting in bringing toward oneself the scattered signs of truth and separating from the confusion of the world the circle of the experience of truth, it is incumbent upon each to make, according to the character of his life. Yes, of course, but how? Machiavelli has nothing to say to the one without ambition, Calvin to him who is disinclined to piety. It would hardly be an exaggeration to maintain that the two together have nothing to say to the majority of human beings, who are not particularly concerned with the salvation of the city or their soul. However, is there no reform, no recomposition of the truth, for the one who is neither prince nor saint? Who would want to, or could, extend the reforming gesture to embrace the anecdotes of ordinary life and the little secrets of private life?
But there was someone! The circle of the experience of the truth was redrawn for the ordinary person by a marvelously sure hand, by a reformer no less audacious than Machiavelli or Calvin. It is the thesis of this book that Montaigne was that reformer. Without anticipating the argument, it is permissible to insist on this capital point. While Machiavelli and the religious reformers redefined, more precisely “reformed,” objects that were already constituted and authorities that were powerfully established, Montaigne was constrained to produce the object and establish the authority in the name of which he redefined our relation to the truth. It is life itself in its ordinary tenor, in the variation of its humors and the irregularity of its accidents, that needs to be brought to light and, if I can put it this way, installed in a light that causes its fullness to appear, while preserving its imperfection. If it interests you to learn how Montaigne proceeded, you would do well, reader, to continue your reading. 7
The War of Human Beings

1. Montaigne has a diagnosis of the contemporary disorder that is very close to that of Machiavelli. The root of the disorder and corruption is still this discosto, the too-great gap between words and actions. He repeats this diagnosis, and in memorable terms, on the last page of the Essays:
Between ourselves, these are two things that I have always observed to be in singular accord: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct. . . . They want to get out of themselves and escape from man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humors frighten me, like lofty and inaccessible places; and nothing is so hard for me to stomach in the life of Socrates as his ecstacies and possessions by his daemon, nothing is so human in Plato as the qualities for which they say he is called divine. And of our sciences, those seem to me most terrestrial and low which have risen the highest. 1
If philosophy is here envisaged by means of the names of Socrates and Plato, theology no doubt is included among the sciences that have “risen the highest.” Elsewhere, Montaigne’s distrust extends to the emphatic language of monarchies: “Livy says truly that the language of men brought up under royalty is always full of foolish ostentation and vain testimonies, each man indiscriminately raising his king to the highest level of worth and sovereign greatness.” 2 Montaigne, therefore, is in search of a word that does not succumb to the all-too-human temptation “to escape from man” by a “supercelestial” philosophy, religion, or politics. He seeks a word that prevents this tendency and arms us against this temptation. He wants to reduce the gap between word and action, word and life, by a distinctive word, an unprecedented word, that establishes a new use, a new regime, of the word.

2. However, the opening address, “To the Reader,” instead of ringing out with these promises, puts one on guard against too great expectations. The book that it opens will not give the reader what he normally expects of a book. In it there is nothing useful for him nor glorious for the author. Montaigne does not promise us anything. It is in this way, first of all, that his book is “in good faith.”
The address restricts the import of the book as much as possible. It limits the number and dignity of its recipients—they are simply “relatives and friends”; and it circumscribes its object, which could not be more unprepossessing: “for it is myself that I portray.” 3
What is offered to us is hardly a book. The word is held back from the domain where it would become a public word, a word worthy of being presented to the public, because, for example, it would recount the remarkable actions of the author during the course of his life. What makes it that this book is hardly a book is also what makes it the first of a new genre of book. It is the subject or the matter of the book that allows or provokes this ambiguity: “myself.” Nothing is more puny, nothing is less worthy of being brought to the light of the public, but it is by developing a word capable of applying to this object, and, as it were, conferring on it the reality it lacks, that Montaigne will break with the fatal idealizing tendency of the human word.
As it is a “book of good faith,” Montaigne does not leave his reader entirely ignorant of the extreme audacity of his enterprise. By amplifying “for it is myself that I portray” with “I am myself the matter of my book,” he announces the extraordinary character of his endeavor.
If Montaigne is the matter of his book, it is not of himself, however, that he first speaks in the Essays. One must await chapter 8 of book 1—”Of Idleness”— to read the first formulation, itself quite reserved, of the project or aim of the book. The first seven chapters offer a sketch of the conditions of human life, because it is those conditions that finally give meaning to the enterprise of the Essays. Montaigne’s aim is not arbitrary. It is a response to a certain situation, a certain crisis, a certain condition. It presupposes a certain interpretation of this situation, this crisis, this condition.

