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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 40-61

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Montaigne, Skepticism and Immortality

Zahi Zallou


IN THE LAST PAGES OF HIS ESSAY "Of Experience," Michel de Montaigne warns against the desire to "go outside ourselves." 1 While Montaigne apparently spares Christian mystics from his biting critique ("those venerable souls, exalted by ardent piety and religion to constant and conscientious meditation on divine things" [p. 856]), there is no suggested criterion enabling one to discriminate between these "venerable souls" and those individuals dangerously engaging in similar practices, claiming to have similar mystical religious experiences. The latters' "care of the self" (cura sui) is a kind of caring that would paradoxically do violence to their human self (conceived by Montaigne as both mind and body): "That is madness: instead of changing into angels [in order to be closer to the divinitas of God], they change into beasts [a regression to the realm of animalitas]; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves" (p. 856). With this conduplicatio, the repetition of the verb "to change," Montaigne emphasizes the role of agency, thus pointing out that they are to a large measure responsible for their condition, through their practices of self-care, or rather what Nietzsche has called their spiritual "incuria sui." 2 Neither the mind nor the body should be excluded from serious consideration, Montaigne stresses: "For it is indeed reasonable, as they say, that the body should not follow its appetites to the disadvantage of the mind; but why is it not also reasonable that the mind should not pursue its appetites to the disadvantage of the body?" (p. 681). Divorcing the mind from the body is, indeed, seen as an unwise, and potentially disastrous, practice: [End Page 40]

Those who want to split up our two principal parts and sequester them from each other are wrong. (p. 484)

To what purpose do we dismember by force a structure made up of such close and brotherly correspondence? On the contrary, let us bind it together again by mutual services. Let the mind arouse and quicken the heaviness of the body, and the body check and make fast the lightness of the mind. (p. 855)

Montaigne's suspicion of claims pertaining to the transcendent realm is perhaps most forcefully expressed in his late additions to "Of Experience": "Between ourselves, these are two things that I have always observed to be in singular accord: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct. [. . .] These transcendental humors frighten me, like lofty and inaccessible places" (p. 856). Not even Socrates, who is known to have engaged in excessive spiritual meditations, is spared from the essayist's critical reflections: "And nothing is so hard for me to stomach in the life of Socrates as his ecstasies and possessions by his daemon, nothing is so human in Plato as the qualities for which they say he is called divine" (p. 856). This should be seen as a qualification of his earlier discussion of Socrates's daimonion in "Of Prognostications": "The daemon of Socrates was perhaps a certain impulse of the will that came to him without awaiting the advice of his reason [discours]. In a well-purified soul such as his, prepared by a continual exercise of wisdom and virtue, it is likely that these inclinations, although instinctive and undigested, were always important and worth following" (pp. 29-30). What is at issue here is the contrast (yet without any tension) between reason's way and God's way, so to speak, between Socrates's "discours" (his reason, which dictates to him the appropriate and rational means of action) and his "demon" (Socrates's divine voice or "divine sign," 3 which informs him of what to do and, especially, not to do). 4 Due to Socrates's wise and virtuous character, the essayist speculates, the former never erred in acting on his impulses or undigested inclinations. Montaigne generalizes and is even tempted to translate some of his own past actions in terms of a Socratic-like divine inspiration: "Everyone feels within himself some likeness of such stirrings [. . .] And I have had some [. . .] by which I let myself...


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