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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 126-137
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Letting Oneself Go: "Of Anger" and Montaigne's Ethical Reflections
Montaigne's essay on anger is of a piece with the larger moral teaching of the Essays. In "Of anger," he refuses a systematic approach to controlling his anger. He refuses categorically, in fact, to suppress any passion--and he thereby gives up on maintaining a constant inner equanimity and outward composure to the observing world. The toll one exacts upon one's nature to do so is simply not worth it, he says, and it is better to let the passions run their course. This rejection of moral perfectionism and consistency makes Montaigne's ethical thought itself appear unmethodical, even antimethodical, much in the same way that his essays, with their digressions and ramblings, may appear random and unshaped. It also signals, as Philip Hallie argues in a fundamental critical study, Montaigne's departure from a classical moral philosophy whose object is the cultivation of the beautiful individual soul in control of itself, what Hallie calls the "Inward Goverment Ethic." The essayist, Hallie maintains, shifts emphasis from the self that is to be philosophically perfected to the effects that the actions of the individual may have on others. Among these effects Montaigne is particulary concerned about physical cruelty, the subject of "Of cruelty," the essay on which Hallie bases his remarks and which he rightly reads as Montaigne's central statement of his moral position. There Montaigne offers his own moral example in place of his classical [End Page 126] heroes Cato and Socrates, opposing to their strenuous philosophical virtue his own easygoing, effortless goodness, a goodness witnessed by his aversion to cruelty. 1 Like Hallie, Judith Shklar has argued for Montaigne's modernity and she places him at the beginning of liberal thought for his "putting cruelty first." 2 "Of anger" does just that; it begins directly with the problem of cruelty, the infliction of pain and bodily injury on those under the rule and power of others: Montaigne protests against the abuse of children by their enraged parents. "Of anger" reads as a condensed version of "Of cruelty," and here, too, Montaigne's example eventually supplants the example of one of his classical heroes, in this case Plutarch. The essay also glances at the social institution that compromises all the ethical thought of classical antiquity: the system of slavery. When the primary concern of the essay is understood to be the fate of those whom we have the power to harm, both its shape and the pattern of Montaigne's ethical thought acquire consistency and something that adds up to a method and a doctrine.
The A text version of "Of anger." The essay I describe is the product of the revised and expanded version of 1588, the so-called B text of the Essays; the substantial part of the B additions to the essay follow upon the bulk of the 1580 A text version, which is quite different in its thought, and we can watch, more or less in sequence as we read the essay, the evolution of Montaigne's thinking between the two editions of his work. 3
"Plutarch" is the first word of the essay. Montaigne begins by citing his favorite author, who favorably compared the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus to his Roman counterpart Numa for having assigned to the Spartan state the responsibility for rearing children. Numa's Rome, like most polities including Montaigne's own France, leave children at the mercy of their parents. Parents and schoolteachers, Montaigne goes on to protest as he comes to the subject of his essay, show no mercy at all when they are in the grip of anger. His language exaggerates the level of violence he claims to have witnessed time and again in the streets and which he would like to have avenged: little boys being flayed, felled, crippled by an angry mother or father suggests not only beating but killing, and Montaigne's fourth verb "meurtrir" means "to bruise," but...