The beginning of a serious endeavor is always to be taken seriously. How does Montaigne begin? He begins in a dramatic, even tragic, way—he mentions a “tragic example of vengeance.” It is a matter of cities taken by assault and put to the sword, of tortures ordered by a tyrant, of being carried away by vengeance. It is a question of the threats that weigh on human life, threats that come not from nature but from human beings themselves. It is a question of the fear of death at the hands of others.
The first chapter therefore attempts to respond to the question, How shall one save one’s life? Entitled “By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same End,” it begins thus: “The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when, vengeance in hand, they hold us at their mercy, is by submission to move them to commiseration and pity. However, audacity and steadfastness—entirely different means—have sometimes served to produce the same effect.” 4
Here, as suits a beginning, Montaigne begins with a commonplace of rhetoric. 5 It is a question of persuading, is it not? Now, neither one nor the other of two opposite means of saving one’s life—submission or defiance—clearly appears as the most effective. Submission stirs compassion and therefore can save us—or not. “Audacity” incites “esteem” and can thus also save us—or not. One cannot even trust the ordinary character of human beings to prevail over their conduct in an assured way. Montaigne gives the example of Alexander the Great, “the bravest of men and one very gracious to the vanquished,” who, however, exercised cruel vengeance against Betis, who had fought against him so admirably. How are we to explain this behavior, which we would call “abnormal”? Montaigne envisages three hypotheses: (1) Alexander does not admire a bravery that he himself possess; (2) on the contrary, he was jealous or envious of Betis, not being able to suffer in someone else a boldness that he wanted to reserve to himself; (3) he was simply overcome by anger. It is impossible to choose among these hypotheses. The question is undecidable.
Thus, opposed forms of behavior can have the same effect; and the same behavior can have different causes, even opposed causes. From the very first words, therefore, Montaigne emphasizes the uncertainty and fluidity of human motives, the play, as it were, that there is between causes and effects in the human world; he stresses a certain lack of determination in human things.
Here Montaigne principally considers two motives, or two types of motives: one moves women, children, and the “vulgar”; the other prompts strong souls to act. This is one of the organizing principles of the Essays, the tension between pride and compassion, between the virtue of a vir and the virtue of homo. Commiseration does not occur without “easygoing indulgence,” even “softness”; but proud souls, those capable of “esteem,” are exposed to bouts of quick temper in keeping with the extent of their strength, as the example of Alexander attests. Montaigne notes that, as for himself, he is open to both motives, but with a natural tendency to compassion.
A reader who knows his Hegel is tempted to say that in this opening chapter, the first slice, as it were, of the Essays, we encounter something like the dialectic of master and slave. Except that there is no dialectic. The confrontation between the one who begs for his life and the one who boldly risks his life does not unleash a development, a history capable of leading to the overcoming of these two primordial dispositions. No satisfying or reassuring synthesis is announced. The two dispositions thus constitute one of the fundamental elements of the human world, but they act in a milieu that prevents them from arriving regularly or surely at their ends. In any case, it is in the tension between compassion for the similar and admiration for the different that human life is sought.
Human life seeks itself, but, someone will say, it does not succeed in finding itself because of the play and indetermination of motives about which I spoke earlier. Hence the formulations that, from the beginning, strike what will be a leitmotiv of the Essays: “Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him.” 6 How to judge a world, or in a world, which appears too little solid, too uncertain, too fluid, to support a judgment? The task of man is to judge human things, but these flee from judgment. Man as the object of knowledge steals away from the knowing man. While the Greeks gave the impression that things, as it were, come toward the human mind, that they “voluntarily” come to be known, Montaigne maintains that the human mind always advances too far, that it is always in advance of things. This disequilibrium that constitutes man is the root of our errors. The human mind spontaneously, naturally, necessarily wants to engrave where there are only fleeting lines, uncertain forms, and unforeseeable metamorphoses.

The following chapter (1.2)—“Of Sadness”—confirms that human things are resistant to being engraved, or even sketched. Man is subject to extreme passions that cannot find adequate expression. Montaigne evokes that “degree of grief” that cannot be “represent[ed]”, of which misfortune Niobe transformed into a rock is the type. For these “accidents surpassing our endurance,” 7 Montaigne principally gives examples pertaining to “grief.” But, he notes, amorous ardor, when it is extreme, sometimes engenders “the accidental failing that surprises lovers so unseasonably” and chills them “in the very lap of enjoyment.” 8 Montaigne ends the chapter with examples of joy and shame that are so extreme that the individual—it would be better to say: the patient—dies on the spot. All these affects deprive the soul of the “liberty of its actions.” The chapter begins and ends, however, with an “I” that declares itself largely exempt from these passions.
These extreme passions give rise to as many forms of the loss of self. In these initial soundings of the human condition, marked by a funereal tone, Montaigne causes our uncertainties, our weaknesses, to come to light, rather than our capacities.

In fact, the following chapter (1.3)—“Our Feelings Reach Out beyond Us”— still concerns an affect that one can call alienating. It is a question of the concern for future things, in particular the preoccupation with burial ceremonies, with the fate of the corpse. These worries are so lively that “we are never at home, we are always beyond.” 9
Montaigne now begins to touch explicitly on politics. First of all, he claims the liberty to judge princes after their death. This is the only way of reconciling respect for “the political order” 10 —the obedience due to the office of the prince, whether he be good or bad—and the freedom of judgment, without which there is no justice. Further on, in an impressive development devoted to the affair of the Arginusae, 11 he poses the question of the care to show to the bodies of soldiers or sailors killed in battle. He concludes that this solicitude is an “unwelcome superstition” if it leads to the loss of the fruits of victory. And in an abrupt manner that ought to make us attentive, in this chapter Montaigne makes two declarations that one must call “republican.” We have already heard the first one: “Livy says truly that the language of men brought up under royalty is always full of foolish ostentation and vain testimonies.” In the second, he affirms in his own name, although under the cover of an indignant critique of the behavior of the assembly of the people in the affair of the Arginusae, that “democratic rule” seems to him “the most natural and equitable.” 12

The voice of Montaigne is getting more affirmative. Manly harmonics come to the fore. At the same time as he makes his first republican declarations, Montaigne begins to consider the question of death. He begins with a saying of Solon, cited by Aristotle, a saying according to which “no one should be called ‘happy’ before his death.” He has barely entered into the subject, without allowing us time to gather our wits, when he declares, as if it simply goes without saying, that to be dead is to find oneself “out[side] of being” and to have “no communication with what is.” 13 And in this connection he cites Lucretius, the great materialistic poet, who henceforth will be his most constant companion.
Solon’s saying will furnish the theme of a later chapter, chapter 19, entitled “That Our Happiness Must Not Be Judged until after Our Death.” To be sure, in it Montaigne invokes the sad end of many great personages, including that, both recent and moving, of Mary Stuart. But his real concern is elsewhere. Solon is a philosopher. He is therefore indifferent to the accidents of fortune. What is important to him is the “resolution and assurance of an ordered soul.” And this good order of the soul allows itself to be seen, it is verified, in the trial of death: “But in the last scene, between death and ourselves, there is no more pretending; we must talk plain French, we must show what there is that is good and clean at the bottom of the pot. . . . It is the master day, the day that is judge of all the others. . . . I leave to the test [l’essai] of death the fruit of my studies.” 14
Thus, death is the ultimate essay which recapitulates life. Under the accents of the Dies irae, an entirely different music is heard. If the day of death is the day of judgment, it is death that is judge and master. There is no other.
Here the two themes are interwoven that Montaigne is going to deploy and develop together in the following chapter: that of the republic as the expression of human pride and that of death as the trial and essay of one’s human quality, as the culminating and truly final experience. Moreover, starting from the end of this chapter, the two themes come together in a figure who is not named but whom one must recognize as Étienne de La Boétie. The premature death of La Boétie was “loftier,” it represented a greater accomplishment, than would have been the realization of his “ambitious and courageous designs.” Montaigne goes so far as to write: “By his fall, he went beyond the power and the fame to which he aspired by his career.” 15 Neither here nor elsewhere does Montaigne specify what the “ambitious and courageous designs” of La Boétie were, to what “power” and “fame” he aspired, nor what the “great results” were that he would have been able to produce with fortune’s aid. Despite this reticence, which has its reasons, Montaigne raises before us the quality of a strictly private death 16 to the height, and beyond, of the greatest exploits to which republican pride could aspire. As for himself, he does not at all aspire to such triumphs. He only proposes to die “quietly and insensibly.” These are the last words of the chapter.

