Montaigne, Michel de (1533-1592)
Michel de Montaigne was a leading writer of the French Renaissance. Montaigne was the originator and chief popularizer of the essay as a self-conscious literary form; his most important work, his collected Essais, was tremendously influential in shaping Western thought and letters for the last 400 years. In his essays, Montaigne attempted not only to understand the world around him, but also to understand himself, the nature of man in general, and the peculiarities that made him who he was. His focus on the individual spirit, and the individual voice, was characteristic of Renaissance humanism. Montaigne’s intense originality and devotion to the study of the self place him in the first rank of individualist thinkers.
Montaigne’s individualism did not drift into a dogmatic egotism, however, and he developed both a humility about mankind’s limitations and a cosmopolitan attitude toward the various modes of life he encountered during his travels throughout Europe. “If it were up to me to train myself in my own fashion,” he wrote,
there is no way so good that I should want to be fixed in it and unable to break loose. Life is an uneven, irregular, and multiform movement. We are not friends to ourselves … we are slaves, if we follow ourselves incessantly and are so caught in our inclinations that we cannot depart from them or twist them about.
Nor was this an idle boast. Montaigne strongly mistrusted easy certitudes. Although he was a devout Catholic, he steadfastly worked for peace between Catholics and Protestants, a view that set him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries. He even went so far as to attempt, during the worst of the French Wars of Religion, a mediation between Henri de Guise, leader of the Catholic League, and Henri de Navarre, the future King Henri IV, who was still a Protestant. Montaigne was skeptical of the supernatural in general and particularly of the divine mandate of government, yet he remained loyal to his faith and to the French state for fear, he explained, that innovations would prove worse than the established institutions. In this he was both a new kind of conservative and a skeptic concerning the power of human knowledge.
Although he was traditional in his faith and allegiance, Montaigne abhorred cruelty, torture, and arbitrary rule. He seldom, if ever, sought to excuse these vices in rulers, and he often sided with the victims of persecution against their oppressors. Libertarians are apt to see Montaigne as an intellectual cousin, and nowhere is this kinship more evident than in his essay “Of Sumptuary Laws,” where he writes,
The way in which our laws try to regulate … expenditures for the table and for clothes seems to be opposed to their purpose… . For to say that none but princes shall eat turbot, or shall be allowed to wear velvet and gold braid, and to forbid them to the people, what else is this but to give prestige to these things and increase everyone’s desire to enjoy them?
Our lack of insight into the minds of others poses a serious obstacle to any straightforward, systematic attempt to regulate the conduct of others.
Libertarians are apt to fault Montaigne in one significant respect—namely, his view of economics. He held that, in any exchange, one party must gain while another loses. He appears not to have considered the idea that exchanges might be mutually beneficial. Ludwig von Mises went so far as to term this notion the “Montaigne dogma,” and he devoted a section of his seminal work Human Action to refuting it. Yet the Montaigne dogma was and remains so ubiquitous that it may not be wholly fair to assign it to one individual except insofar as a pervasive fallacy requires a convenient name.
Although he often appears to be a thinker well ahead of his time, Montaigne’s upbringing and surroundings seem to have done much to shape, or at least suggest, his character. He was born near Bordeaux to a mother of Jewish converso heritage; three of his siblings would later convert to Protestantism. A member of the minor nobility, his father had served in the French army in Italy and developed an appreciation for humanistic learning. His son Michel was given peasant godparents and a tutor who spoke no French; the younger Montaigne spoke only Latin until he was 6 years old. He later made a career in the Parlement of Bordeaux, where he befriended Étienne de La Boétie and was among the first to read La Boétie’s Treatise of Involuntary Servitude, which impressed him deeply. Montaigne struck up a close friendship with La Boétie, which ended only at La Boétie’s death.
Considered as a whole, Montaigne’s work presents something of a paradox. Although he was deeply skeptical about the ability of any one man or group of men to grasp absolute truth, still, he manifestly valued the more pedestrian work of simply trying to understand what one could. He exhibited remarkable insight into human character at the individual level, while, by libertarian lights, his understanding of economic interactions was simplistic. However, the fact that he had missed the mark might not have greatly surprised him. Much would always remain unknown, Montaigne believed, and this fact was to be accepted with a fortitude that he drew from ancient Stoic sources.
Libertarians still appreciate Montaigne’s views on the limits of understanding, inasmuch as many libertarians tend to view society as a complex interplay of local knowledges and practices, beyond the ability of any one person or government to comprehend. In addition, libertarians, following Montaigne, tend to reject the more ambitious system-builders and planners who believe that they can fully master anything as complex as social institutions or even as complex as another individual. “I do not see the whole of anything,” Montaigne wrote, “nor do those who promise to show it to us.”
Langer, Ulrich. The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. 3 vols. Donald A. Frame, trans. New York: Doubleday, 1960.
Starobinski, Jean. Montaigne in Motion. Arthur Goldhammer, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Originally published .