Democracy and the Rule of Law

By José María Maravall; Adam Przeworski | Go to book overview

Chapter Twelve
The Rule of Law and the Problem
of Legal Reform in Michel de
Montaigne's Essais

The nature of the law - in the sense of both customary human practices and positive, written law - is a central theme in Montaigne's Essais, though, like any other major subject in his work, it is difficult to present systematically without imposing a somewhat arbitrary order on the text.1 There were basically three dimensions in which Montaigne developed this subject: the first one was the broad anthropological reflection on the nature of social norms and moral conventions within human societies, no doubt the best-known aspect of his contribution to this issue and one that is generally regarded as distinctly representative of his skeptical approach. The second dimension was the devastating critique of contemporary French legislation and of the judicial machinery responsible for administering it - a reality Montaigne was intimately associated with in his capacity of conseiller first, between 1554 and 1557, at the Cour des Aides de Périgueux, and then, from 1557, at the Parlement of Bordeaux until his decision to sell

1 To make the reading less stressful for non-French speakers I have confined all passages
from Montaigne's French text to the annotation, giving at the same time a reference to
the English translation by Screech (1987). In all quotations from the Essais I give first
the number of the book and of the chapter of the work (in Roman numerals); then the
volume and page number in the edition by Villey (1999); finally the page number in
Screech (1987). It is practically impossible to confine any large topic in the context of
the Essais to a particular section of the text; however, I have mostly used the following
chapters: book I (ch. XXIII, “De la coustume et de ne changer aisément une loy receue");
book II (ch. XVII, “De la praesumption"; ch. XII, “Apologie de Raimond Sebond"; ch. XIX,
“[a-z]+ la liberte de conscience"); book III (ch. I, “De Futile et de l'honneste"; ch. II, “Du
repentir"; ch. IX, “De la vanité"; ch. XIII, “De l'experience"). Montaigne continued to
work on the Essais throughout the 1570s and 1580s until his death in 1592: though it
is possible to recognize in the text the additions made to the different editions (between
1580 and 1588) it is often difficult to follow the evolution of certain opinions and put
them in relation to external events.

-302-

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