- Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy. Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais
While studying a series of pairs of essays in their historical and textual context, David Quint combines literary analysis and philosophical inquiry to mount a convincing case that the author of the Essays transcends his skepticism and transforms his stoicism to offer a positive and urgent message to his contemporaries. This message constitutes a new ethics—one of “pliant goodness,” “fellow-feeling,” and trust—that counters the model of heroic virtue dominating his culture and his class, as practiced by “the constant Stoic, the honor-bound aristocrat, [and] the religious zealot” (p. ix). Directed principally to the nobility of a nation torn apart by civil and religious conflict (which forms the backdrop of both Montaigne’s and Quint’s book), this message, which eschews violence and cruelty and is part of the “civilizing process,” urges those French nobles to realize that “they have no choice except to give way to one another,” and “to submit to the authority of the French monarchy, the only possible guarantor of civil order” (p. ix). Viewed from a different angle, Montaigne’s sustained moral argument depicts the deflation of extreme humanist aspirations toward radical and divisive individualism and, in the name of a “shared humanity,” a common human nature, manages to promote a new form of human dignity.
It is in the very first essay, “By diverse means we arrive at the same end,” that Quint finds the initial and prototypical situation of the conqueror and the conquered. His first chapter, “Clemency and Revenge: The First Essay and its Place in Montaigne’s Book,” analyzes this situation in depth and shows how it is mirrored and developed in “Various outcomes of the same plan,” where the parties become “virtually interchangeable.” The question probed here is two-fold: a) How can one obtain mercy when conquered? b) Should one grant clemency to a dangerous enemy? Quint opposes throughout the figures of Alexander the Great (hard-line vengeance) and Epaminondas (lenient mercy) and demonstrates that this initial situation of victor and vanquished is a central thread in the Essays as a whole. Only the protagonists change: “Stoics, cannibals, gladiators, martyrs, Socrates before his judges, and finally Montaigne himself” (p. 3). The essayist’s merciful solution of “yielding with honor,” the new mark of [End Page 258] true nobility, one that jibes well with the recognition of one’s mortality, will become the prescription to cure the epidemic of civil war in France.
Chapter two, “Cruelty and Noblesse,” examines another pair of essays, “Of cruelty” and “Cowardice, mother of cruelty” which, in their turn, proscribe vengeance, the cruelty of Stoic virtue, and the violence and cruelty of the nobility as seen literally and metaphorically in the hunt and the duel. The essayist, on purely secular grounds, condemns the barbarity of the ethos of the nobility and promotes his ethic of “mildness and civility” in a culture characterized by cruelty and revenge. “[A]n ethical reform of his class,” writes Quint, “is at the heart of the political project of the Essais” (p. 45). In addition, this chapter underscores the importance of Montaigne’s reading of Senaca’s De Clementia and his Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium in the writing of “Of cruelty” and contains one of the most insightful analyses we have of the significance of Cato and Socrates in the Essays.
In a brilliant, revolutionary, Girardian reading of one of Montaigne’s most celebrated essays, “Of cannibals,” Quint asserts that the nobility, in failing to reform itself, was, in the essayist’s view, running the risk of becoming like the self-destructive Brazilian cannibalistic society, one that was wholly based on vengeance and warfare and had no word for “pardon” in its lexicon. “The Culture That Cannot Pardon: ‘Des Cannibales’ in the Larger Essais” rejects the traditional interpretation of the cannibals—“they are what we are not” (p. 75), which will become, with Rousseau, the Romantic notion of the “noble savage”—only to find...