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Montaigne on Witches and the Authority of Religion in the Public Sphere
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Montaigne on Witches and the Authority of Religion in the Public Sphere

The pleasure in reading Michel de Montaigne, the French Counter-Reformer and fideistic skeptic, is due in no small part to the ways in which he so frequently defeats our expectations. The surprises occur at several levels, beginning with the very titles of his essays, which frequently have little to do with the topics he actually discusses. Who, for example, would expect an essay titled "Of Three Good Women" (II.35) to praise the three women for their variously successful attempts at committing suicide—and little else? Or who would expect an essay with the innocent title "On Some Verses of Virgil" (II.5) to be richly confessional, as well as very explicitly sexual? Or, as one final example, who would expect an essay "Of Cripples" (II.11) to either (a) discuss the witch trials or (b) discuss cripples principally in terms of whether the lame make better sexual partners?

The surprises are not confined to the formal features of Montaigne's text, but also appear in the views he articulates. We would not expect an early modern Frenchman to write so sympathetically and even admiringly about the cannibals of the New World (I.31). Nor would we expect an early modern French Catholic to write in opposition to the witch trials. Montaigne does both—with incredible finesse. But despite the attractively progressive attitude seemingly manifested in these two stances, Montaigne's overall view is in fact far more conservative and quietistic than we might expect, were we judging based only on these few cases. And so he surprises us yet again: We are surprised to find him opposing the witch trials, and we are surprised a second time to find that his opposition does not signal any deeper tendency toward progressive or politically liberal views. In short, there is good reason [End Page 235] to see Montaigne's general stance as firmly traditional. While he sometimes expresses apparently progressive views, he does so in a way that has no stable basis in his overall conceptual scheme, as I will argue. Of course, merely observing this tension in Montaigne's work is nothing new. Hugo Friedrich, writing in 1949, and discussing II.11, claimed that "Montaigne bravely takes a position against the delusion of the masses and against clerical fanaticism."1 But in the same passage (and elsewhere) Friedrich shows himself to be well-aware that this apparent radicalism is balanced by Montaigne's conservatism.2 That tension—in a nutshell—encapsulates the debate.3 However, "Of Cripples" presents this tension in its most perplexing form, making a detailed analysis of II.11 our best hope of making progress on the debate.4

To support these claims I propose to offer a careful textual analysis of Montaigne's discussion of the witch trials in "Of Cripples."5 After considering several philosophical interpretations of his key Augustinian principle, I will argue that Montaigne's critique of the witch trials is primarily driven by problems internal to the religious perspective, and so does not represent an attempt to circumscribe the authority of religion in the public sphere more generally.6 Such a position, then, is both traditional and quietistic—another of Montaigne's surprises for his readers. If this is correct, then one of the principal texts used for promoting a "liberal" Montaigne—namely, II.11—can be be reappropriated by the defenders of a "quietistic" Montaigne. Nonetheless, even on my reading, there remain some incompletely resolved tensions. That, perhaps, is no less than we should expect from history's only self-proclaimed "accidental philosopher."7


Montaigne opens "Of Cripples" by discussing the Gregorian reform of the calendar, which had been adopted in France in 1582. Yet as odd as this opening is, it serves to quickly introduce a familiar theme in the Essays: Even so basic a matter as the calendar is subject to "[s] o much uncertainty"—just like everything else—that "we are every day in doubt" about how to "keep a record of past events" (F, pp. 784–85). These thoughts are then quickly transformed into a skeptical reflection on human reason itself...