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  • The Transformation of Virtue in Montaigne's Essays
  • Ann Hartle

Montaigne begins "Of Cruelty" with a distinction between virtue and goodness: virtue is "other and nobler than the inclinations toward goodness that are born in us."1 This is because virtue entails struggle and difficulty, whereas the inclinations are easy to follow. Virtue, then, requires the presence of vicious or evil inclinations that must be mastered and overcome. There is no merit without difficulty. But the matter cannot be left this way because Montaigne thinks of Socrates, the most perfect soul he knows, and he cannot imagine any struggle or difficulty in Socrates's practice of virtue. The same is true of Cato. Here we are at the extreme of virtue where virtue has become natural and has passed beyond the level of ordinary virtue, the essence of which seemed to be struggle. Montaigne describes himself as good or innocent rather than as virtuous: he is incapable of struggle within himself (VS427, F311). Goodness and innocence, when compared to the difficulty of virtue, look weak and imperfect, so that even the terms 'good' and 'innocent' are almost terms of contempt in common usage (VS426, F310).

Just as goodness seems weak, so also the essay is a weak mode of writing when compared with traditional modes of philosophical expression. There are no arguments in the essays and no conclusions in the traditional, strong sense. Montaigne often speaks of the essays as almost contemptible. His ways of being, his mœurs, are revealed in a form that is perfectly suited to them. Montaigne must justify his self-revelation because he has no great deeds to tell.

In this paper I will consider the puzzling fact of the self-revelation of this weak man. I will approach both the content and the form of the Essays from the perspective set out in the very first words: "This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose." He concludes "To the Reader" with the consistent admonition: "Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book: it is not reasonable that you employ your leisure on a subject so frivolous and vain" (VS3, F2). From the very beginning, he presents himself as weak: "my powers are inadequate." His weakness, then, is initially set out in terms of two related philosophical issues: final cause and the distinction between public and private. [End Page 3]

"To the Reader" is clearly intended as a response to Aristotle: all four Aristotelian causes are brought in, only to be weakened. For Aristotle, the public realm is the master-end, the place of human fulfillment through the exercise of the moral virtues. The public realm is the space of appearances where individuals distinguish themselves by their noble deeds. The most complete manifestation of virtue is the excellent ruler who displays all of the virtues, including practical wisdom or prudence. A public space for the appearance of virtue depends upon a private realm in which the necessities of life are taken care of. The domestic and private, therefore, is the realm of necessity which makes possible the freedom that is the condition for public, political life. Freedom is this freedom from necessity, the freedom to participate fully in the activities of the citizen, activities that constitute human perfection.

Montaigne's end is domestic and private, a weaker end than public service or glory, an end compatible with his "forces." In keeping with his domestic and private end, Montaigne presents himself in his "ordinary" and natural way, as he is "without striving." He does not hide his shortcomings but rather portrays his defects and imperfections. Thus, the posture in which he comes forward to the reader is one between the "studied posture" of the world of public appearance and the nakedness of "the sweet freedom of nature's first laws." The Essays are the emergence of this middle, private condition of men into the public realm. They precisely are this emergence because...


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