- Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton
Too few books on early modern literature provide what David L. Sedley's contribution does: an engagement in detailed readings of texts with an eye to the problems they raise for criticism and theory. Sedley examines questions of the sublime, considering what Montaigne and Milton offer to the antinomy that has run through discussions of it—that is, whether the sublime leads to skepticism or away from it. Montaigne and Milton are not simply two authors who provide an occasion for a theoretical discussion, nor is the theoretical framework arbitrarily brought to the texts. This book stands out refreshingly in the field of early modern literature for its critical thrust and conceptual vitality, which at all moments adhere closely to the texts and derive from them. Through considerations of Longinus, Burke, and Kant, Sedley presents the historical dimension of the sublime; by way of Lyotard and, unexpectedly but quite convincingly, Stephen Greenblatt and William K. Wimsatt he demonstrates its importance to contemporary criticism. Despite common conceptions that the sublime as a critical category dates to the eighteenth century, he adeptly adduces evidence that the sublime is indeed a serious problem for Montaigne and Milton. In connection with both, Sedley understands the sublime in its expanded sense: more than a matter of style, it is a philosophical notion concerning cognition, human capacity, and human significance.
This book is a solid attempt to raise and work through problems. The juxtaposition of Montaigne and Milton, which at first sight might seem tenuous, is fully justified as an examination of the sublime and, more particularly, its importance for certain critical outlooks in the early modern period. Sedley writes, "Montaigne cultivated skepticism, I argue, in order to produce sublimity. Milton forged sublimity, I contend, through his encounter with skepticism" (15). So the 'influence' involved (which perhaps many if not most Renaissance scholars might insist on in a multiple author study) has nothing to do with whether Milton read Montaigne, but rather with the engagement of both with skepticism and the relation of this philosophical attitude to sublimity.
Sedley carries out his readings of the two authors quite effectively. He considers in large part Montaigne's writings on Rome in both the Journal de voyage en Italie and "De la vanité" (Essais). When Montaigne encounters a ruined Rome that testifies to the total absence of Roman grandeur, the resulting contemplation of ancient Rome leads to a notion of the tenuousness of any grasp one might claim on the world. Sedley brings to an understanding of Milton that the latter's sublime, long recognized as key to the poet's work, is informed by skepticism, first in connection with Comus and then with Satan's challenges in Paradise Lost. In raising the problem of sublimity and skepticism as a theoretical question running through these early modern authors, Sedley's book is a milestone of criticism, in both early modern comparative studies and debates on literary theory.