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  • In the Wake of Solon: Memory and Modernity in the Essays of Montaigne
  • Eric MacPhail (bio)

Montaigne is famous for his treacherous memory. While interweaving the Essays with quotations and allusions often retrieved from memory, he insistently and even presumptuously proclaims his own forgetfulness. The Essays disavow memory in order to avoid the pedantic or professional stigma of rote learning as well as to claim a compensatory promptitude of speech and judgement. Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that the architecture of Montaigne’s book reveals an initiation into the hermetic art of memory, which relies on correspondences between discursive topics and esoteric symbols in order to retain and organize knowledge. 1 In contrast to the mnemonic reading, which aspires to reveal the symmetry and integrity of the Essays, the present study offers a topographic reading that focuses on a single site of memory, the Egyptian city of Saïs where Solon encountered the priests who remembered Atlantis. The Essays visit this site on three occasions and each time in the context of a critical discussion of modern invention and discovery. These reminiscences of Plato’s Timaeus can be seen not only as an extension of Montaigne’s vital inquiry into memory but also as an engagement in the polemic on modernity which began in the Renaissance and continues to our own day. By revealing the proximity between invention and oblivion, Montaigne’s memory of Solon challenges the faith in progress and [End Page 881] innovation espoused by such prophets of modernity as Jean Bodin and Francis Bacon. Of course Montaigne’s critique of novelty is not new, recalling as it does Ecclesiastes and Plato and many other texts, and this very belatedness constitutes a strategy for resisting oblivion. Not only do the Essays remember the classical and biblical responses to innovation, they also inscribe themselves in a humanist tradition of commemoration stretching from Petrarch to Machiavelli and beyond. Rather than succumb to the amnesia of modernity, the Essays cultivate an elegiac memory that is both intertextual and personal and resiliently traditional.

In the Timaeus, Critias tells Socrates and his companions how Solon went to the Nile delta to consult with Egyptian priests renowned for their memory of antiquity. When Solon tries to stimulate his hosts’ memory with a survey of Greek mythology, one of the priests responds with the memorable admonition: “O Solo Solo, Graeci pueri semper estis, nec quisquam è Graecia senex” (Ficino 475). The Greeks remain forever children because they cannot remember their own past: “Quia iuvenis semper vobis est animus, in quo nulla est ex vetustatis commemoratione, prisca opinio, nulla cana scientia.” This amnesia the priest attributes to the devastating fires and floods that periodically wipe out human civilization and oblige the few survivors to reinvent writing and the other arts without any benefit of tradition. The Nile river supposedly exempts the Egyptians from this cycle of invention and oblivion and allows them to maintain the only continuous record of civilization, which secures their status as the only mature people in the world. As a sample of their historiography, the priests recount to Solon the war fought 9,000 years earlier between the Athenians and the inhabitants of the island of Atlantis, which culminated in a cataclysmic earthquake that destroyed Athens, swallowed up Atlantis, and left no traces beyond the Egyptian archives. This parable of memory and maturity was to make a profound impression on the disputants in the polemic of modernity that developed in the European Renaissance.

In various works that take up the cause of the moderns, Francis Bacon responds frequently and not always consistently to Plato’s account of Solon in Egypt. The essay “Of vicissitude of things” begins largely as a commentary on Plato’s notion of the role of natural disasters in the interruption of tradition and the repetition of the past. However, the essay deflects and restricts Plato’s lesson of oblivion to the New World. Bacon thinks it very probable that the [End Page 882] inhabitants of the West Indies are “a newer or a younger people than the people of the old world,” and he speculates that their ancestors were nearly wiped out in a “particular deluge” that bypassed other...

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pp. 881-896
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