Michel de Montaigne

George Hoffmann

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online August 2011 | | DOI:
Michel de Montaigne

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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No other early modern European author except Shakespeare has attracted so much scholarship or lent himself or herself to such a wide array of approaches. The sprawling, miscellaneous character of the Essays, combined with the book’s uniquely personal tone, has encouraged readers to find their own preoccupations wondrously anticipated in Montaigne. Eric Hoffer proved far from alone in his feeling that “here was a book written by a French nobleman hundreds of years ago about himself, yet I felt all the time that he was writing about me. I recognized myself on every page. He knew my innermost thoughts” (Truth Imagined, New York: Harper and Row, 1983, 52–53). Scholars too respond to the affective pull of the Essays, but they have tried to qualify and refine this tendency to identify with the author. Their efforts divide into three overlapping phases. First came an attempt to reemphasize Montaigne’s dialogue with the ancients (as opposed to simply with us). Next, post-structuralist approaches highlighting paradoxes, dislocations, and the indetermination of the text played a significant role in muting the impulse to see in Montaigne a bigger-than-life version of readers themselves. Finally, most recently historical approaches have taken aim at “Montaigne, our contemporary” by trying to resituate the author within his immediate social context. This has involved a fair degree of demystification (attendant with its own risks of exaggeration). If some of the traditional humanistic justifications for reading Montaigne exert less direct attraction than they once did, he remains a labile writer capable of engaging new conversations. More recently, there has been a surprising—and welcome—resurgence of interest by philosophers, especially in Europe. Their return to Montaigne no doubt responds to a desire to broaden the scope of philosophy in the wake of Pierre Hadot’s influential arguments about how classical philosophy addressed itself to the “care of the self.” Political scientists, encouraged by Judith Sklar, have also picked up Montaigne as a significant interlocutor regarding political philosophy. Moreover, the rise of animal studies has made readers take a second look at the long pages that Montaigne devoted to animals early in his “Apology of Raymond Sebond.” Naturally, the risk remains of rebuilding anew “Montaigne, our contemporary.” Nonetheless, the creative tension between Montaigne’s enduring familiarity and the need to recognize him as a person belonging to a specific time and moment promises to keep the Essays a productive site for scholarship and thinking.

Article.  25921 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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