We can return to the beginning of the Essays. Chapter 4—“How the Soul Discharges Its Passions on False Objects When the True Are Lacking”—begins by mentioning those ordinary experiences when anger lashes out at whatever is at hand, when grief tears at one’s breast or causes a person to beat his head against the wall. The Essays open emphatically under the sign of grief.
Then Montaigne considers the phenomenon when it changes scale and is observed in the conduct of kings. Xerxes had the Hellespont beaten and wrote a letter of defiance to Mount Athos. Cyrus used an entire army in revenging himself against the river Gyndus, because of the fear he had experienced when crossing it. A “neighboring king” wanted to revenge himself against God, ordering that people stop naming him, praying to him, or even believing in him, for a period of ten years. Augustus, angered by a tempest, removed the image of Neptune from the solemnities of the Circenses games. And so on. In the previous chapter, Montaigne had spoken of the “foolish ostentations and vain testimonies” of kingdoms. Here he provides extreme examples. The “foolish ostentation” of the royal rank nourishes the propensity to “titanic vengeance,” the folly “surpassing all folly” of wanting to revenge oneself on God. Kings are especially exposed to this disorder of the human spirit that Montaigne here names “presumption.”
Montaigne highlights the “impiety” of this behavior, which madly takes on “even God.” To our surprise, he immediately adds “or Fortune,” 17 as if he were drawing an equivalence between God and Fortune. And the following sentence is marvelously equivocal. 18 In any case, the chapter ends as follows: “But we shall never heap enough insults on the unruliness of our mind.” Despite the quite pronounced antimonarchical edge of this chapter, Montaigne maintains that the original guilty party, if I can put it that way, is “our mind.” He thus prepares chapter 8, where he will mention for the first time the aim of the Essays and will define it as the effort to record the “chimeras and fantastic monsters” of his mind, “hoping with time to cause it to be ashamed of itself.” Thus, instead of abandoning oneself to the “presumption” that ends by shooting arrows against heaven, he will record the follies of his mind in order to regulate it, by causing it shame.

3. Chapter 5 of book 1—“Whether the Governor of a Besieged Place Should Go Out to Parley”—and the following chapter—“Parley Time Is Dangerous”— constitute a development whose continuity is so well marked by Montaigne himself that one initially asks why he divided the material into two chapters.
Montaigne asks himself about the place that it is legitimate to grant to deceit in the conduct of war. In chapter 4 he opposes the ancients—the Achaeans, Romans, and “the ancient Florentines”—who aimed “to fight with virtue, not finesse,” to “us, who, less superstitious [scrupulous], hold that the man who has the profit of war has the honor of it, and who say, after Lysander, that where the lion’s skin will not suffice we must sew on a bit of the fox’s.” This evocation of the lion and the fox is perhaps an allusion to Machiavelli or to contemporary Machiavellianism. In any case, the tendency of the sentence seems to suggest that Montaigne prefers ancient virtue to modern “finesse.” Moreover, the chapter ends with the categorical affirmation of his preference, and his inclination, for “frankness”: “I put my trust easily in another man’s word. But I should do so reluctantly whenever I would give the impression of acting from despair and want of courage rather than freely and through trust in his honesty.” 19
The following chapter, which initially looks like a duplicate, has a different tone. It calmly evokes a quite recent episode “in my neighborhood at Mussidan,” where “our army” had attacked even during the course of negotiations. He recalls similar episodes in the “age of the justest captains and the most perfect Roman discipline.” And he comments as follows: “For it is not said that, at certain times and places, it is not permissible for us to take advantage of the stupidity of our enemies, as we do of their cowardice. And indeed war has by nature many privileges that are reasonable even at the expense of reason.” 20
Montaigne indicates the measure of, if not his hesitations or his perplexity, at least the very reflective and subtle character of his position, in what he says apropos of Xenophon, whom he names for the first time here. After having indicated the “reasonable privileges” of war, he writes this: “But I am astonished at the range that Xenophon gives these privileges, both by the statements and by various exploits of his perfect emperor; he an author of marvelous weight in such matters, as a great captain and a philosopher among the first disciples of Socrates. And I do not agree to the extent of his dispensation, in all things and throughout.” 21
Machiavelli also gave great credit to the authority of Xenophon, who is cited once in The Prince and six times in the Discourses. But, unlike Montaigne, Machiavelli approves “the extent” that Xenophon gives to the privileges of war.
Xenophon in his life of Cyrus shows this necessity to deceive, considering that the first expedition that he has Cyrus make against the king of Armenia is full of fraud, and that he makes him seize his kingdom through deception and not through force. And he does not conclude otherwise from this action than that it is necessary for a prince who wishes to do great things to learn to deceive. Besides this, he recounts how he deceived Cyaxares, king of the Medes, his maternal uncle, in several modes; without which fraud he shows that Cyrus could not have attained that greatness he came to. 22
Thus, Montaigne and Machiavelli occupy, as it were, symmetrical positions vis-à-vis Xenophon. If Machiavelli goes beyond the approbation that Xenophon gave to deceit, or at least renders this approval more explicit or emphatic, Montaigne, after mature reflection, clearly refuses to go as far as Xenophon. From chapter 5 to chapter 6, the opposition between ancient frankness and modern ruse becomes blurred, not because the moderns are less deceitful but because the ancients are less candid than it seemed at first. The frankness that Montaigne recommends runs counter not only to the overt Machiavellianism of the moderns but also to the veiled recommendations of the most commendable ancient philosophy.
Montaigne sees in frankness not only a sign of the quality of a soul 23 but a disposition that is quite salutary. It saves life. Toward the end of the work, in chapter 12 of book 3—“Of Physiognomy”—Montaigne recounts in detail two episodes in which he saved his life simply by extending his “frankness” to men who had the intention of killing him or taking him for ransom: “My face and my frankness had disarmed him of his treachery.” 24

