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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 154-164

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Symposium: Montaigne

Reflections on Montaigne's Ethical Thinking

Jerome Schwartz

According to André Tournon, Montaigne's Essays totally revolutionized the classical moral tradition deriving from self-knowledge, by inaugurating an ethics modeled on self-consciousness. 1 Rather than the stable, coherent essence upon which classical ethics was founded, Montaigne, by paying careful attention to his changeableness and compiling the record of that change that is the Essays, finds in himself an unstable, fragmented, contradictory being who is radically discontinuous and inconsistent, and hence always elusive. 2 The Essays thus puts in question the self as essence, redefining that self in hitherto new and unfamiliar ways. The reader is the accomplice, the accessory to this redefinition, and is continually summoned by the Essays' first-person plural pronoun nous to recognize him or herself reflected in the text's mirror, and hence to validate the Montaignian ethos of self-consciousness. 3 This is not difficult to do, for at least on the surface, Montaigne's ethos is an ethos of ease, nonchalance, and self-complacency that comes close to being narcissistic. But in fact, it requires effort, discipline, and infinite suppleness of thought. Montaigne's assertions about the nature of the self are joined to an elaboration of a critical method that dissolves authoritarian certainties and ethical givens in a general revolt against the didacticism of Renaissance humanism. There is no clearer statement of Montaigne's anti-didacticism and anti-authoritarianism than the essay "Of pedantry": "We know how to say: 'Cicero [End Page 154] says thus; such are the morals of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle.' But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much." 4 Such a passage puts in question Renaissance auctoritas, and suggests replacing it with the authority of our own words, our own judgments, our own experience. In order to do so, the implication is that we must free ourselves from the authority of others, from custom, from ideology, even from language, and from all that conspires to rob us of our authenticity. But like it or not we are the products of an inherited culture which invades and occupies our conscience and speaks in our name. Without that otherness, however, we are empty, unless we strive to recover and reconstitute an authentic fullness by the exercise of what Tournon has called Montaigne's "lesson of freedom." 5 At the ethical center of the Essays, then, lies the problem of freedom. What, for Montaigne, constitutes true freedom? 6

In order to attempt an answer to this question, let us briefly take a step backward. Well before Montaigne started to write, his friend Etienne de la Boétie had put the question of freedom at the center of his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. This proto-essay, "in honor of freedom," celebrating the triumph of the will over tyranny, and deploring the submersion of the individual in history, presides perhaps as the tutelary genius of Montaigne's book, suggesting a central problematic in the Essays between the forces of social subjection in the individual and the intellectual will to freedom. In La Boétie's vision, the original state of freedom and brotherhood that constituted the natural condition of human society is a Utopia degraded by practice, a hypothetical Golden Age followed by a fall into history. In his essay "Of friendship," Montaigne speaks of "voluntary freedom" as if to play the phrase off against "voluntary servitude," putting the accent on the will's assertion of freedom, as against the complicity between the tyrant and the subject that underlies La Boétie's analysis of voluntary servitude. While both Montaigne and La Boétie evoke an image of human innocence and simplicity before the Fall, Montaigne's understanding of freedom is much more complex than La Boétie's: for the essayist, freedom is not a given in a hypothetical state of nature; rather than recover that original state of freedom, we must each conquer our freedom for ourselves...


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