- Selected Essays with La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude
In spite of his protestations to the reader that his work would concern itself with the “frivolous and futile,” Montaigne has proven extraordinary company since the Essays originally appeared in 1580. As Montaigne carved his favorite adages from Greek and Latin authors into the walls and beams of his study to have them always at hand, so too do Montaigne’s devotees acquire favorite essays, pages, and passages. The intimacy of the Essays (“I am myself the subject of my work”) is reflected in the emendations and additions made by Montaigne throughout his life and in its posthumous handling by Marie de Gournay, Montaigne’s protégé and fille d’alliance. Throughout his life, the Essays remained an open-ended project, bound only by his curiosity.
Indeed, the Essays’ status as a classic (of Renaissance literature, of the essay form, of life writing) is directly attributable to their encompassing range. Some of their appeal is surely rooted in the very quality that drives some close readers to distraction: Montaigne’s refusal to ascribe to any particular philosophical [End Page 243] school of thought. Epicurean? Skeptic? Stoic? Credible arguments can be made that Montaigne held each of these positions or, at least, that his work intermittently argues from one of these perspectives. Scholars seeking to describe Montaigne’s philosophical project routinely fall to characterizations such as “wide-ranging,” “flexible,” and, more recently, “eclectic.” Yet the search for intellectual rigor in the form of adherence to a system ignores Montaigne’s apparent lack of discomfort with the capaciousness of his ideas and his ability to think around conventional philosophical boundaries.
Intensely personal, the Essays were also a uniquely collaborative project: an ongoing, if one-sided, discussion with Montaigne’s friend, Étienne La Boétie, whose early death preceded and, arguably, prompted their writing. Theirs is of course one of the most famous of literary friendships. Three years older than Montaigne, a jurist and poet, La Boétie was a fellow member of Bordeaux’s parliament. Montaigne memorably memorialized their relationship in “On Friendship,” yet refused to include La Boétie’s political treatise, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, with the Essays upon their publication, a decision that has cast doubt on some of his more effusive claims to devotion.
It is thus fitting that in their new edition of a selection of Montaigne’s essays, editors and translators James B. Atkinson and David Sices have included La Boétie’s Discourse, as well as an extensive discussion of the relationship between the two men and their respective texts in Atkinson’s introduction. A polemic against tyranny written in an age of absolute monarchies, La Boétie’s brief treatise asks why men concede to be ruled by the whims of others. Though Montaigne was unwilling to include it with the 1580 publication of the Essays, Atkinson points out that French Huguenots had printed versions of La Boétie’s essay in 1574 and 1577, providing Montaigne with some justification (or excuse) for failing to do so. While the Discourse was not previously difficult to come by for the modern reader (indeed, Hackett is also publishing it as a standalone text), it is convenient to have it with Montaigne’s works, as La Boétie is rarely read today except in his role as Montaigne’s intellectual companion.
The more pressing issue is whether a new selection of Montaigne’s Essays is needed. Atkinson and Sices, who have previously collaborated on an excellent bilingual edition of Machiavelli’s comedies for Hackett, have anticipated this question. They argue that their new translation is for the modern, American audience, whereas their primary competition, Reverend M.A. Screech’s 1993 translation, is more suited for “an English university-educated reader,” which seems to be code for “fussy.” To that end, Atkinson and Sices make stylistic choices that may rub some readers the wrong way: “wanting [Montaigne] to sound...