Chapter 7 of book 1—“That Intention Is Judge of Our Actions”—continues the examination of the ways in which men attempt, by acting beyond their death, to extend and prolong their being, to “[extend] life beyond their life.” Those who only pay their debts after their death, like those who unexpectedly disinherit a relative in their will, do nothing that is worthwhile: they are “unjust judges, who put off judging till they no longer know the case!” 25 Montaigne concludes the chapter this way: “If I can, I shall keep my death from saying anything that my life has not already said.” This is the last sentence before chapter 8, which, I repeat, will announce the aim of the Essays and characterize it. It will be an enterprise that we can already expect will be rather scabrous, given Montaigne’s severity toward the efforts that human beings make to prolong their being and to live beyond their life. For if the Essays are first of all the essays of Montaigne’s judgment, doesn’t he belong to those “unjust judges, who put off judging till they no longer know the case”? In order to escape the condemnation that he just pronounced, Montaigne affirms that the judgments he will make after his death are of the same tenor as those formulated and put on display during his life, when the judge that he was knew the case. The promised coherence of life and death implicitly guarantees the accord of life and book, which is not yet mentioned. Thus taken into confidence, the reader will be able to favorably receive the announcement of the book, the announcement of the enterprise of the Essays.

4. Chapter 8 of book 1 thus informs us of the circumstances and initial meaning of the redaction of the Essays. Abandoning public life—this is barely suggested—Montaigne retired to his home to give his mind the leisure “to stay and settle in itself.” Retreat in view of repose. However, contrary to his expectation, his mind, “like a runaway horse, . . . gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” 26
In today’s language, we no doubt would say that the enterprise of the Essays began as a sort of autotherapy destined to heal a depression following upon retirement. The depression translated itself as a disordered superactivity of the mind, which Montaigne then tried to heal by recording it. (We would say: by objectifying it.) We should note that Montaigne appeals neither to a bodily physician nor to a spiritual one. Nor, strictly speaking, does he attempt to be his own doctor. In any case, he does not exhort himself to self-mastery or to mental sobriety; he does not mobilize his forces to put his mind back in order. He does not appeal to the agent in him, but instead doubles himself and becomes the spectator of his own mind. Nor is he ashamed of himself, although he hopes that with time his mind, contemplating his own ineptitude and strangeness in the mirror of the Essays, will be seized by a salutary shame. 27
We now have an idea of the procedure of the Essays. We can begin to consider Montaigne in the mirror in which he recorded his “chimeras.” In fact, the next chapter includes an initial self-portrait, lightly sketched: Montaigne has an extremely weak memory that has obliged him to correct a tendency toward ambition, he has a gift for friendship, he hates lies. The chapter is entitled “Of Liars”: “In truth lying is an accursed vice. We are men, and hold together, only by our word.” 28 The denunciation of lying, far from being the simple repetition of a commonplace, introduces us to what is perhaps the principal ambition of the Essays: not only to oppose the bold claim of frankness to contemporaries depraved by the vice of dissimulation, but to attain to an unprecedented degree of candor and truth about oneself, and thus about human life.
Immediately afterward, in chapter 10 of book 1—“Of Prompt or Slow Speech”—we find an example of this unprecedented precision in the description and knowledge of oneself. In it Montaigne describes “this sort of nature” which is proper to him. Montaigne’s nature finds its rhythm, its “movement,” between two excesses: “If it goes along all by itself, it does nothing but drag and languish,” it does not have enough force, enough movement, in itself; if it is provoked by a violent passion like anger, or if it constrains itself to a laborious endeavor, then it is hampered by the very violence of its movement. To keep it going, “it wants to be roused and warmed up by external, present, and accidental stimuli.” 29 This phrase, anodyne in appearance, provides a first answer to the question that, in short, is the first question of philosophy, the question of nature. More precisely, Montaigne’s “sort of nature” allows us to see an unprecedented modality of nature, or a modality of nature whose subtlety had until now escaped the knowledge of human beings, who always advanced too far and engraved where one can barely sketch. How does our nature, reduced to its own forces, arrive at the degree of being, or rather of movement, that renders it happy? Not by forcing itself nor by letting itself be forced, not by causing itself nor by letting itself be caused by an external cause, but by opening itself to the occasions that, by definition, are “external, present, and accidental.” Montaigne sees himself obliged to do without the apparatus of causes. Life contents itself with occasions. We could say, if we hold to causality, that Montaigne’s “sort of nature” responds to the weak causality of occasions rather than the strong causality of causes. The chance occasions are, in short, the grace that actualizes, completes, and perfects his nature. He himself says so: “Agitation is its very life and grace.” 30
Montaigne puts in another way this need that his nature has to be activated and completed by chance occasions: “I do not find myself in the place where I look; and I find myself more by chance encounters than by searching my judgment.” 31 Self-knowledge cannot truly be voluntary; even less can it be methodical. How would it find itself where it seeks, the soul that does not know where to seek? It is only by finding something that it has not sought, by encountering an occasion and recording its effect, that it can begin to recognize and know itself. With Montaigne, therefore, “chance” plays a large part in the activity of his mind: “The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice, draw more from my mind than I find in it when I sound it and use it by myself. Thus its speech is better than its writings.” 32 The Essays are the book of a man whose word is stronger than his writing, the book of a man who speaks.
The series that began with chapter 8 of book 1 ends with chapter 13— “Ceremony of Interviews between Kings”—which seems to have to be anecdotal or, as Montaigne himself says, especially “vain.” Now, however, under cover of evoking royal protocol, whether imperial or papal, Montaigne more precisely defines the relation that he will henceforth have with his fellow citizens whose service he has left in order to retire to his home. On one hand, he confirms the seriousness and sincerity of his retreat: “I cut out all ceremony in my house. . . . What is the use of fleeing the servitude of courts if we drag some of it right home to our lair?” 33 At the same time, he opens an entirely different perspective, one that is even contrary: “Moreover it is a very useful knowledge, this knowledge of social dexterity. Like grace and beauty, it acts as a moderator at the first approaches of sociability and familiarity, and consequently opens the door for us to learning by the examples of others, and to bringing forth and displaying our own example, if it has anything instructive and communicable about it.” 34
Thus, in the Essays it is not a matter of leaving a trace of oneself for relatives and friends, as he announced in the address “To the Reader,” nor of writing solely for oneself in order to put order in one’s mind, as he said in chapter 8 of book 1. For Montaigne, it is a matter of “bringing forth [his] example.” Thus, in this immense “rhapsody,” 35 or immense fugue, there are “examples” about which it is spoken and there is the “example” of the one who speaks. There are examples in the Essays and there is the example of the Essays. Here is the end of a long and learned introduction. The civilities have been performed. After so many ingenious and obliging preparations, Montaigne welcomes us finally into his house, where he received kings without any ceremony.

