Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975
The word “essay,” a familiar literary term today, was coined by Montaigne, but the word had a meaning that is different from its modern meaning. Essay derives from the Latin word exagium, a weighing, and from the French word essai, a trial or test. Montaigne’s writings were weighings of himself and his beliefs, in the same way that one would weigh, or “assay,” precious ore to determine its worth. They are equally a test of his judgments, a testing of ideas and random thoughts, and an attempt to assess himself and his experiences at various points of his life. The subject of his essays, as he says in many places, is always himself, and his task as an author is to see himself as accurately as he can and to be truthful about what he believes.
Montaigne, however, never thought that his own life and thoughts would hold fascination for centuries of readers. What, then, has attracted readers to Montaigne over the centuries? First, there is his common sense and universality. He is attractive to readers precisely because he is so much like them that his thoughts often seem commonplace. Second, preceding Sigmund Freud, Montaigne had a strong sense of the divisions within the human psyche, the conflict of humanity against itself, and the inability of human reason to solve all of humankind’s problems. What Montaigne seeks is what one would today call “the integrated personality,” a unified sense of being and an orderly view of life. Finally, readers appreciate Montaigne’s clarity of thought and expression, his confessional style, and his mordant wit—all qualities found in the best contemporary essayists such as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.
Exactly how to categorize Montaigne’s thought, however, is not an easy task. He has been called a hedonist, a skeptic, a stoic, and even an existentialist, but none of these seems fully adequate. He is a hedonist in his love of life and enjoyment of sensual pleasures, but in essays such as “De la moderation” (“Of Moderation”), he warns that a person can become a slave to his or her senses. His essays on idleness, lying, cruelty, cowardice, vanity, and drunkenness testify to his skeptical view of humankind’s innate goodness, but these are equally balanced by essays on constancy, friendship, virtue, repentance, and moderation. Montaigne’s stoicism is clear in his thoughts on death, and he titles one of his essays “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (“To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die”), but he also emphasizes the enjoyment of this life. Finally, like the existentialists of the twentieth century, Montaigne sees life in a continual flux, making the attainment of absolute truth impossible. Yet if the absurdity of the human condition prevents people from having true knowledge, they can at least know themselves in their perpetually changing condition.
Perhaps the best term for Montaigne is one suggested by Donald Frame, professor emeritus of French at Columbia University. Montaigne is an “apprehensive humanist,” a lover of reason and books, and a student of human custom and behavior, who is uneasy about the human condition. While the mass of humans may be ignorant, stupid, lazy, and lustful, they can still accomplish occasional great things. Life is paradox and contradiction—composed, Montaigne says, of contrary things—and one must learn to accept human contrariness.
Finally, Montaigne’s use of paradox and irony, of balanced phrase and metaphor, are masterful, and perhaps no one has written in the French language with greater elegance and grace. The Essays are stylishly written reflections upon the oppositions of humanity and God, good and evil, action and inaction, faith and reason. If Montaigne reaches no conclusions, his journey consists of fascinating intellectual twists and turns; and if he continually asks, “What do I know?” he always does so with wit, modesty, and candor.
First published: “Des cannibales,” 1580 (collected in Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957
Type of work: Essay
What people call barbarism is merely vanity and ignorance on their part, for the behavior of “civilized” people surpasses the barbarism of supposedly “uncivilized” people in every way.
Montaigne’s age was one of adventure and exploration, and many travelers returned to Europe with tales of strange and fascinating people elsewhere. During a French expedition to South America in 1557, the explorer Villegaignon encountered a tribe of cannibals in what was then called “Antarctic France” but what is now called Brazil. Some of them returned with the crew. Montaigne not only met one of these cannibals at Rouen in 1562 but also employed a servant who had spent a dozen years living among them in their native land.
From this firsthand knowledge, Montaigne in “Of Cannibals” reverses the egocentric European belief in the superiority of Western culture. Not simple, ignorant, and barbarous as some would insist, cannibals live in harmony with nature, employ useful and virtuous skills, and enjoy a perfect religious life and governmental system. Instead, it is the European who has bastardized nature and her works, while the so-called savage lives in a state of purity. Much like American author Herman Melville, who later chronicled his life among the cannibals in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Montaigne sees more barbarous behavior among his immediate neighbors.
As evidence, Montaigne cites everything from language usage to architecture. The cannibals have, he says, no words for lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, and other vices. They have no slaves, no distinctions between rich and poor, and no mania for owning things. They live in a land of plenty, eat only one meal a day, and spend the whole day dancing. Their religious and ethical beliefs are admirably simple. They believe in the immortality of the soul, in a kind of heaven and hell, and in divine prophecy. They have, in fact, tribal prophets who, if they fail to prophesy correctly, are immediately put to the sword, a swift justice that Montaigne does not condemn, for false prophets should be severely punished. As for their priests, they daily preach only two virtues: love and courage.
