- Montaigne and the Ethics of Skepticism
In this new monograph on Montaigne, Zahi Zalloua conducts an inquiry into the ethical identity of the essayist as it emerges from the writing of the essays. As the title suggests, the author proposes to integrate two prominent but rarely overlapping topics of Montaigne criticism, ethics and skepticism, so as to define an ethical doctrine adapted to the skeptical form of the essay. In this way, he is confident of doing justice both to the manner and the matter of the essays, to both text and context, thereby allowing us "to move beyond the current stalemate in Montaigne criticism" (4). Though the latter claim seems gratuitous if not erroneous, Professor Zalloua's book does manage to fulfill most of its promises.
The work consists of an introduction, three chapters, a conclusion, bibliography, and indices. Each chapter examines a paradigmatic instance of Montaigne's ethical relation to others: chapter 1 focuses on the essay "De la phisionomie" (3.12) and the relation to Socrates, chapter 2 on "De l'amitié" (1.28) and the relation to Montaigne's friend Etienne de la Boétie, and chapter 3 on the New World essays (1.31 and 3.6) and the relation to the Amerindians. The conclusion deals with the relation between Montaigne's public and private selves as thematized in the essay "De mesnager sa volonté" (3.10). Throughout the work Zalloua weaves in a number of references to other essays in order to provide a fairly comprehensive, but always concise and nuanced, picture of Montaigne's masterpiece. No mention is made of the Journal de voyage, and there are only a few citations from Montaigne's letters.
At first glance, what seems to be missing from The Ethics of Skepticism is the skepticism. The author appears to take no interest in the history of skepticism or in its transmission to the Renaissance, and he makes only the most sparing use of the numerous recent studies on skepticism in Montaigne. However, while indifferent to the doctrine of skepticism as expounded by Montaigne and others, he is quite attentive to the skepticism inherent in the form of the essay, and the first chapter of the book is very successful in bringing out this fundamental aspect of Montaigne's work. Chapter 1 follows Montaigne as he backtracks and hesitates over the question of whether Socrates' virtue was natural or acquired and whether or not Socrates can be imitated. For his part, Montaigne seems to imitate Socrates only in so far as both figures remain an enigma in "De la phisionomie." In this way the portrait of Socrates enacts the principle of skepticism, for we never know who Socrates is. At the same time, Zalloua traces what might be called the intratextual [End Page 892] irresolution of the Essays by showing how Montaigne unsays in "De la phisionomie" what he says elsewhere about a variety of topics, including the moral example of the common people, the ethic of self-care, or the idea of Socrates' genius, or familiar spirit. This part is very good and should be helpful for anyone teaching Montaigne to students of French literature. What remains tenuous in this demonstration is the ethical dimension of skepticism, though the author insists that skepticism fulfills an ethical function by cultivating our respect for the alterity of the other, in this case Socrates. Alas, the French Renaissance had more compelling ethical problems to deal with than disrespect for dead philosophers.
Chapter 2, on the alterity of friendship, seems frankly pointless and reminds us once again of how hard it is to say something new about "De l'amitié." Fortunately, chapter 3 is very strong, and here the author does raise some genuine ethical questions precisely by making a connection between text and context. Drawing liberally on Timothy Hampton's recent book on literature and nation in the French Renaissance, chapter 3 studies the rhetoric of alterity in the portrayal of the New World natives in the essays "Des...