In November 1619 René Descartes retired into a ‘stove’ in order to reflect on the foundations of our knowledge of ourselves and the world. From his meditations he produced the bloodless certainty of the cogito: ‘I think therefore I am.’ The rest is intellectual history.
In 1571 Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write his Essays. He was 38. From the windows he could see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about sixty maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him. In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. He insisted that he only augmented his Essays and did not correct them (this is not quite true), on the grounds that each state of his book represented a state of himself: ‘My first edition dates from 1580: I have long since grown old but not one inch wiser. “I” now and “I” then are certainly twain, but which “I” was better?’
Many of his early essays are dry affairs, culling precepts and exempla about cowardice and mercy, death and philosophy into elegant but on the whole unoriginal digests. As the project progressed, and Montaigne read and wrote and relaxed into the therapy of writing, these five-finger exercises became something much greater. The later essays move beyond the simple juxtaposition of authorities, not only to wonder about the foundations of human knowledge, but to display a profound and mobile curiosity about more or less everything, including his own changes of mind: ‘I want to show my humours as they develop, revealing each element as it is born.’ He speculates on whether he is playing with his cat, or she is playing with him. In ‘On the Lame’, he engages in some unhealthily extended musing on how he came to believe that cripples are better sexual partners than anyone else (he cites the ancient belief that nutriments can’t get to their legs, and so gather in the sexual organs instead). He also gives evidence that dogs might think. As the Essays grow and go on (and some of them go on rather a lot) they deliver more and more of Montaigne’s life: how his open and honest physiognomy led to his release by a band of soldiers in the civil wars; that he likes to open his bowels straight after he gets out of bed; that he prefers fish to meat; that he has a small penis; that an entrepreneurial valet stole some pages of his Essays. And we meet and grow familiar with a cast of real and semi-fictionalised characters: Montaigne’s great dead friend Estienne de La Boëtie, whose appropriation by political radicals Montaigne repeatedly seeks to resist, and his great classical hero, the Theban general Epaminondas, on whose life and actions Montaigne substantially elaborates.
One maxim inscribed on his library walls was from Sextus Empiricus: ‘To any reason an equal reason can be opposed,’ and if any principle can be said to underlie the Essays, this might be it. Montaigne above all does not seek to inculcate principle. Through their mingled musings, exemplary tales and character sketches, the Essays present not a clear set of values (although they do attach great weight to mercy and friendship) but a shifting pattern of dispositional preferences extended through space (more than a thousand pages) and time (more than two decades).
Montaigne’s biggest dispositional preference is for surprise, and following the drifts of his writings is one of the greatest pleasures reading can offer. The title of ‘On Some Verses of Virgil’ makes you wonder which verses he’ll choose: the description of the Golden Bough? The descent to the Underworld? Instead, the essay begins with Montaigne saying that now he is old he allows his mind to wander into erotic fantasies, or, as Florio deliciously put it in his translation of 1603: ‘I doe now of purpose somewhat give way unto licentious allurements; and now and then employ my minde in wanton and youthfull conceits.’ Eventually he winds round to Virgil’s lines on Venus and Vulcan, the pretext for an extended meditation on what sexual desire does to our bodies. You follow and wonder. ‘I love a poetical kinde of a march, by friskes, skips and jumps,’ Florio has Montaigne say; and he goes on to protest that (and here I have to switch to M.A. Screech’s admirable though rather grave Penguin translation, since Florio messes up the next sentence) ‘it is the undiligent reader who loses my subject, not I. In a corner somewhere you can always find a word or two on my topic, adequate despite being squeezed so tight. I change subject violently and chaotically. My pen and my mind both go a-roaming.’ He wanders conversibly, so much so that you can lose his gist entirely and drift off into a reverie prompted by one of his striking asides; but then, usually, he will circle back to where he came from and pull you back with him. And then he stops abruptly, sometimes mid-thought. Remaining aware of how you might be read and yet letting your readers wander as they read you is an almost impossible combination to achieve; and yet on more or less every page Montaigne pulls it off.
This is a great part of the pleasure which the Essays offer: they will not instruct their readers or coerce their thoughts into consistency. As Montaigne puts it in ‘On Prayer’: ‘The notions which I am propounding have no form and reach no conclusion. (Like those who advertise questions for debate in our universities I am seeking the truth not laying it down.)’ This makes it particularly surprising that the Essays are sometimes called ‘philosophical’. That claim can go along with the belief (first seriously advanced in the early 20th century by Pierre Villey, but now almost universally resisted), that Montaigne moved through various phases of philosophical belief, from early Stoicism, to Scepticism, and then to Epicureanism, which licensed a growing interest in his own human quirks. The problem with this view of Montaigne is that it looks for the wrong kind of method in him. ‘Method’ can mean roughly what it signifies in Descartes’s Discourse on Method, ‘a consistent form of investigation founded on a set of internally consistent precepts about what is true’; but it can also mean something less rigid: ‘the way you happen to do things, manifesting a complex and untheorisable set of dispositions’. Montaigne’s method is distinctly of the second kind, and makes him appear, superficially at least, as distinctly not a philosopher.