In wars with nations beyond their territory, the cannibals know neither fear nor cowardice even though their battles often end in bloodshed. Each man brings back the head of an enemy as a trophy and hangs it over the entrance of his dwelling. The enemy prisoners brought back are slain and eaten, not for nourishment but for revenge. Such behavior has earned for them the name “savages,” but Montaigne sees more savagery in the European practices of torturing or burning alive—and, what is worse, doing it in the name of religion. While the cannibals clearly violate rules of reasonable behavior, Montaigne concludes, the Europeans surpass them in every kind of barbarity and cruelty.
There is little doubt that Montaigne romanticizes “the noble savage” in his essay, as authors were to do for centuries afterward, but he is one of the first great thinkers to question the Eurocentric view of human behavior, the notion that the standard for human behavior is white, Christian, and European. While it is doubtless true that he idealizes the life of Brazilian tribal peoples, nonetheless he sees the dignity, nobility, intelligence, and harmony of their lives. He forces the readers to confront themselves and their own social behavior; as Montaigne notes, there is such a distance in character between the cannibals and his audience that either the cannibals are savages or his readers are. Montaigne tries hard throughout his essay to find fault with the cannibals’ behavior and way of life but can offer only one, slightly humorous, observation: They do not wear trousers.
“Apology for Raymond Sebond”
First published: “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” 1580 (collected in Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957)
Type of work: Essay
People are incapable of true knowledge, for they exist in an eternal flux while truth is immutable and unchanging.
Raymond Sebond was a fifteenth century Spaniard who taught philosophy and theology at the University of Toulouse, dying there in 1436. His book Theologia naturalis (natural theology) was published posthumously in 1484 and was a popular success in France. It argues for the truths of Christianity on the basis of the natural world—the book of nature—and Sebond claims that God is in evidence in the Creation more than in theology or Scripture.
The “Apology for Raymond Sebond” is three times as long as any other essay that Montaigne wrote, and it is by far his most puzzling work. Supposedly a defense of Sebond’s Christian doctrine, the essay has been seen as an attack on authoritarian religion and a covert undermining of Christian faith. Less than one-tenth of the essay defends Sebond’s ideas at all. Primarily, the work argues the impotence of human reason and humanity’s inability to determine truth, set as a counterargument to a group of Sebond’s critics.
Montaigne begins with the first objection to Sebond’s theology—that the divine can be conceived only by faith, not by human intelligence. Montaigne admits that faith is more apt to solve the mysteries of religion than reason, yet humans seem improperly suited to divine faith. Humankind’s often immoral behavior testifies to the inability of faith alone to raise it above itself. Faith must be accompanied by ideas and reasonings in order to set humanity on the road to knowledge, to make it capable of the grace of God.
It is at this point that Montaigne addresses the issue of human knowledge, the heart of the essay, and his reflections reveal a deep despair about the human condition, an undercurrent of pessimism found in such other Renaissance works as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and John Donne’s sermons and devotions. Humankind is a puny and miserable creature, swollen with vanity, who calls itself master of the universe while unable even to master its own passions and weaknesses. Viewing itself as the equal of God, it is actually no better than an animal. “When I play with my cat,” Montaigne says, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” Citing the Renaissance notion of the Great Chain of Being, an orderly universe in which each thing is in its properly fixed place, Montaigne insists that there is a natural order that constrains and limits humanity’s vain ambitions to become a god, and that people must be forced to accept the barriers of this order.
If people are made in God’s image, then God is, like them, an animal. If He is an animal, then He has a body, and if He has a body, then He is also subject to corruption. However, if God has no body, then He has no soul, for the soul exists only in the body. This paradox is unthinkable to Montaigne. Similarly, if a person has a divine soul that knows all things, then it would at least know itself, if nothing more than its outward body. Montaigne sees medical doctors everywhere disputing even simple matters of human anatomy, however, and for all its science, arts, and learning, humanity knows very little about itself. Therefore, Montaigne concludes, the human mind can never penetrate the dark recesses of hidden truth. Learning consists of nothing more than an infinite confusion of opinions, and people are in agreement about nothing. They can never know truth.
The ultimate truth is knowledge of God, and at the end of the essay, Montaigne more or less returns to Sebond, adding a few paragraphs stating that humankind is nothing without God and that God must lend a helping hand if humans are to attain knowledge of Him. By then, however, it is too late. Montaigne has raised profound questions about humankind, God, and human knowledge, and his candid reasoning has led him (and the reader) to unsettling conclusions.