Montaigne's Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais

Montaigne's Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais

Montaigne's Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais

Montaigne's Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais

Synopsis

Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) is principally known today as a literary figure--the inventor of the modern essay and the pioneer of autobiographical self-exploration who retired from politics in midlife to write his private, philosophical, and apolitical Essais. But, as Biancamaria Fontana argues in Montaigne's Politics, a novel, vivid account of the political meaning of the Essais in the context of Montaigne's life and times, his retirement from the Bordeaux parliament in 1570 "could be said to have marked the beginning, rather than the end, of his public career." He later served as mayor of Bordeaux and advisor to King Henry of Navarre, and, as Fontana argues, Montaigne's Essais very much reflect his ongoing involvement and preoccupation with contemporary politics--particularly the politics of France's civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. Fontana shows that the Essais, although written as a record of Montaigne's personal experiences, do nothing less than set forth the first major critique of France's ancien régime, anticipating the main themes of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire and Diderot. Challenging the views that Montaigne was politically aloof or evasive, or that he was a conservative skeptic and supporter of absolute monarchy, Fontana explores many of the central political issues in Montaigne's work--the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious toleration, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes.

Excerpt

For over four hundred years, since his death in 1592, Michel de Montaigne has proved a difficult subject for portrait. The small group of loyal friends who first tried to celebrate his qualities and achievements—as the news that the author of the Essais was dead spread slowly across Europe— may have found some comfort in the panegyrics, tributes, and praises they lavished upon his memory. But the man who invented a radically novel, breathtakingly modern way of writing about the self had fatally undermined the future efforts of interpreters and commentators, keeping for himself all the original insights, and leaving for posterity only the dry bones of conventional rhetoric and of standard literary formulas. There is simply nothing anyone can say about Michel de Montaigne, about his temperament, experiences, and ideas, that has not been said more interestingly and effectively by himself.

The choice that is made here of selecting one particular dimension of Montaigne's contribution—focusing upon those aspects of his reflection that are relevant to the understanding of politics—may also seem (and perhaps is) a self-defeating exercise. It goes against the spirit of the writer's work, which deliberately rejected any specialized approach to the understanding of human reality, and it contradicts his deliberate blurring of the contours of his private and public persona. The very nature of the Essais, which stand as an intricate, closely knit unit, in which the world is apprehended through the unique filter of the self, seems to preclude any clear separation of domains of inquiry. Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that what Montaigne offered as self-portrait was in fact just a profile, a carefully selected perspective; whether he was right or not in his judgment, I intend to follow his suggestion: a profile view is what I shall be attempting in this book.

As a rule, those intellectual historians who are interested in the political and ideological implications of Montaigne's work prefer to avoid any direct confrontation with the intrusive personality of the author: they concentrate instead upon the text of the Essais taken as a distinct, disembodied entity, or upon the discursive contexts surrounding it. Such approaches offer the advantage of methodological coherence and can certainly help to clarify the language and structure of Montaigne's writings, but they still leave open the question of their interpretation. Recent attempts to place Montaigne's career in the context of sixteenth-century literary and political patronage have the great merit of injecting some historical substance . . .

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