5. Chapter 14 of book 1—“That the Taste of Good and Evil Depends in Large Part on the Opinion We Have of Them”—is the first of the “great” chapters of the Essays. Montaigne undertakes to unfurl his thought and to take his place on the Kampfplatz of philosophy. 36 The chapter begins with a Greek maxim on “human beings” and ends with a blast of trumpets in honor of “philosophy.” It is an aggressive text, rich in deliberate exaggerations. Montaigne attacks.
The angle of this attack, the question raised from the beginning, is the “relief of our wretched human condition.” 37 This beautiful and penetrating formulation immediately separates Montaigne from the Greek perspective, as well as the Christian perspective. For Greek philosophy, it is a question of perfecting our nature, of leading it to its end. Such is the human task. For Christians, it is a question of healing our nature wounded by sin. More exactly: to consent to its healing by divine grace, which alone suffices. Montaigne envisages neither perfection nor healing, only a “relief.”
As we know, this formulation will be taken up by Bacon, who will give as philosophy’s, or science’s, end “the relief of man’s estate.” 38 Bacon’s perspective, however, will be quite different from Montaigne’s. The Englishman will propose, thanks to experimentation, to interrogate nature, to put it, in a way, to the test, in order to make it serve man’s well-being. In short, Bacon will write the official program of the Enlightenment. For Montaigne, nature is not an enemy to defeat, an adversary to overcome, but a friend whose gentle and persuasive voice one needs to know how to listen to. In this sense, Montaigne and Bacon represent opposite poles.
On one point, however, Montaigne says something that is not too far removed, it seems, from what Bacon will say. He affirms that while fortune offers us “the material and the seed,” it is “our soul, more powerful than [fortune],” which is the “sole cause and mistress of its happy or unhappy condition.” 39 We have sovereign power over our condition. But while Bacon expects from progress in science and technology the actual putting-to-work of this power, Montaigne discovers it already present in our soul, which is “the sole and sovereign mistress of our condition and conduct,” for if “the body has, except for differences of degree, only one gait and one posture[, the soul] may be shaped into all varieties of forms.” 40
No doubt the most striking sign of this power of the soul over our condition is the power of opinions over us, a power that is so great that “any opinion is strong enough to make people espouse it at the price of life.” 41 Montaigne multiplies ancient and modern examples of “those who have either awaited death with resolution or sought it voluntarily.” And he is keen to add: “Their number is so infinite that in truth I should make a better bargain to count up those who have feared death.” 42 As one can see, Montaigne is not afraid of exaggerating.
The opinions that cause themselves to be espoused at the cost of life are often religious opinions, mentioned or implied in several of Montaigne’s examples. The example that is developed at greatest length is that of the Jews of Castile: the cruelest measures did not cause them to renounce “their ancient belief,” and they preferred to kill themselves and their children rather than bend to the “violent decree” of King Emmanuel of Portugal. By multiplying the examples of religious heroism, Montaigne brings the different religions under the homogenous rubric of the power of opinion. 43
In any case, a properly philosophical intention is served by this deliberate exaggeration of the power of opinion. Under the appearance of a reaffirmation of the traditional thesis of the superiority and power of the soul over the body, Montaigne advances a new thesis. I return to and complete the passage already cited: “The soul is the sole and sovereign mistress of our condition and our conduct. The body has, except for differences in degree, only one gait and one posture. The soul may be shaped into all varieties of forms, and molds to itself and to its every condition the feelings of the body and all other accidents.” This mastery of the soul does not derive, as in Greek philosophy, from a power of ordering. Rather, it is a power of transforming, or of transforming itself, a metamorphic power, a poetic power. It is not a matter of rediscovering and actualizing an underlying order, but of giving form to something that does not have form or can take on a thousand forms: “Of the many thousands of attitudes at its disposal, let us give it one conducive to our repose and preservation.” 44 For the Greeks, the amplitude of the soul was given by its elevation, or by the elevation of its ends; for Montaigne, by its mobility and its plasticity, by its capacity to take on a thousand forms, a thousand attitudes, a thousand folds. 45

If the soul by nature is so mobile, and it would take only a little bit more to say that it is liquid, in practice it always already has a determinate fold, or determinate folds. The folds of the soul are its evaluations, the price that it gives to things. Evaluation, value, price, this is the means for the mobile soul, the indefinite soul with a thousand folds, to take hold of itself, to arrest and determine itself, to give itself some determination: “Our opinion gives value to things . . . and we call ‘value’ in them not what they bring, but what we bring to them.” 46 To give a price is to pay, which ultimately means “to suffer”: “Purchase gives value to the diamond, and difficulty to virtue, and pain to piety, and harshness to medicine.” But our apparent generosity—it is we who give value, and we are generous in our evaluations, we love “precious” things, things of “great price”—is that of a smart accountant, even an ingenious one, since we rediscover in the thing—diamond or virtue—everything that we spent on it, everything we put in it, and we have lost nothing: “At which point I note that we are great economizers of our expenditure. According as it weighs, it serves by the very fact that it weighs. Our opinion never allows itself travel without cargo.” 47
It is important to note that in this chapter, where he intervenes in the philosophical debate for the first time, Montaigne distances himself from the greatest authority among the Christian doctors, Saint Augustine, as well as the greatest authority among the pagan philosophers, Plato. He even directly contradicts both.
Apropos of Saint Augustine, who is not named: “However, if one must believe a Church Father, ‘Malam mortem non facit nisi quod sequitur mortem.’ And I should say, still more probably, that neither what goes before nor what comes after is an appurtenance of death.” 48 From the outset, Montaigne makes known his disagreement with the highest Christian theological authority concerning death and what follows. While Augustine connects death and what comes after in a dramatic continuity, that of salvation or damnation, Montaigne reduces death to be nothing but “the movement of an instant.”
And apropos of Plato: “But since we have emancipated ourselves from nature’s rules to abandon ourselves to the vagabond freedom of our fancies, at least let us help ourselves by turning them in the most agreeable direction. Plato fears our hard bondage to pain and pleasure, since it obligates and attaches the soul too much to the body. I, on the contrary, because it detaches and unbinds it.” 49 From the beginning, Montaigne declares his disagreement with the “divine Plato” on the relation of the soul with the body. The excesses of pain and pleasure do not indicate an excess of the soul’s attachment to the body, but rather excesses proper to the soul, since “what makes pain and pleasure keen in us is the sharpness of our mind.” 50
“And I should say, still more probably,” . . . “I, on the contrary,” . . . On these central points of the Christian religion and Greek philosophy, respectively, Montaigne soberly, but quite explicitly, states his disagreement.
The last lines of the chapter, I have already said, are a trumpet burst in honor of philosophy: “For the rest, we do not escape philosophy by stressing immoderately the sharpness of pain and the weakness of man. For we force her to fall back on these unanswerable replies: If it is bad to live in necessity, at least there is no necessity to live in necessity.” 51 Montaigne prepares our heart for the Marseillaise of the philosopher that he will provide in chapter 20 of book 1.

