Montaigne Again

Fenster writes:

Montaigne shows up here on UR quite a bit.  I won’t do links this time.  Look ’em up if you want.  So permit me to just start in digressing.

In her bio of Montaigne Sarah Bakewell describes the back and forth of attitudes toward Montaigne by philosophers and religious leaders over time.  Not all of that was positive.

His writings were put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in the 1660s, some seventy years after his death.  That makes intuitive sense to us in the 21st century, since we are likely to see Montaigne’s innate skepticism as corrosive to faith.  What is more interesting, and harder for me to grasp at a remove of five centuries, is that his work was received placidly and even positively by the Church when he was alive and for a good deal of time thereafter.

Bakewell touches on some of the reasons why this might have been the case but it remains for me an interesting and somewhat unresolved question.  Yes, Montaigne professed his faith.   But he seldom wrote of Christianity, much less Jesus’s death and resurrection.

As the modern critic David Quint has summed it up, Montaigne would probably interpret the message for humanity in Christ’s crucifixion as “Don’t crucify people.”

Perhaps since he seldom addressed the Church his skepticism was not seen as being aimed in that direction, and in turn failed to cause offence.  His skepticism was a gentler thing, evidenced more by rhetorical flourishes like “it seems” and “although I don’t know” in writing about daily events than it was by an assault on Church certainties.  If the Church was concerned with fighting dogma with dogma what harm could come by reading this funny fellow who enjoys observing his idiosyncrasies?

At the risk of making a bad and very amateurish analogy it is like the Establishment’s reaction to the cultural and political wings of the Sixties’ rebellion.  The politicos resorted to bombing, and were greatly resisted in the moment.  But hippies, after some grousing about long hair and poor hygiene, were more easily tolerated.

Yet politics is downstream from culture and ideas that manage to get far enough upstream to influence the current in a deeper way can end up being more influential than one might initially think.  And so it was in the post-Sixties period: the residue of the cultural shocks is thicker on the ground today than all the rubble left over from Weatherman bombs.

But that is just a surmise, offered in the spirit of Montaigne.

I should certainly like to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I do not want to buy it as dear as it costs.  My intention is to pass pleasantly, and not laboriously, what life I have left.

I for one do not have a firm idea as to why Descartes, Pascal and the Church turned on him in the 1600s, why he found favor with later writers, and why he is popular today.  Perhaps the rejection was a delayed reaction to the subtle influence of his thinking.  Perhaps specific historical conditions pushed less forgiving ideas to the front of the line.  He was certainly battered there for a while.

But Montaigne’s humane spirit is a hard thing to suppress.  The systems put in place by the most rigorous of systematizers are bound to falter and eventually to fail. Every hero is a bore at last; every brilliant systematizer in time a Gyro Gearloose.


Meanwhile, not all was gloom and doom even in the late 1600s. Montaigne had admirers among more cosmopolitan libertins like la Bruyère, who saw the virtue in appreciating “thoughts which come naturally.”  And La Rochefaucauld’s Maxims were in the spirit of Montaigne: short, ironic, humane and worldly.

We often irritate others when we think we could not possibly do so.

So certainty and doubt are in a constant struggle.  Better yet, in conversation.

To get aphoristic about it in the Montaigne fashion, there is a time to dump “I think, therefore I am” and replace it with “I think I am, therefore I am, I think.”  Then, for a time at least, we come to reckon with the humanity’s crooked timber, and to tolerate, embrace and even celebrate it.


I never really got round to opening this blog post in a clear way or moving it any place special but here we are at the end.

Montaigne did not himself publish stand-alone aphorisms as later writers did.  But his writing is replete with pithy asides. So as long as we are here at the end I will close with some embedded aphorisms I recently encountered in Montaigne’s works.

I speak my mind freely on all things, even on those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction.

Admitting that he finds the great Cicero’s writing to be boring he is compelled, while being careful to be diplomatic,  to confess:

. . . once you have crossed over the barriers of impudence there is no more curb.

And then returning with caution– but with tongue firmly in cheek– to Cicero as poet:

It is not a great imperfection to write verses badly; but it is a lack of judgment in him to have felt how unworthy they were of the glory of his name.

That one is Oscar Wilde-worthy.

Here, on why it is better to embrace a contradictory opinion than to expel it:

Instead of stretching out our arms to it, we stretch out our claws.

And, in a related vein:

There can be no discussion without contradiction.


In my country and in my time learning often mends purses, seldom minds.

The horror I feel for cruelty throws me back more deeply into clemency than any model of clemency could attract me to it.

I seek the company of some famous mind, not to have him teach me, but to come to know him.

It is not the falsity that comes from ignorance that offends me, but the ineptitude.

A hundred times a day we make fun of ourselves in the person of our neighbor, and detest in others the defects that are more clearly in ourselves.


To be continued–

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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