Monday, May 19, 2014

The First Essayist

Why Montaigne Still Matters

“When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts drift to far-off matters for some part of the time for some other part I lead them back again to the walk, the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, to myself.”  ― Michel de Montaigne

Does Montaigne, who died more than four centuries ago, deserve our attention?  In fact, he is more popular than ever and a lecture I attended yesterday by Philipe Desan, Professor in the Dept. of Romance Languages & Literature at the University of Chicago, provided reasons "Why Montaigne Still Matters".

Professor Desan, whose lively and witty lecture style brought the ideas of Montaigne to life, began with a description of the "essai" which Montaigne invented.  The art of the essay as developed and practiced by Montaigne is a piece of writing that provides the combination of both the view of authority (in Montaigne's age this was the "Ancients") and a personal view upon a subject.  This was new at a time near the end of the Renaissance when most writers focused on the opinions of ancient authorities and kept their personal thoughts to themselves.  Montaigne's invention of the essay provided a way to challenge accepted notions and create a new space for the exploration of ideas.  It is a commonplace collection of topics that are neither exhaustive nor definitive.

The invention of the essay was perhaps in part due to what Professor Desan called the "discovery of the individual".  This was the greatest discovery of the Renaissance, surpassing those of Galileo, Gutenberg, and others.  Montaigne leveraged this discovery by his insertion of his individual thoughts with those of the ancient classics producing a leveling effect.  Suddenly the common people could use the essay as an attempt to share their thoughts.  This heralded the beginning of Modernity and was a precursor to what Sartre, among others in our time, would call the intellectual.

Montaigne, in his essays, was radical in many ways.  One of these was the challenge to the idea that Truth was a permanent concept based on the authority of God.  For Montaigne Nature was the source of meaning and we experience impressions of reality.  There is no permanent truth, but constant change.  Each day we awake and face a new and different day according to Montaigne and he would often change his own views, adding what appear as contradictory thoughts even within the same essay.  Again, this is an approach to reality that is very modern and while common in our era, radically uncommon at the end of the sixteenth century.  

Montaigne advocated the freedom of thought that may be seen as a sort of freedom of conscience or autonomy of the individual.   He looked to the future in his thinking and in doing so foreshadowed the development of what we know as the social sciences.  This future-oriented outlook expanded the notion of man's free will and accordingly further reduced the control of God's authority.

In his essays he continually shared his own ideas with the reader while not knowing who that reader would be.  This too contributed to the development of Modernity.  For the first time there were readers who were interested in the thoughts of contemporary writers like Montaigne who used natural language.  In his essays he would also include digressions and appear disorganized while, as mentioned earlier, even contradicting himself.  This was not wisdom in the classical sense, it was the evolution of thought.

Professor Desan described Montaigne as a surveyor of thought, not an architect.  Contrasting him with Descartes, who developed a consistent philosophy as his own contribution to modern thought,  Montaigne was a thinker with no system, only variety of thought.  His was a flurry of differences and it was these which would define him.  He asked: What do I know?  And he saw the development of knowledge as a process that was endless.  He thought of man as a "self-fashioning" animal with no essence in the sense of a definite being. 

Montaigne emphasized form over content, with form defining the content.  It reminded me of the twentieth-century view of Marshall McLuhan for whom "the medium was the message".  In the twenty-first century Montaigne could be considered the first "blogger".  In his own time he was both a public and a private man, but it was the private man when he retired to his library and began to write who would realize the beginning of the modern world in his collections of thoughts called "Essais".


Brian Joseph said...

What great lecture to attend!

I have not yet read Montaigne but I want to.

You wrote,

"The invention of the essay was perhaps in part due to what Professor Desan called the "discovery of the individual". This was the greatest discovery of the Renaissance, surpassing those of Galileo, Gutenberg, and others."

Now that is a bold statement. Worthy of consideration as I think that what we moderns consider "self", is in part, a function of our culture. If Montaigne had such a great influence upon this conception, he was important indeed.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Montaigne was a bold thinker!
The lecturer shared many thoughts about Montaigne and his writing and his relevance for today. When you do decide to read Montaigne, Prof. Desan recommended the translation by Donald Frame.