6. Chapter 20 of book 1—“That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die”—is the second “great chapter” after chapter 14. Having firmly taken up his distance from the two supreme doctrinal authorities, Montaigne can begin to explicate his understanding of the problem of human life, whose three great parameters are virtue, pleasure, and death.
After having noted that “all the opinions in the world agree in this—that pleasure is our goal—though they choose different means to it. Otherwise they would be thrown out right away; for who would listen to a man who would set up our pain and discomfort as his goal?,” 52 Montaigne engages in an unexpected development that we could call “against-type.” He enthuses for virtue with a vehemence that does not sound quite right: virtue, he declares, is the true pleasure, more pleasurable even than the most characteristic pleasure, which is sexual pleasure; it is the former, virtue, that ought to be properly called pleasure, because at bottom it is “the more seriously voluptuous.” 53 In any case, this virtue is the condition for the disdain of death, which itself is the condition of all pleasure. It is in the shelter of the contempt for death that we can find that “soft tranquility” that provides us the authentic taste of the things of life. 54
The disdain of death is thus the “point” toward which “all the rules” of life converge. How are we to acquire this disdain, when “there is no place from whence it might not come,” when “we may turn our heads constantly this way and that as in a suspicious [dangerous] country?” There is one means that Montaigne categorically rejects, even with a sort of indignation: “The remedy of the common herd is not to think about it. But from what brutish stupidity can come so gross a blindness!” 55 Montaigne reproaches the vulgar person for his stupidity and his blindness, but not his cowardice. As for himself, far from envisaging heroism or having an ambition for bravery, he would willingly put himself safely apart, “even under a calf’s skin”: “The best game that I can give myself I’ll take, though it be as little glorious and exemplary as you like.” 56 What he reproaches in the vulgar person’s remedy is not that it is base but that it is ineffective: “And this brutish nonchalance, even if it could lodge in the head of a man of understanding—which I find entirely impossible—sells us its wares too dearly. . . . If [death] were an enemy we could avoid, I would advise us to borrow the arms of cowardice. But since that cannot be . . . let us learn to meet it steadfastly and to combat it.” 57
Since flight is impossible, “to begin to strip it of its greatest advantage against us, let us take an entirely different way from the usual one. Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. . . . Let us ever keep in mind this refrain, the memory of our condition.” At this point we have a sudden elevation, because, having started “under a calf’s skin,” Montaigne arrives at a bound at the pinnacle of freedom: “Premeditation of death is the premeditation of freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.” 58 Thus the disdain of death is not only the means to a “soft tranquility”; it is also the condition of interior freedom. Remember that you can always take leave: this is the republican memento mori.
We should acknowledge that we are more than a little puzzled. This disdain of death to which we are called presents faces, or aspects, that do not seem to be easily compatible. Who will simultaneously be the citizen who refuses “to serve” and the friend of pleasure who aims to enjoy life in “soft tranquility”? Is it Montaigne who is divagating, or are we captive to political and moral clichés that hamper our reading? It is prudent to consider the second hypothesis. Let us therefore try to consider more closely what I called the republican memento mori.
Montaigne proposes a spiritual exercise of an unprecedented sort, one that is not easy to describe. It is a matter of preparing oneself to die and, therefore, if you will, detaching oneself from the world, but by means of a double maneuver, which has a contradictory character. It is a matter of detaching oneself from one’s own, not only without detaching oneself from oneself but by attaching oneself even more tightly to oneself: “I unbind myself on all sides; my farewells are already half made to everyone except myself. Never did a man prepare to leave the world more utterly and completely, nor detach himself from it more universally, than I propose to do.” 59 The disdain of death rests on a redoubled presence to oneself: “Since I am constantly brooding over my thoughts and settling them within me, I am at all times about as well prepared as I can be. And the coming of death will teach me nothing new. We must be always booted and ready to go, so far as it is in our power, and take especial care to have only ourselves to deal with then.” 60 The constant and vigilant putting into effect of a certain relationship to oneself deprives death of its most redoubtable weapon, which is the effect of surprise. It is by only having dealings with one’s own being that one prepares oneself for the loss of one’s being.
The best way to highlight Montaigne’s procedure is to point out its difference from the Christian memento mori, such as Pascal in particular will reformulate it, after having read Montaigne. Pascal writes: “It is not a question here of the trifling interest of some stranger treating it this way [i. e., treating death with negligence]: it is a question of ourselves, and our all.” 61 For his part, Montaigne says something like the following: the relationship to others, the concern for others, places us in their dependence, and it is because we see ourselves by their eyes that our own life appears to us as a “whole” susceptible of being lost, and this loss then as a terrible misfortune. However, the relationship to oneself well conducted, the vigilant presence to oneself, does not allow such a “whole” to appear and to be defined. If, having “unbound [oneself] on all sides,” one is entirely in oneself, if in the final analysis one only has an attentive and active relationship, a “serious” relationship, to oneself, if therefore our being is entirely in ourselves, we will be delivered from that reflection which causes us to consider our being from the outside. Death will not be anything more than an accident that we await, rather than what separates us from ourselves, by separating us from others. Moreover, let us do away with the term “accident,” since death is natural and necessary, since life, as we read almost at the end of the Essays, is “something that by its nature must be lost.” 62 To the alternative between the disdain for death and the fear of death, Montaigne substitutes an adhesion to one’s own being that is so serious and affectionate that death comes to lose itself, quite amicably, in a life that is naturally “losable.”
To be sure, even in retirement “only to have to do with oneself” is not easy. We constantly have “things to do” because “we are born to act.” 63 How can the attention given to the things to do accommodate itself to a constant attention to oneself, and, in particular, to one’s mortal condition? How to have only to do with oneself, when action always draws us outside? Here, precisely, is where the spiritual exercise resides. Here is where Montaigne’s art of drawing the string of the bow, of tuning the soul, is found. This art is contained in a formulation that transmits less a notion than a complex musical harmony: “I want a man to act, and to prolong the functions of life as long as he can; and I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless [nonchalant] about death, and still more of my unfinished garden.” 64 Three chords come together and temper their vibrations: the ardor of acting is tempered or inflected by the constant thought of death, which in turn is tempered or inflected by serious adhesion to the life of our being. The harmonic gamut can also be crossed from the other direction, but we would seek in vain to explain the music. In any case, in order to designate this just tension of the soul in which virtue, pleasure, and death find an almost perfect accord, Montaigne has recourse to a word that is not found in any philosophical or theological dictionary: “nonchalance.”
Pascal will not fail to turn this word against Montaigne: “[Montaigne] inspires indifference [nonchalance] regarding salvation, ‘without fear and repentance.’ As his book was not written to encourage piety, he was under no obligation to do so, but we are always under an obligation not to discourage it. One may excuse his somewhat free and licentious views on certain situations in life, but his completely pagan views on death are inexcusable; for all hope of piety must be abandoned if we are not at least willing to die as Christians. Now, throughout his book he thinks only of dying a death of cowardly ease.” 65
Here Pascal is perhaps harsh, but he is not unjust. What he reproaches Montaigne for are the dispositions of which Montaigne is proud. And he uses his very words. It is around “nonchalance” or “being nonchalant” that the argument is joined between these two supremely active minds. Montaigne sees resources in this relaxation, and in this weakness of nature, new possibilities of art. In a passage that Pascal seems to refer to in the text we just read, Montaigne, rejecting the “harsh and exemplary achievements” that “philosophy and religion produce,” is going to seek counsel from Petronius and Tigellinus, Roman decadents who “put death as it were to sleep” by the “comfort of their preparations” and made it “flow and glide past amidst the laxity of their customary past-times, among wenches and boon companions: no talk of consolation . . . no discourse about their future state.” Montaigne does not exactly recommend that we imitate Petronius and Tigellinus, but he asks if we might not be able “to imitate their resolution with more decent behavior.” 66 Moreover, Montaigne himself does not insist on the company of “wenches and boon companions,” because “[dying] is an act for one single character,” and he will content himself “with a collected, calm, and solitary death.” 67 But if there is an art of death, in contrast to the heroic efforts that philosophy and religion recommend and evoke, it consists in allowing oneself to slide into death like a rabbit into its hole, 68 damping to the point of making insensible this passing outside of being that frightens people.
Nature, moreover, prepares us for this art. In the rest of the chapter, Montaigne explains how life itself naturally and, if I can put it this way, kindly disposes us: “Nature herself lends us her hand and gives us courage.” 69 How? Sickness, for example, by weakening us, makes us lose the taste for life and thus detaches us from it. And is not getting old a sort of progressive and painless death? Thus we almost insensibly slide into nonbeing, “so that we feel no shock when youth dies within us, which in essence and in truth is a harder death than the complete death of a languishing life or the death of old age; inasmuch as the leap is not so cruel from a painful life to no life as from a sweet and flourishing life to a grievous and painful one.” 70
Finally, it is nature itself that speaks in a long prosopopoeia, an entrancing pagan lullaby. It puts to sleep our worries by justifying its conduct toward us. Life is fully in each of its moments. There is nothing new to await or to fear: “There is no other light, no other night.” Death is neither a trial nor a punishment; “it is the condition of your creation, it is a part of you.” 71

