The Invisibility of Philosophy in the Essays of Michel De Montaigne

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IT MUST BE ADMITTED that the Essays of Michel de Montaigne do not look like philosophy: there are no first principles, no arguments, no conclusions, no evident philosophical teaching. True, there are hundreds of quotations from the ancients, but Montaigne's "own" philosophy, his own philosophical teaching (if, indeed, there is one) is nowhere to be seen. On the other hand, Michel de Montaigne himself is always visible: the Essays, as he often tells us, are all about him and only about him.

The invisibility of his own philosophy in the Essays has led many to suppose that Montaigne is not a philosopher at all, but simply the inventor of the new literary form of the essay. Others have focused on the "Apology," where he presents the arguments of the Skeptics, and have concluded that Montaigne himself must be simply a follower of the Skeptics, but not a philosopher with his own philosophical project. Yet Montaigne does describe himself as a philosopher, although only once, in the Essays. In fact, he is "a new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher." (1) He is an unpremeditated philosopher because he says the first words that come to his mouth. His thoughts are "born with [him] and without a model," yet they resemble and are mistaken for the "humors" of ancient philosophy. (2) His mores are weak for he has not followed any philosophical discipline to strengthen them. When the desire to tell them seizes him, he calls upon the help of ancient philosophy to express them so that he might go out a bit more decently in public. Then he marvels at just how much his weak mores conform, by accident, to so many of the teachings and examples of ancient philosophy. Even in this passage--especially in this passage--where he describes himself as a new figure of the philosopher, his own philosophy is invisible. He simply uses the fragments of ancient philosophy to express what he is.

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In the absence of an evident philosophical teaching, how can we begin to approach the question of what philosophy is for Montaigne? We can start by looking at two things: his audience and his end or purpose. In "Of presumption," Montaigne asks himself: "And then, for whom do you write?" (3) The learned, who pass judgment on books, recognize only erudition and art and value only learning. Common and popular souls, on the other hand, cannot recognize the grace and the weight of lofty and elevated discourse. These two human types almost exhaust the possibilities. Nevertheless, there is a third type: "The third type into whose hands you fall, that of souls ordered and strong in themselves, is so rare that for this very reason it has neither name nor rank among us: it is time half lost to aspire and strive to please them." (4) The third type has no name because it has no rank. In pointing to the fact that this type has no rank among us, Montaigne implies that his project involves a transcendence of the traditional hierarchy, the traditional order of high and low, strong and weak. The strength of the self-ordered soul is measured not by its place within the hierarchy but by its freedom of judgment: "Indeed there are few souls so regulated, so strong and well-born, that they can be trusted to their own conduct, and who are able, with moderation and without temerity, to sail in the liberty of their judgments beyond the common opinions." (5) This ordering of the self is rare and difficult: "Our mind is an erratic, dangerous, and heedless tool; it is difficult to impose order and measure upon it. And in my time those who have some rare excellence beyond the others, and some extraordinary quickness, are nearly all, we see, incontinent in the license of their opinions and conduct. It is a miracle if you find a sedate and sociable one." (6) Montaigne's primary audience is the self-ordered soul, who is free in his judgments to go beyond common opinions. The philosophical act, then, involves the freeing of judgment through the questioning of common opinions. …