Montaigne: Essais, I, 56 ‘Des prières’
Editors of the Essais have argued for and against indicating typographically the different stages of the work's composition. Montaigne's many references to his book as a faithful record of his passage from one minute to the next challenge editors and readers to follow that passage as it progresses. With his edition of 'Des prières', Alain Legros rises to the challenge and shows how fruitful retracing one essay's development can be. Only eight and a half pages (about 1150 words) in the first edition (1580), that essay was one of the few to address explicitly a religious topic at a time when France was torn by wars fought in the name of religion. Responding to the papal censors who had examined the newly published Essais during his stay in Rome in 1581, Montaigne added a significant preamble in the 1582 version. Subsequent additions and revisions show him returning persistently to that brief essay. This attractive Droz edition helps the reader to follow the successive stages of the essay by reproducing integrally each new version, with red characters indicating the changes made since the previous version. That alone makes this volume valuable to any serious reader of Montaigne. What makes this book of utmost importance, however, is Legros's commentary through his richly informative 100-page introduction and notes (fifty pages). Central to the essay from its first appearance was Montaigne's affirmation of the Lord's Prayer, which he asserts is the only prayer that Christians need to use. Legros scrutinizes Montaigne's praise of the Lord's Prayer, especially its [End Page 383] insistence on divine justice as well as divine goodness, and he situates that endorsement in the related contexts of post-Tridentine theology and the unfolding project of Montaigne's book. When Legros examines the revisions to 'Des prières' that appear on the Exemplaire de Bordeaux and in Gournay's 1595 edition, he casts light on Montaigne's authorial quirks in that project's final years. Legros corroborates André Tournon's efforts to acknowledge Montaigne's puzzling — sometimes startling — practices of segmentation and punctuation on the Bordeaux copy. (Readers far from the Bordeaux Municipal Library can now follow Tournon's argument more easily, thanks to Philippe Desan's quadrichrome facsimile, Fasano–Chicago, 2002.) In all seven of the versions examined here, what emerges is Montaigne's unwavering condemnation of those who invoke divine help to accomplish evil ends, who seek God's forgiveness without forgiving those who have offended them. Haunting the Essais is the spectre of soldiers near Montaigne's home praying for God's help as they prepare to burn the towns of their adversaries, torture their captives, and reap the spoils of war. In his examples of empty pious rituals and phony repentance, Montaigne delivers a severe if oblique indictment of Catholic Church doctrines on sin and reconciliation and opts for the authority of the Lord's Prayer. In this most insightful reading to date of 'Des prières', Legros makes of that essay a prism through which we can better discern Montaigne's position on the religious issues hotly contested in his lifetime.