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  • Scientia Stellarum:Montaigne on Astrological Knowledge (A Note on the Apology for Raymond Sebond)
  • Alberto Frigo

The purpose of this note is to draw attention to a page of Montaigne’s Essais almost systematically neglected by scholars (Rancoeur 539), in which the French philosopher deals with astrology and the legitimacy of astrological divination. In this paper we would like to highlight the uniqueness of Montaigne’s position in the context of late fifteenth-century criticism of astrological science, and put forward a hypothesis about its origins.

The passage we will analyze appears at the very beginning of the most renowned chapter of the Essais (II, 12), the Apology for Raymond Sebond. The argument has, so to speak, an onion-like structure, with two layers of rhetorical development surrounding a core philosophical statement. Montaigne is mocking the pretensions of human reason which claim the privilege of arguing about the nature and the action of stars and planets. By what right does man dare to compare his weak condition to heavenly realities? “Poor little wretch! What is in man worthy of such a privilege?” In order to subvert human presumption Montaigne proposes that his reader undertake an exercise of consideration, or rather, according to the conceptual pair established by Saint Bernard, an exercise of contemplation and consideration. Montaigne therefore asks us to consider and contemplate a double spectacle: on the one hand, the nature of the heavenly bodies and on the other hand, their dominion over us, which seems to be all-powerful and limitlessly pervasive.

À considérer cette vie incorruptible des corps célestes, leur beauté, leur grandeur, leur agitation continuée d’une si juste règle: cum suspicimus magni caelestia mundi/Templa super, stellisque micantibus Aethera fixum,/Et venit in mentem Lunae solisque viarum [Lucretius, De rerum natura V: 1203]; À considérer la domination et puissance que ces corps-là ont, non seulement sur nos vies et conditions de notre fortune, Facta etenim et vitas hominum suspendit ab astris … [Manilius, Astronomica III: 58] Mais sur nos inclinations mêmes, nos discours, nos volontés – qu’ils [End Page 477] régissent, poussent et agitent à la merci de leurs influences, selon que notre raison nous l’apprend et le trouve, speculataque longè/Deprendit tacitis dominantia legibus astra,/Et totum alterna mundum ratione moveri,/Fatorumque vices certis discernere signis … [Manilius, Astronomica I: 62-65] À voir que non un homme seul, non un Roi, mais les monarchies, les empires, et tout ce bas monde se meut au branle des moindres mouvements célestes: Quantaque quam parvi faciant discrimina motus: Tantum est hoc regnum, quod regibus imperat ipsis … [Manilius, Astronomica I: 57, IV: 93].

(Montaigne, Essais 2: 188-89)

The contemplative exercise leads, in the final lines of the passage in question, to a harsh refutation of all human discourse about the stars:

Pourquoi les privons-nous d’âme, et de vie, et de discours? y avons-nous reconnu quelque stupidité immobile et insensible, nous qui n’avons aucun commerce avec eux, que d’obéissance? Dirons nous que nous n’avons vu en nulle autre créature qu’en l’homme l’usage d’une âme raisonnable? Et quoi, avons-nous vu quelque chose semblable au soleil? Laisse-il d’être, par ce que nous n’avons rien vu de semblable? et ses mouvements d’être, parce qu’il n’en est point de pareils? Si ce que nous n’avons pas vu n’est pas, notre science est merveilleusement raccourcie. Quae sunt tantae animi angustiae [Cicero, De natura deorum I, XXI, 88]. Sont-ce pas des songes de l’humaine vanité, de faire de la Lune une terre céleste, y songer des montagnes, des vallées, comme Anaxagoras? y planter des habitations et demeures humaines, et y dresser des colonies pour notre commodité, comme fait Platon et Plutarque? et de notre terre en faire un astre éclairant et lumineux?

(Essais 2: 190)

When men expound assertively about their nature, denying heavenly bodies can have a soul, a life or a form of intelligence,1 when philosophers claim that stars have no reason, on the pretext that this is the particular prerogative of human beings, or finally, when we envisage...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-7599
Print ISSN
0035-7995
Pages
pp. 477-484
Launched on MUSE
2016-12-20
Open Access
No
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