Montaigne's "De L'art De Conferer": Conference as an Act of Friendship

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It is now standard practice to interpret Michel de Montaigne's view of friendship through a pre- and post-lapsarian framework, drawing namely from the author's central essay "De l'amitie" (1.28). Prior to the death of Estienne de La Boetie, Montaigne's communication with his friend was perfect, almost atemporal, so pure and transparent that no language--no mediation--was in fact needed. The essayist depicts their perfect friendship in typically Neoplatonic terms as a spiritual fusion of two souls: "En l'amitie dequoy je parle, elles se meslent et confondent l'une en l'autre, d'un meslange si universel, qu'elles effacent et ne retrouvent plus la cousture qui les ajoinctes" ("In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again"). (1) Richard Regosin has underscored the idealism of this depiction of friendship: "A fundamental characteristic of the perfect union of friendship is that it is most profoundly a prelinguistic or extralinguistic phenomenon." (2) Yet Montaigne is not thoroughly consistent in his representations of friendship. For instance, the author's expressed preference for the epistolary form over the essay form complicates, at the very least, his presumed logocentric view of friendship: "Et eusse prins plus volontiers ceste forme [les lettres] a publier mes verves, si j'eusse eu a qui parler. Il me falloit, comme je l'ay eu autrefeois, un certain commerce, qui m'attirast, qui me soustinst et souslevast" (1.40.252c) ("And I would have preferred to adopt this form [letters] to publish my sallies, if I had had someone to talk to. I needed what I once had, a certain relationship to lead me on, sustain me, and raise me up" [185-86]). Here Montaigne conceives of friendship as an act of intersubjectivity, as including--rather than excluding--the presence of writing. (3)

In "De l'art de conferer" (3.8), Montaigne, I would like to argue, goes so far as to propose a different, if not an alternative, model of friendship from the influential one found in "De l'amitie." Granted, it would be erroneous to simply conflate conference (4) or discussion--"le plus fructueux et naturel exercice de nostre esprit" (922b) ("the most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind" [704])--with friendship per se, since not every conference must involve the participation of two friends. In this respect, we might want to say that conference is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for the cultivation of friendship: that is, the activity of conference is not exhaustive of what friendship is, of what friends do. But can a sufficient condition for friendship ever possibly be established? It seems to me that Montaigne's sublime saying in "De l'amitie"--"par ce que c'estoit luy; par ce que c'estoit moy" (188c) ("Because it was he, because it was I" [139])--dramatizes such a question, effectively ruling out the very possibility of affirming any sufficient condition for friendship.

To the question why he befriended La Boetie, Montaigne, in "De l'amitie," opted not to evoke La Boetie's contemplative life of study, his humanist love for wisdom and truth, nor did he single out a necessary feature of La Boetie's character or a certain moral virtue present in both of them. That is to say, Montaigne did not list specific features about La Boetie as a means of giving a justification to his friendship; he evoked no shared likeness, value, practice, or common wisdom that drew them together. (5) No sufficient condition, nor any set of conditions that are jointly sufficient, can thus be ascertained in the determination of Montaigne's friendship with La Boetie.

It is clear that Montaigne, in "De l'art de conferer," does not address the question of friendship in any systematic manner; the word "amitie" in fact only appears once in the whole essay. Yet it is evoked in a key passage, where Montaigne describes friendship not as a passive condition but as a kind of praxis, as a relationship presupposing two active subjects: "J'ayme une societe et familiarite forte et virile, une amitie qui se flatte en l'asprete et vigueur de son commerce, comme l'amour, es morsures et esgratigneures sanglantes" (924b) ("I like a strong, manly fellowship and familiarity, a friendship that delights in the sharpness and vigor of its intercourse, as does love in bites and scratches that draw blood" [705]). …