This does not mean, however, that the Essays should be regarded simply as autobiographical writing. They are much more than either philosophy or autobiography, and should be thought of as belonging to a form of discourse which is more or less unnameable (unless one names it the essay), in which what is said is much less significant than the process by which it is said, and in which the movement of the mind matters more than the propositions that are advanced. Montaigne’s thought processes and his shifting attitudes to his sources, his sudden frisks from what he has experienced to what he has read and back again, these are what the Essays are. They enable you to read dispositionally rather than methodically; that is, you build as you read a sense of the habits of mind underlying the associative trails, the jolts and starts, of each essay’s progress. Evidently Montaigne read in this way, too: ‘Every day I spend time reading my authors, not caring about their learning, looking not for their subject matter, but how they handle it.’ The patterns and the surprisingly patternless movements of his writing are what make the Essays both thoughtful and thought-provoking (or a portmanteau form of these two things). He is interested not in precepts but in what he calls the representation of passage, which might rather brutally be translated as the exploration of writerly consciousness as it unfolds, minute by minute and hour by hour.
This is why he differs so profoundly from Descartes and his bleached foundationalist conception of method. It also explains why few philosophers or historians of philosophy would see Montaigne as a figure on the same scale as Descartes. Where Descartes formulated precepts from which he could build an understanding of what we know and what we are, Montaigne instead performs the writerly being: doubting a while, then scurrying forward with his argument on the back of a received truth or a personal experience. Montaigne’s explorations of the processes of being are as important as the work of any significant philosopher in the Renaissance, despite their apparent lack of firm and consistent principle. In an essay on Montaigne, Merleau-Ponty modifies the Cartesian cogito in an aside (‘To be conscious is, among other things, to be somewhere else’) and goes on to describe Montaigne as putting ‘not self-satisfied understanding but a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence’. Astonishment, fluidity and changefulness are inherently resistant to precepts which describe how they come about, and these things are Montaigne’s stock-in-trade. They are perhaps what philosophy should be, but they are not what it has ever quite managed to become in the West.
As things are, Descartes’s stove and Montaigne’s library tower have given us two ways of living and thinking that are at root divergent. Stove people think that you can strip everything away and rebuild reality from precepts; tower people reckon that writing about and exploring or refining beliefs is the best you can do. For tower people, the process of writing and arguing is what thinking is; it is not concluding. Consciousness for tower people is being partly a body, partly a pen, partly a voice, partly a half-memory of someone else’s voice, partly the thing that enables you to realise that you are all those things at once (although this bit of consciousness doesn’t always function very well and needs a lot of encouragement), and partly a set of uneasy attitudes, ranging from shame to self-satisfaction, towards what in yourself is received and what seems immediate. Thinking is done not by starting from the beginning, but by thinking onwards and backwards and hoping that some clarification will emerge. Philosophers on the whole used to be stove people, and would probably have professed austere incomprehension of the position I have just outlined; but since Wittgenstein’s great migration from the deathly attempt to circumscribe the totality of what is by a string of propositions in the Tractatus to the language games of the Philosophical Investigations, there have been and are many philosophers of a wide range of political shadings (Michael Oakeshott, Richard Rorty, Bernard Williams, Martha Nussbaum) who breathe the air of the tower far more easily than they do that of the stove. Maybe if this tendency continues, Montaigne will one day come to seem as significant a figure in the history of philosophy as Descartes.
There is still some way to go, as Anne Hartle’s book indicates. It presents Montaigne as a philosopher opposed to any simple form of foundationalist rationalism. Hartle sees him rather as an Oakeshottian sceptic, who believes that philosophy should be conducted as a conversation that clarifies what is already known, and that seeks to make clearer some of the conditions under which we know, rather than aiming to ground our understanding on method. For Oakeshott and, Hartle argues, for Montaigne, too, our custom-bound prereflective conceptions are and ought to be the ground of philosophy, rather than theories built from the first foundations upwards. She takes from Montaigne’s longest essay, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, the part jocular claim that he is ‘a new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher’, and seeks to explain what an ‘accidental philosopher’ might be. The root of her argument is that an ‘accidental’ philosopher will not accept attempts to ground argument in abstractions such as Nature or Reason, but will argue in a ‘circular dialectic’ from what is already known, through various stages of defamiliarisation, to return to the initial, prereflective position in an enriched form.
There is much in Hartle’s book which is suggestive, and much which is extremely perceptive. She has an excellent passage, for example, on the reason Montaigne makes so much of the fact that his memory is bad: only by having a bad memory can he avoid being enslaved to presumption and its errors. People who forget readily and rapidly can see things freshly and reason back from what they deeply know, rather than having to rely on received opinion. She is also very good on the relationship between Montaigne’s scepticism and his apparent credulity about some of the implausible tales in Pliny and Plutarch. How can he, who made a motto of the question ‘Que sçais-je?’, credit the story of the Spartan boy who hid a fox under his tunic and would not reveal that it was there even though it gnawed away at his chest? Hartle argues that being willing to accept the possibility of odd things is an aspect of Montaigne’s scepticism: he does not believe that what he has seen is all that is possible, and so his scepticism and his credulity are not antitheses but boon buddies. At these moments she captures the flavour and explains the shapes of Montaigne’s thinking really well.
