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  • Montaigne and the Lives of the Philosophers: Life Writing and Transversality in the ‘Essais’ by Alison Calhoun
  • Emma Claussen
Montaigne and the Lives of the Philosophers: Life Writing and Transversality in the ‘Essais’. By Alison Calhoun. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2015. vii + 203 pp.

In this engaging and well-written study of Montaigne’s treatment of written lives, particularly accounts of philosophers’ lives, Alison Calhoun argues persuasively that these are intimately connected to the style and content of the Essais. As such, this book is a welcome contribution both to Montaigne studies and to a wider discussion of early modern life-writing. According to Calhoun, Montaigne’s engagement with life-writing enables him to interrogate the relation between life and doctrine, and in doing so he both subverts traditional exemplarity, and develops a sceptical, relational moral attitude that Calhoun describes as ‘transverse’. This transversality is also applicable to Montaigne’s account of himself and his own life. In Chapters 1 and 2, Calhoun assesses the role of the two ancient life-writers of paramount importance here: Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius. Calhoun argues that Plutarch’s Parallel Lives inspires Montaigne’s ‘new form of moral philosophical writing’ (p. 24), which focuses on imperfection rather than on exemplary models (a little more contextual clarity would have been useful here to pin down this ‘newness’). Diogenes Laertius’s Lives, meanwhile, provides Montaigne with fodder for his exploration of what it means to be both a philosopher and a living person, and thus to face the challenge of living a philosophical life. Calhoun shows that this exploration is key to the development of Montaigne’s sceptical attitudes. In line with the established critical consensus that Montaigne does not follow one particular school of thought, in Chapter 3 Calhoun prefers to look at how Montaigne uses scepticism, in a productive discussion of Pyrrho that outlines Montaigne’s ‘liveable Pyrrhonism’ (p. 101). Chapter 4 demonstrates the application of the attitudes and methods discussed in the first three chapters to the topic of death, and offers a compelling reading of Montaigne’s letter to his father on the death of Étienne de La Boétie, as well as exploring Montaigne’s treatment of the death of philosophers. The final chapter discusses Montaigne’s afterlives in written accounts of his life, Marie de Gournay’s imitation of his transversality, and later proto-biographers’ betrayal of Montaigne’s relativistic, non-prescriptive moral stance and mobile self-portrait. The term ‘transversality’ offers an interesting nexus of boundaries, parallels, and transitions, but a little more unpacking of the term might have been helpful to the reader, who might not always be easily persuaded that it adds much to an otherwise direct and specific engagement with Montaigne’s own terms. Calhoun essentially treats Montaigne as a kind of philosopher (with three passing references to Montaigne’s statement in III.9, ‘Je ne suis pas philosophe’: p. 52; p. 82; p. 174) and, while her book is a sensitive exploration of many different kinds of philosophy and philosophizing, she leaves the reader wondering whether the implicit point is that the figure of the ‘philosopher’ might be as ‘transverse’ as the self, or the life. This is hinted at, tantalizingly, in the brief conclusion, in which Calhoun’s comments about the connection between the life and the Essais further demonstrate the richness of the topics handled so deftly in this book. [End Page 589]

Emma Claussen
St John’s College, Oxford


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