7. It is not certain that nature’s case, as persuasive as Montaigne makes it, receives the general adherence of the human race. As the following chapter— “Of the Power of the Imagination”—affirms and documents, most people live under the empire of the imagination. It is especially powerful in religious matters, at least among “the minds of the common people, which are softer.” The power of the imagination is such that “they think they see what they do not see.” 1 The imagination is also especially active in sexual matters. Montaigne recounts having seen a certain Germain at Vitry-le-François, “now heavily bearded, and old, and not married,” whom all the inhabitants had known as the girl called Marie up to the age of twenty-two. The aforesaid Germain recounted that, while jumping, “his masculine organs produced themselves.” 2 This is certainly a very striking testimony.
Montaigne provides many other testimonies on the same subject for our consideration. How many men owe their sexual fiascos to the vehemence of their imagination! Montaigne shares with us what he “knows by experience.” He tells the story of “one man, whom [he] can answer for as for [him]self, on whom there could fall no suspicion whatever of impotence . . . [who] having heard a friend of his tell the story of an extraordinary impotence into which he had fallen at the moment when he needed it least, and finding himself in a similar situation, was all at once so struck in his imagination by the horror of this story that he incurred the same fate.” 3 Moreover, tormented by the memory of an impotence out of keeping with his nature, he was subject to experience it again. However, he healed himself: “He found some remedy for this fancy by another fancy.” 4 What remedy? His impotence being due to the fear of impotence, he chose to announce the likelihood of his failure. Thus delivered from what we would call “pressure,” he could recover the full use of his faculties. In this way “he was completely cured in this respect.” 5
Not only did Montaigne heal himself—for there is no doubt that he is speaking of himself—but he also healed a friend by combatting his imagination with the imagination. One can read the sexological consultation for oneself, which is quite detailed. 6
The imagination, capable of transforming sexual ardor into ice, is, in short, stronger than nature. Its effects are therefore unforeseeable. They obey no rule. We cannot know them except by testimonies, such as the one offered by Montaigne of his sexual failures, or about Marie Germain. However, this last testimony contains a difficulty because, in his Journal de voyage, Montaigne tells us that he was not able to actually see this Marie Germain “because he was in the village,” but that the fact was “attested” to him “by the highest officials of the town.” 7 Did Montaigne see and hear Marie Germain, or was it simply hearsay? The chapter ends with a reflection on the role of examples and stories in the argument of the Essays. We need to pause here.
As we have noted, Montaigne claims to bring an unprecedented candor. He therefore expects a commensurate trust from the reader. But what confidence can we grant to the innumerable examples and stories that Montaigne recounts, he who does not claim any competence as a specialist, who does not truly know, and does not claim to make us know, anything but himself? Montaigne responds to this difficulty by rigorously distinguishing between “stories” and his commentary: “I refer the stories that I borrow to the conscience of those from whom I take them. The reflections are my own, and depend on the proofs of reason, not of experience.” 8 The division is indeed quite clear. However, if one understands quite well that Montaigne’s conscience is not engaged in the examples that he reports, it does seem that it is important to us, and that it ought to matter to Montaigne, to know if these narratives, anecdotes, and testimonies are worthy of belief or not. Now, precisely to this point, Montaigne explains that, because of the character of his procedure, this question is otiose: “So in the study that I am making of our behavior and motives, fabulous testimonies, provided they are possible, serve like true ones. Whether they have happened or not, in Paris or Rome, to John or Peter, they exemplify, at all events, some human potentiality, and thus their telling imparts useful information to me. . . . There are authors whose end is to tell what has happened. Mine, if I could attain it, would be to talk about what can happen.” 9 Here are propositions that merit some commentary.
What is a testimony that is “fabulous” but “possible”? It is a story that did not occur as it is recounted but that could have happened that way, because there are stories, or examples, that are similar or analogous and that themselves are attested. A passage of Aristotle, I believe, perfectly illumines what Montaigne means here: “Another motive [for revolt] is contempt, as in the case of Sardanapalus, whom someone saw carding wool with his women, if the story-tellers say truly; and the tale may be true, if not of him, of someone else.” 10 Up to this point, everything is fine, but often one does not know the limits of the possible. What to do with the testimonies that are difficult to believe, precisely because they go beyond the limits of what seems possible to us? Montaigne willingly registers them under the title of “popular opinions.” He commends Tacitus for having proceeded in this way: “We may find him bold in his testimony. . . . I am accustomed in such things to bow to the authority of such great witnesses. When he says that Vespasian, by the favor of the god Serapis, cured a blind woman in Alexandria by anointing her eyes with saliva, and I know not what other miracle, he conforms to the example and duty of all good historians. They keep a record of important events; among public incidents are also popular rumors and opinions.” 11
On the other hand, when his “experience” and “conscience” are involved, Montaigne does not hesitate to call into doubt “popular rumors and opinions,” as for example in the chapter “Of Cripples,” where he dilates at length on his experience concerning “miracles”: “I have seen the birth of many miracles in my time. Even when they are smothered at birth, we do not fail to foresee the course they would have taken if they had lived out their full age. . . . If fortune had allowed five or six such incidents to accumulate, they could have made this miracle a part of nature. . . . Passing the day before yesterday through a village two leagues from my house, I found the place still stirred up about a miracle that had just failed to come off.” 12 As for the “witches of [his] neighborhood,” he does not hide his doubts concerning the “extravagant accusations” of which they were the subjects: “How much more natural that our understanding should be carried away from its base by the volatility of our untracked mind than that one of us, in flesh and bone, should be wafted up a chimney on a broomstick by a strange spirit!” 13 In this way, with Montaigne there is, as it were, double-entry accounting. On one hand, he is welcoming, even indulgent, toward all the stories that are recounted, including the least plausible; on the other, it is with a scrupulous conscience that he attempts to evaluate exactly the experience that he himself has had or of which he has direct knowledge. On one hand, he believes, or pretends to believe, everything; on the other, he believes almost nothing. The two dispositions find their compatibility in an experience of the self that discovers itself to be a maker of miracles or, rather, itself a miracle: “To this moment all these miracles and strange events [of my neighborhood] have eluded me. I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.” 14 What right does the one who does not cease to surprise himself have to reject out of hand what he hears recounted, however surprising?