But she suffers from philosophy. This gives her a penchant for isolating and naming systems, and for finding propositional formulations that would explain inconsistency even if the systems which she isolates and names are systematically unsystematic. Although she is clear that ‘accidental philosophy’ inheres more in a mode of inquiry than in a set of propositions, she is too keen on turning it into something like a philosophical creed: ‘Accidental philosophy is a form of dialectic,’ she writes; and, ‘Accidental philosophy is purely philosophical: it is not a theology that takes the truths of faith as its axioms or as simply presumed’; and, ‘Accidental philosophy is the harmony of reason and faith.’ Can it be all these things? And does this amount to a position of a kind that would enable a person to choose to be an accidental philosopher? If a child were to say, ‘When I grow up I want to be a philosopher,’ or, ‘When I grow up I want to be a behaviourist,’ I would know what she meant; if a child said, ‘When I grow up I want to be an accidental philosopher,’ I would feel that he had uttered either a paradox (‘When I grow up I want to be run over by a bus accidentally’), or a broad ambition about the kind of person he would like to be, comparable to: ‘When I grow up I would like to be civilised.’
Some of my best friends are philosophers. But I live (in my dreams at least) in Montaigne’s tower and not in Descartes’s stove, and that is the result both of how I happen to think about the world and of a set of conscious intellectual decisions. I tend to believe that texts are better considered as things with geneses and effects than as things which manifest positions. A literary critic who looks at Hartle’s book will see an evident paradox in the attempt to codify and explain the principles behind an intrinsically principle-less philosophical idiom. Why regard a text as a manifestation at one remove of a programme or a set of (at least logically) prior principles which can be inferred and systematised from it? In asking this question I am not being a literary-critical Mr McGregor, overprotective of his cabbages, saying: ‘Get off my patch; texts manifest fluid dispositions; they do not offer precepts.’ Rather, I am saying that writing such as Montaigne’s Essays raises profound questions about how it is best to be described, and is too powerful to be considered, finally, either under the aspect of philosophical writing or as something which would belong comfortably to the descriptive games of literary criticism. Take Montaigne’s scepticism, for example. This could be seen as a paraphrasable belief along these lines: Montaigne believed that human reason was inadequate to comprehend certain truths about God and the world; hence he adopts an attitude to authority which is bifold – authorities may tell us truths which we cannot ourselves apprehend, or they may hoodwink us with nonsense. Therefore on some points authorities must be trusted even if one experiences their absurdity; on others they might be compared with authorities from which they differ in order to illustrate the deficiencies of our reason.
Roughly the same phenomenon could be described in a quite different and not necessarily incompatible way, by providing a narrative about dispositions rather than a set of propositions: the sceptical juxtapositions of different examples and attitudes which are found right from the start of the Essays indicate that Montaigne was trained at the Collège de Guyenne to absorb his learning from a variety of sources. This form of training necessarily fostered both a respect for custom and a sense of surprise when authorities clashed; credulity and incredulity alike could emerge when apparently reliable witnesses told different stories. This sort of description would then continue with a claim that Montaigne’s evolution was a writerly matter: he moved beyond the citation and imitation of authorities encouraged by humanist pedagogy towards a mode of writing in which the flow of authorities and his committed yet curious attitudes to them interplay so much that his whole life seemed tied up in the matter of reading and writing. This second way of describing Montaigne would see him not as, say, a committed Pyrrhonist sceptic, or a warped Stoic, or an ‘accidental philosopher’, but as a writer. And by ‘writer’ here I don’t just mean someone who happened to write things, but a person whose physical and intellectual being was played out through words and how he had learned to use them, and played out in such a way as to enable his readers to watch something that looks like a process of thinking.
In saying this I am not just saying that I start from a different position from Hartle, and that as a result I see the origins and the point of Montaigne rather differently. I am making the larger claim that she, and other philosophers who aspire to the tower, may still have the soot of the stove on their faces even when they think they do not, and that perhaps they have more to learn from literary criticism than they realise. The reverse is doubtless also true; but to make Montaigne appear to be as important as he is requires one to resist the desire to find systematisable propositions underlying his writing. It requires one to read – that is, continually to recalibrate what you think against what you think that the person you are reading thinks. To experience reading as intersubjective dispositional play is perhaps what it means to be an inhabitant of the tower. Hartle’s book may finally not quite convince that there is something called an ‘accidental philosopher’ and that Montaigne was one; it may rather illustrate one of Oakeshott’s more gnomic remarks (worthy to be inscribed on the beams of Montaigne’s tower): ‘The irony of all theorising is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.’