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The Discussion as Joust: Parrhesia and Friendly Antagonism in Plutarch and Montaigne

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 122-137 | 10.1353/com.2013.0028

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No single word in the English language fully reflects the polysemy of the Greek term agōn, which denotes the entire gamut of struggles from combat to athletic contests. Antagonism, then, is defined less by the origin or the nature of its conflict than by the mutual resistance implied by its etymology and its prefix. The term "antagonistic" may thus be used to describe opposition not only between enemies, but between friends. It is just such a friendly antagonism that Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) describes in the eighth chapter of Book Three of his Essays, "Of the art of discussion" ("De l'art de conferer"), proposing a markedly agonistic conception of discussion as a heated and even violent struggle between two parties (Pesty 119).

This chapter and the vigorous, yet well-intentioned and introspective give-and-take it prescribes have typically been regarded as a rejection of scholastic disputation and as a model for conversation in the classical era in keeping with Pascal's description of Montaigne in "De l'esprit géométrique" ("Of the Geometrical Mind") as "the incomparable author of the art of discussion" (357; trans. mine). A number of critics, especially Vivien Thweatt, Richard Regosin, and Jules Brody, have noted Montaigne's frequent use of martial vocabulary and related it to the chapter's central metaphor of discussion as a joust as well as to the essayist's philosophical skepticism (Thweatt 110-12; Regosin 113-15; Brody 82). Yet, when considered in the context of its preceding chapter, "Of the disadvantage of greatness" ("De l'incommodité de la grandeur"; bk. 3, ch. 7), "Of the art of discussion" reveals its preoccupation with both friendship and politics, a preoccupation Montaigne shares with one of his principal ancient sources, Plutarch (46-120 CE).

Along with Seneca, Plutarch ranks first and foremost among the authors from which Montaigne learns to "renger [ses] humeurs et [ses] conditions" ("arrange [his] humors and [his] ways"; 413a; bk. 2, ch. 32; Frame 300). Montaigne, unable to read Greek, read Plutarch in the French translation of Jacques Amyot, to whom he gives the palm over all other French writers (363a; bk. 2, ch. 4; Frame 262). He had a particular predilection for Plutarch's Moralia, mining them time and time again for exempla: Pierre Villey counts some 258 references to them in the Essays (LXVII, n. 1). Nowhere is Montaigne's dialogue with Plutarch more palpable than in chapters 7-8 of Book Three, which may be read as a response to one of the Moralia, "How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend." Aside from Montaigne, this treatise enjoyed quite a prominent readership in the Renaissance. Erasmus, for example, makes Flattery and Self-Love into twin handmaidens of Folly (18). The treatise's political relevance was not lost on the Dutch humanist, either, as he produced a Latin translation of it in 1514 that would be included in the edition of his Education of a Christian Prince two years later. In all, "How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend," while perhaps not as widely read as Cicero's De amicitia, constituted a locus classicus for friendship and flattery: in addition to Erasmus, both Bacon and Castiglione used it extensively (Achilleos 660).

When considered as a source, Plutarch's treatise makes clear the thematic unity of Montaigne's two chapters: "Of the disadvantage of greatness" details how susceptible powerful men are to flattery and how rarely they benefit from the sort of parrhesia (frankness/frank speech) prescribed in "Of the art of discussion." Parrhesia serves to define the respective antagonisms of Plutarch and Montaigne, as well as to connect friendship with political discourse. By tracing parrhesia, antagonistic friendship, and the metaphors used to convey them in Plutarch and Montaigne, the present study will show how both authors arrive at what may be termed an ethics of antagonism with repercussions for both friendship and politics. It will also show how Montaigne translates Plutarch culturally in the same way that Amyot translates him linguistically by adapting his friendly antagonism to the political context of late sixteenth-century France.

The Bitter Pill of Antagonistic Friendship

While Plutarch opposes friendship to flattery, he makes the political...

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