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Approaching Death: Accident, Citation, And Singularity in Montaigne’s De L’Exercitation
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Michel de Montaigne’s Essais represent a crucial moment in the emergence of modern writing and thought. Their hallmarks—from the use of the vernacular, the prominence of subjectivity, the emphasis on individual experience, and the preliminary character of its frequently contradictory reflections, to the fragile relationship between individual life and history—are elements that have shaped what we call modern experience. They were also foundational to the hybrid genre known as the essay. Among the many topics Montaigne’s Essais dwell on, the accident holds a prominent place. It is embedded in the context of what constitutes one of the most eminent thematic threads of the work, namely death. Not only was Montaigne’s decision to retreat from the world (in which he was counselor at the Court of Périgueux) motivated by the death of his friend LaBoétie, as is well known, but it seems that thoughts of his own death were gaining urgency; although he would return to the public scene to be major of Bordeaux and he acted as counselor to the King of France, this retreat and the successive editions of the Essais as well as their annotation shaped the rest of his life. The Essais were also a monument intended to survive their author and to testify to his life and death after his demise. The exergon “Au lecteur” addresses this threshold that the book will cross: “I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.” Beyond this pragmatic context, the reflection on death also holds a key position in the development of the specific shape that human experience gains in the author’s work. As Hugo Friedrich has pointed out, Montaigne discovers death as a force immanent in life, a necessity no more than thinly veiled by the ignorance of the moment of its occurrence. From the onset of his reflections on death, the moderate Catholic Montaigne rejected Christian attitudes towards death. And although the essays set in with Stoic positions and excerpts—it is no coincidence that the title of the most prominent essay on death, “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (I.20), is a quote from Cicero—Montaigne gradually abandons them in favor of the conciliatory integration of death into life and a faith in the ability of what he calls la Nature to prepare man for death. Although the topic of death in Montaigne has received ample critical attention, most critics have neglected the full extent to which the accident and its particular philosophical relevance shaped the author’s relation to death, as well as to experience in general.

Montaigne’s essay “De l’Exercitation” (II.6), translated into English as “Of practice,” is considered to be one of the most prominent texts on accidents in the Western tradition, the influence of which can be traced from the “Cinquième Promenade” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire to Goethe’s Gespräche mit Eckermann. It recalls a horse-riding incident in which Montaigne was almost killed. In the essay, Montaigne develops out of this biographical episode an imaginative practice that helps him overcome his fear of death. Although parts of the essay continue in the Stoic tradition—this dimension is present, for example, in the discussion of the famous Canius Julius, topical in Stoic thought since Lucretius—it links the project of philosophy to the task of learning how to die in a decidedly different way. The essay leaves the rationalist and heroic logic of the Stoic tradition behind and ventures into a new experiential and textual dimension whose modernity has not been fully explored.

Already in its very first line, the essay acknowledges that “reasoning and education” [le discours et l’instruction] do not suffice to prepare us for certain events, “unless in addition we train [exerçons] and form [formons] our Soul by experience for the course on which we would set her.” In order to prepare for the active encounter with calamities, learning has to embrace what lies outside the scope...



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