Saturday, March 12, 2011

Momentous Montaigne

I have what I figure is a pretty common habit, starting at the back of a periodical instead of at the beginning. Somehow it seems easier to get through it that way, though why I need a smoother path through a magazine I ostensibly enjoy and even actively seek out is beyond me.

In any case, today I started reading the New York Times Book Section by turning to the final essay about Montaigne by the journalist and popular philosopher Anthony Gottlieb, known for writing a successful history of ideas called the Dream of Reason. Gottlieb entitles his piece Montaigne's Moment and more or less offers a running commentary on the renewed interest among philosophers and journalists in Montaigne's life and ideas, especially since Sarah Bakewell's recent book called How to Live or A Life of Montaigne won the National Book Circle Critics Award.

In my humble opinion, Gottlieb finds his writing assignment unappealing and as a result offers nothing illuminating about Montaigne. He doesn't even quote Bakewell interestingly who has loads of fascinating stuff to report about Montaigne's life and ideas. But as much as I like Bakewell's book, I am going to take this opportunity to suggest one of the legacies of Montaigne's ideas by referring to what Max Horkheimer, one of the founders of Critical Theory, once had to say about him. Horkheimer observed that Montaigne's humility and persistent skepticism caused him to see "his role as that of a negotiator rather than an antagonist," or, as James Miller attributes to Horkheimer in his own recent history of philosophy, to be "constitutionally incapable of taking sides in a struggle that demanded hard choices." Harsh words it would seem, but Montaigne lived a life of proud and public uncertainty about almost everything. Because he was so rarely sure of himself, it was very hard for him to take a firm and final stance on any big issue. Like our President perhaps, he was very good at seeing the virtues in many different points of view, but found it difficult to say what he stood for once and for all.

Still, there is one place, at least according to Bakewell, where Montaigne was uncompromising. He despised cruelty of all kinds and publicly opposed both hunting and torture, quite unusual positions in his time. Montaigne had too much respect for human beings both as a species and as distinct individuals to oppose anyone too strongly, but his complete identification with human beings, "his visceral rapport with others," as Bakewell puts it, prevented him from condoning violence of any kind. This set him apart from his time and to this day makes him a teacher of inestimable value.

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