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  • Vera Philosophia and Law in Montaigne's De la cruauté
  • Sue W. Farquhar

Montaigne's Essais are rarely included in the curriculum of philosophy outside France. With the exception of the "Apologie de Raimond Sebond," his essays are more readily seen by non-specialists as 'table-talk' than philosophy, recalling Plutarch's aphorisms in the Moralia or the witty, practical wisdom of an amateur like Benjamin Franklin.1 Recently, such an authoritative source as the Oxford Companion to Philosophy conceded that Montaigne's insights were "recognizably philosophical" yet reserved the distinction of "first French philosopher" for Descartes. Montaigne's popularity as a homespun sage stems in part from his conversational 'disorderly' style combined with an unrelenting hostility to all systems of thought, scholastic and ancient. For readers attuned to his diatribes against pedants and dogmatists, his sudden transformation in the "Apologie de Raimond Sebond" (II, 12)into "un philosophe impremedité et fortuite" is somewhatstartling.2 Having discovered by chance his new vocation, he impulsively embraces philosophy, not as a systematic search for universal and unchanging truths, but as a historical project. How, then, does moral philosophy in the Essais coincide with the aims of philosophy seen, not from a post-Cartesian perspective, but through the eyes of a sixteenth-century humanist like Montaigne whose training and professional experience were intimately bound with the law?

Assuming that Montaigne's reflections on legal issues, or the rule of law, in private and public life involve more than a topical interest, I shall relate his personal inquiry to the prevailing legal philosophy of his time, acclaimed by leading French jurists as the vera philosophia, or in the words of François Baudouin, "the true and supreme philosophy . . . contained in laws which pertain to public action."3 Montaigne's ethical approach, while profoundly informed by the law, is also in striking ways the antithesis of the legal doctrine which extolled the laws as true philosophy. At stake is a certain conception of nomos, a normative world of law, held together by narratives which offer not only models for behavior and bodies of rules but also problems to be explored and "worlds to be inhabited."4 The aims of vera philosophia will be compared initially with Montaigne's notion of "la vraie philosophie," a term appearing in several essays, to show that his inquiry partly fits sixteenth-century [End Page 39] juridical definitions of a civil science yet differs markedly in tone and emphasis. Attention will then be directed in "De la force de l'imagination" (I, 21) to his theory and use of the fictional example, a key discursive strategy in the Essais, to suggest that he draws on a legal concept of fiction to redefine "vera philosophia." His own articulation of "la vraie philosophie" is of a humbler, more skeptical sort, embedded in ordinary practices and the historicity of events. As such, it opens his discourse in "De la cruauté" (II, 11) to questions of alterity and engages a sharp critique of the juridical ideology informing vera philosophia.

In his study of human behaviors, Montaigne admitted that universalist assumptions and methods simply cannot account for the inconstancy of our actions. They seem not to "come from the same shop" so "strangely" do they contradict one other, making any systematic comparison impossible, "car elles se contredisent communément de si estrange façon, qu'il semble impossible qu'elles soient parties de mesme boutique" ("De l'inconstance de nos actions" [II, 1, 331A, 329A]).

Instead he drew on a legal mode of reasoning, based on opinion or endoxa rather than apodictic knowledge. As André Tournon, Ian Maclean and others have recently argued, Renaissance jurisprudence served as a training ground for Montaigne's topical approach in the Essais.5 As a non-analytical method used by jurists for studying probable or plausible "truths," it allowed him to pursue a logic of difference. The infinite range of human variability experienced in ordinary lives, especially his own, was found to be irreducible to philosophical definition. Turning his back on classifications that presume a universal human nature, he opted somewhat sardonically for a legal approach based on a logic of distinguo: "Distingo est le plus universel membre de...


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