Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 138-153
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Montaigne's Accidental Moral Philosophy
Is There an "Ethics" of the Essays? When Montaigne writes, in "Of Repentance," "others form man; I tell of him" and "I do not teach, I tell," 1 are we to understand that there is no moral teaching in the Essays? Is Montaigne a moral relativist who holds that there is no way to justify moral standards? Or is he a sceptic who holds that we cannot know with certainty what is good and what is evil, and that we should, therefore, simply submit to the rationally ungrounded authority of custom in moral matters?
Montaigne is neither a moral relativist nor a moral sceptic. The Essays presents us with a very well-defined, coherent ethics. The author makes a clear and unambiguous distinction between virtue and vice, between good and evil. He does this through his many unequivocal and uncontradicted statements concerning moral matters, e.g., his condemnation of cruelty as the extreme of all vice, and through his own character as he displays it throughout his book.
But how can we reconcile the presence of a well-defined ethics with Montaigne's assertion that he does not "teach"? Is it not the case that the assertion and display of a set of moral standards is necessarily a "teaching"? When Montaigne says that he does not teach I take him to mean that the authority of his moral standards is not grounded in or [End Page 138] derived from his (or any other) philosophical account. His authority in moral matters is the classical-Christian tradition that he inherits.
So, then, is Montaigne, after all, a sceptic who simply falls back on custom in the absence of a philosophically grounded moral certitude? Montaigne does not submit "blindly" to the demands of tradition. He finds for himself the truth and goodness embodied in his tradition. In this way, he deepens the tradition, making it more authentically Christian, e.g., by re-ordering the vices that his teachers have "ranked badly."
But doesn't this re-ordering throw us back into our original contradiction? That is, does Montaigne's modification of the tradition amount to a claim of philosophical authority over the tradition? Montaigne resolves this apparent contradiction by engaging in a mode of philosophy that he calls "accidental." Accidental philosophy is precisely a non-authoritative mode of thought and its most perfect expression is the essay form.
Accidental Philosophy. In the course of his response to the second objection to Sebond's natural theology, Montaigne suddenly turns to himself: "My ways of being (mœurs) are natural; I have not called in the help of any teaching to build them. But feeble as they are, when the desire to tell them seized me, and when, to make them appear in public a little more decently, I set myself to support them with reasons and examples, it was a marvel to myself to find them, simply by chance, in conformity with so many philosophical examples and reasons. What rule my life belonged to, I did not learn until after it was completed and spent. A new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher" (pp. 408-9)! This moment of self-knowledge is the key to understanding Montaigne as a philosopher and the essay as a new philosophical form.
The context suggests that accidental philosophy is to be contrasted with what I will call "rationalism," i.e., philosophy understood as the rule of reason. Montaigne's ways of being are not derived from any philosophical teaching or deliberately conformed to any philosophical rule. He describes his ways of being as natural. He had not called in the help of any teaching to build them. He has achieved by accident what the deliberate philosophers have achieved by reason. [End Page 139]
The first characteristic of accidental philosophy, then, is that it is non-authoritative. Rationalist philosophy teaches and rules: it conforms thought and action to a rational principle. Accidental philosophy does not teach or form, it discovers and tells. Accidental philosophy...