Beyond Words and Deeds: Montaigne's Soldierly Style

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Elegance of style is not a manly ornament (Non est ornamentum virile concinnitas)

--Montaigne, citing Seneca in "A consideration upon Cicero" (1:40, 251a) (1)

That I, the son of the dear murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.

--Hamlet (2.2.561-63)

Particularly in later editions of the Essays, Montaigne often refers to his own writing style in terms that suggest masculine virility. His prose, he asserts, eschews soft eloquence and the "prostitution of complimentary addresses" in favor of a style that is "dry, plain, and blunt" (185b). (2) As Patricia Parker has recently argued, Montaigne draws on a long tradition of Classical and Renaissance debates on rhetoric when he insists on this distinction between manly and effeminate rhetorical styles. (3) For instance, Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria compares the superficial beauties of language to "effeminate and luxurious apparel." The passage continues, "It is with a more virile spirit that we should pursue eloquence, who, if only her whole body be sound, will never think it her duty to polish her nails and tire her hair" (189). (4) Yet Montaigne's use of the language of virile embodiment to describe the Essays' style departs in significant ways from many existing classical models. Montaigne links useful, "manly" rhetoric neither to the classical definition of the "good man skilled in speaking," nor to the idea that the orator uses rhetoric for public profit. (5) Instead, he launches a broadside attack on public rhetoric as artificial and useless, appropriating the "virile spirit" of eloquence for the semi-private sphere of the essay. Moreover, the Essays show increasing interest in what Parker calls "virile style," as opposed to virile deeds, in the passages Montaigne inserts into later editions of his Essays. With strategic additions such as Seneca's warning that "elegance of style is not a manly ornament," Montaigne repositions his own writing project within complex, shifting oppositions between public and private spheres, words and deeds, and feminine and masculine identities.

This essay traces Montaigne's evolving conception of his own writing project by examining the changes he makes to three essays: "Of the education of children" (1:26), "A consideration upon Cicero" (1:40), and "Of giving the lie" (2:18). In the first edition of these essays (written between 1572 and 1580 and referred to as layer a), Montaigne tends to maintain a strict hierarchy of active, masculine valor over useless feminine babble. He does not often make room for a "virile spirit" within the domain of language. For instance, in "Of the education of children," Montaigne explains why the Lacedaemonians avoided writing down the rules of prowess and giving them to their young men to read: "They wanted to accustom them to deeds, not words." By contrast, he asserts that to the young scholars of his day "the world is nothing but babble" (124a). (6) Similarly, in "A consideration upon Cicero," he asserts that the writings of Xenophon and Caesar are valid only because they are guaranteed by these men's previous acts: "They sought to recommend not their sayings but their doings" (183a). (7) Without the warrant of public actions, visible to all, words become dangerously false. Yet significantly, Montaigne does not claim such a warrant in public actions for his own writings, to which he dedicated himself as part of his retirement from public employment in 1571. In his address to the reader, he asserts, "I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one." (8) In this way, two of the most central characteristics of the Essays--their production in the private sphere rather than the public and their medium of words rather than deeds--conflict with Montaigne's constantly reiterated ideal of "utilite." (9)

In the first edition, Montaigne tends to dismiss his whole project on these grounds, warning his readers, "You would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject" (2). …