- Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher
Ann Hartle's new book is arguably the clearest and most compelling interpretation of Montaigne as a genuine philosopher since Hugo Friedrich's masterful Montaigne (1949). Her study is indeed an emphatic response to Friedrich's call to read Montaigne philosophically. Hartle derives her almost oxymoronic title from Montaigne's own self-description as "a new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher." Taking Montaigne's moment of self-discovery à la lettre, Hartle systematically proceeds to elucidate the full meaning of Montaigne's observation. What emerges from her reading is a radical thinker who breaks with ancient philosophy and medieval theology. Her Montaigne, however, does not disavow the past but ultimately enriches it, building upon prior models. In this respect, the essayist practices the Renaissance art of imitation—creative imitation that repeats but also alters its exemplary model in a move to rival it. While Hartle exhibits an outstanding knowledge of the history of philosophy—from Plato to Heidegger, passing through Machiavelli, Hume, and Rousseau—her book is not itself a historical study nor a work in the history of ideas: she insists that her interpretation is conceptual rather than historical.
What is accidental philosophy? It is foremost a non-authoritative, thoroughly human philosophy, one which takes as a sine qua non the recognition of the world's contingency—an awareness that things might have been radically different. Accidental philosophy thus represents nothing short of a displacement and transformation of reason, a calling into question of its traditional sovereign and divine-like status. (One thinks here of Aristotle's notion of the active intellect [nous poetikos], which he considers to be divine in man in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics.) Rejecting the belief in an autonomous reason, Montaigne renders problematic the possibility of "deliberative philosophy" (accidental philosophy's counterpart): "the exercise of reason as rule within the soul, a place and function that reason claims for itself on the basis of its superiority with the hierarchy of nature." In his critique of reason—most eloquently displayed in the "Apology for Raymond Sebond," chapter 12 of [End Page 441] Book II of the Essays—Montaigne might be seen as proto-postmodernist, occupying a similar position as Nietzsche in a history of counter-Enlightenment thought. But such an interpretation, argues Hartle, is on the whole inaccurate, given Montaigne's commitment to truth.
As would be expected in a book about Montaigne's philosophy, skepticism plays a major role in Hartle's positive assessment of the essayist. Skepticism has traditionally been interpreted in Montaigne scholarship either as a stage in the evolution of the essayist's thought, or as an expression of his fideism. The evolutionary reading was first championed by Pierre Villey in Les Sources et l'évolution des "Essais" de Montaigne (1933), in which he argued that Montaigne's thought evolved through three stages: Stoicism, Skepticism, and Naturalism (or Epicureanism). This now unpopular view was nevertheless recently reaffirmed by David Quint in his well-received Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy (1998). The essayist's fideism, on the other hand, is more readily accepted in Montaigne circles. It is commonly accepted that Montaigne's skepticism functions in a way that undermines reason's authority while leaving room for faith in religious matters. Hartle's understanding of Montaigne's skepticism differs in a major way from both of these accounts. She asks: "Does skepticism provide us with a complete and adequate understanding of Montaigne's philosophical activity?" Hartle offers a seemingly definitive answer: "Montaigne is not a skeptic" (p. 15). Yet, she makes her response more nuanced in several passage of her study, arguing again not for a clean break with ancient skep-ticism but with a profound transformation of this dominant philosophical school.
What we have, then, is a "skeptical moment" rather than a full-fledged skeptical suspension of judgment. And it is in this moment that an openness to the possible—such as the discovery of the strange in the familiar—is made manifest. Hartle rightly points to Montaigne's discovery of his own...