Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Innovation as Spiritual Exercise: Montaigne and Pascal

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Innovation as Spiritual Exercise: Montaigne and Pascal

Article excerpt

The rediscovery of the rhetorical tradition in the past thirty years has transformed the study of early modern authors like Montaigne and Pascal.1 The categories of traditional literary history, like originality, influence, predecessors, and followers, are now seen as inadequate when it comes to explaining how Montaigne and Pascal thought of themselves as authors and how they understood the process of intellectual discovery and literary production.2 In the same perspective looking for originality (in the modern sense of the term) in early modern authors is now seen as a misguided enterprise. In the rhetorical culture of early modern Europe every author writes in a given tradition, and every new book is to be understood within the tradition or traditions to which it belongs. Pascal borrows heavily from Montaigne, sometimes verbatim, sometimes not.3 Montaigne draws from Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero, and many others.

Having realized this, the modern reader is tempted to conclude that authors like Montaigne and Pascal, absorbed as they are in their conversation with the great authors from the past, are not interested in saying anything new. Yet the opposite is true. Pascal famously preempts a possible objection to his Pensées by saying, "Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new" (696).4 As to Montaigne, his contempt for novelty in general is well known. However, he praises traveling because "the mind is continually exercised in observing new and unknown things."5 In addition, in his dedication to Madame d'Estissac at the beginning of the chapter "Of the affection of fathers for their children" he suggests that the value of his book may well reside entirely in the fact that its subject matter is new: "Madame, if strangeness and novelty, which customarily give value to things, do not save me, I shall never get out of this stupid enterprise with honor; but it is so fantastic and appears so remote from common usage that that may enable it to pass."6

This passage seems paradoxical to the modern reader but for reasons that Madame d'Estissac would not understand. In a self-deprecating move Montaigne asserts that nothing could recommend his book to a reader. Its only redeeming value is that it does not resemble anything that has been published before. Of course to a modern reader this would be the most important, perhaps even the only criterion, of literary worth. For Montaigne himself, if we note the irony of the passage, novelty is not in itself a criterion of literary value, because novelty for its own sake, especially in matters of style, is worthless. At the same time Montaigne is clearly saying that his literary project (writing a book about himself) is valuable because it is unlike anything that has been tried before.

On the one hand it is clear that for both Montaigne and Pascal "saying something new" is a major criterion of literary and philosophical worth. On the other hand "saying something new" is not a synonym for "being original" (in the modern sense of the term). I would therefore like to come to Montaigne and Pascal with the following questions: How do you say something new? How can you tell that someone is saying something new?

Pascal discusses these questions extensively in a digression near the end of a small unfinished treatise entitled Mathematical Mind. The purpose of the treatise is to enunciate the rules that govern the art of true demonstrations. After spelling out those rules he replies to three possible objections, the first being that "there is nothing new about this method."7 Pascal's reply to the first objection is a complex one. He begins by acknowledging that the rules he has just enunciated or at least something resembling those rules can indeed be found in some well-known treatises of logic. He adds that those who read quickly and superficially will not see the difference between Pascal's treatise and the works of logic that are already available. …

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