8. The question of what is possible in human things does not solely concern the stories of “witches” and other extraordinary accounts. It concerns the ordinary tenor of life and the way in which we come to know human things, that is, the way in which we write history. Taken in this sense, the question intensely preoccupies Montaigne throughout the Essays. In the chapters “Of the Education of Children” (1.26) and “Of Books” (2.10), we find the principal elements of what we could call Montaigne’s epistemology of history.
In the first, Montaigne recommends to the “tutor” to encourage his student “[to] associate, by means of histories, with those great souls of the best ages,” in particular by means of the “histories” recounted by Plutarch, where it is a question not so much of learning as of judging. This, “in my opinion, is of all matters the one to which we apply our minds in the most varying degree.” In a striking expression, Montaigne explains that this reading delivers us “the anatomy of philosophy, in which the most abstruse parts of our nature are penetrated.” Plutarch is so rich that, with a word, he opens a world of ideas: “Just as that remark of his, that the inhabitants of Asia served one single man [were the slaves of one man] because they could not pronounce one single syllable, which is ‘No,’ may have given the matter and the impulsion to La Boétie for his Voluntary Servitude. ” 15
In the second, Montaigne specifies that history as practiced by Plutarch, instead of attaching itself to “events”—to particular facts—above all considers “plans,” that is, the interior intentions and deliberations. While Aristotle saw in history the discipline that concerns the particular—what Alcibiades did or what happened to him 16 —Montaigne believes that it is with the historians, especially Plutarch therefore, that “man in general,” of whom he “seeks knowledge,” “appears . . . more alive and entire than in any other place.” 17
All historians are not Plutarch, of course. Montaigne distinguishes three sorts of historians. First of all, the “simple ones,” who “record everything faithfully, without any choice or discrimination,” for example, “the good Froissart,” delivering “the material of history, naked and unformed,” and allowing us the opportunity to profit from it according to our understanding. Then, the “outstanding ones,” capable of discerning “what is worth knowing,” of choosing the report that is the most plausible, of penetrating the intentions of the agents and attributing to them “appropriate words.

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