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Michel de Montaigne

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Tonya Howe

on 6 February 2015

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Transcript of Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne
1533-1592
"Who am I"?
John Donne:
"ourselves are what we know not"
Sigmund Freud:
the unconscious is "just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world"
Modern outlook on the self and the world
with a humanist's interest in the classical past
intensely skeptical of dogma, particularly religious & political
inward-looking, self-critical, sought in Essays to analyze the self: "Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book" (C.345)
outward-looking, comparative, ethnographic, even scientific in his attention to the details of how the world works--"Of Cannibals"
Montaigne encounters the self as if it were Other; encounters the Other as if it were self. Customs are relative; we are all alike in the workings of our minds, so it behoves us to look closely--to try, test, or essay the self.
Lived in a time of great political and religious strife: Reformation and Counter-Reformation had outcomes across Europe. Catholic and Protestant factions were bitterly, violently opposed.
St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 24, 1572)
the self is elusive, much like Petrarch's
Catholic father, Protestant Mother (Spanish-Jewish descent); unconventional childhood education; political life, but retired early to "devote himself to meditation and writing"; became mayor of Bordeaux for a brief time.
In his
Essays
, Montaigne seeks carefully to examine every part of his topic--and he writes and thinks about every kind of thing (coaches, buttons, sleep, the imagination...)--for the insights it affords about both self and society.
Essay: to test, try, probe; now, "a short piece of highly personal and exploratory writing"--what you have to do in
your
essays!
The genre had far-reaching effects, particularly in the Enlightenment, when it made possible intellectual exchange in the public realm, and it is still important today. Most magazines and long-form web writing work in this genre.
Context and History
Self and Style
Montaigne's sense of self, like Petrarch's is elusive, fluid, and instable
The mind does not have a coherence that we can grasp--and we should not try to give it a false coherence.
"Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions"
Our goal as humans is first and foremost to wrestle with the impossible task of knowing ourselves.
"Of the Imagination"
"Does [our will] always will what we would will it to will?" (C.349)

"So in the study that I am making of our behavior and motives, fabulous testimonies, provided they are possible, serve like true ones. Whether they have happened or no, in Paris or Rome, to John or Peter, they exemplify, at all events, some human potentiality, and thus their telling imparts useful information to me." (C.352)
"If I speak of myself in different ways, that is because I look at myself in different ways. All contradictions may be found in me by some twist and in some fashion.... I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply, and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word. Distinguo is the most universal member of my logic." (C.365).
"Our actions are nothing but a patchwork.... We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others." (C.366-367)
Giving any person (or peoples) a stable identity is to open him (or them) up to violence justified by stereotype.

Brazilians: well, they're cannibals! barbarians! They deserve to be conquered, to be....
and art, writing, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves: all helps us do so, if we look critically.
Essays
themselves: started as a collection of fragments, quotations, ideas that he revised constantly over time.
Notice the imagistic way he uses classical allusions, for instance, and moves fluidly from idea to idea in "Of Cannibals" (of course, there is a high degree of revision and control here, but it appears otherwise!)
"Of Cannibals"
A response--like More--to hypocrisies and other troubling characteristics of European society; he uses the Brazilian Native to throw European "center" out of alignment

Also, references specific historical event--a group of Brazilians visit Rouen, at invitation of the King (Charles IX, then only ten years old)

Clearly situated within a Renaissance context of travel and exploration (and the printed works that resulted)
"[E]ach man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice" (C.355)
Work is highly metaphorical, and quite poetic
Ultimately, this is a powerful indictment of rigid, dogmatic, uncritical thought that refuses to admit nuance or that cannot hold onto two divergent ideas simultaneously.
"I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts, but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own" (C.358)
opens with an image of land masses changing their shape over time (C.354)--why?
The image of cannibalism becomes an important sign in his critique of how the French treat their neighbors/"Brothers"
(Catholics/Protestants, rich/poor)
Also notable is the use of irony to indict our inability to look critically at ourselves: "but what's the use? --They don't wear breeches." (C.362)
He admires the Brazilians' simplicity (C.356-7), their honesty (C.357), their sense of brotherhood (C.359, 362; 360), their courage and valor (C.359-60), their rational use of warfare (C.359), their songs of love (361).
Notice, of course, how he sets them up as "noble savages" (C.361) untouched by the barbarities of European "civilization", and his admiration of their songs of love emphasizes their similarity to classical sources.
When the Brazilians visit Rouen, what do they have to say? (C.361-2)
Depiction of cannibalism as retaliation against Spanish invaders in the New World, as recounted by Bartolomé de las Casas in
Narratio Regionum indicarum per Hispanos Quosdam devastatarum verissima
. Images by Theodor de Bry.
Full transcript