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Montaigne: La Vie Sans Loi
by pierre manent?
flammarion, 366 pages, 22 €

Michel de Montaigne’s autobiographical Essays abound with aphorisms. (“We say, ‘I have done nothing today.’ What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations.”) Yet given how profoundly that book has shaped the modern world, these one-liners can now seem ­platitudinous. They are not. As Pierre Manent shows in his new study, Montaigne: La vie sans loi (Life without law), Montaigne’s Essays attempt a radical redefinition of the purpose of human life by articulating life’s value without reference to the ordering principles of reason and law, whether divine or human.

To help us appreciate the unprecedented character of Montaigne’s contention that our most important business is simply to live—independent of all rational, political, or theological standards of howwe should live—Manent presents Montaigne as he presents himself, as a “new figure” who can be understood only in comparison with the great figures of the past. Were we to say to a Greek philosopher, such as Socrates, or to a Roman citizen, such as Cato, or to a Christian saint, such as Augustine, that there was value in life independent of philosophy, politics, or religion, the three of them—so different among themselves—would shake their heads in unified disbelief.

For Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living; for Cato, the life of active citizenship is the only acceptable life; for Augustine, a life that does not seek ever-increasing proximity to the divine is worse than meaningless. Montaigne accuses all three of sacrificing human life to the pursuit of an illusory, “supercelestial” perfection. They “seek other conditions because [they] do not understand the use of our own.” This pursuit gives rise to hypocrisy and cruelty, the “ordinary vices” of Montaigne’s contemporaries, who waged the religious civil wars that dominated his adult life.

Offering a cure for these vices, Montaigne teaches a new form of self-knowledge. “The commonest of human errors,” he writes, is not knowing how to be “at home.” Being at home means being loyal to what he calls his forme maîtresse, his individual, unchangeable “ruling pattern.” Although the Essays abound with meditations on the great souls of antiquity, Montaigne does not model his life after them or anyone else. Instead, he argues, “it is an absolute perfection, and almost divine, to know how to loyally enjoy our being.” He thereby raises the standard of a new moral virtue: authenticity.

The Essays embody this authenticity by painting Montaigne’s self-portrait with unprecedented frankness. He even calls the book his “confession”—although he neither makes that confession to a priest nor asks for forgiveness. Instead, he makes his confession to his readers, writing that “a generous heart . . . wants to reveal itself even to its inmost depths. There everything is good, or at least everything is human.” As Manent remarks, he thereby implicitly says to his readers, “It is a human being I am showing you, and you, too, are human beings.” That is, Montaigne asks his reader to accept him with humanity—to excuse the small vices he reveals in recognition of our common, human frailty.

Montaigne gives himself the space and freedom necessary to speak with his characteristic frankness by withdrawing from the public sphere, where the standards of political and religious law rule. He creates what he calls an arrière-boutique, a back shop of the soul, in which, as Manent comments, he devotes “exquisite attention” to chronicling “the variations, the diversity, perhaps the interior incoherence” of his own experiences and passions. This mode of writing—sending forth one’s private thoughts to be received by an audience of readers who take up one’s book in the privacy of their own studies and bedrooms—will help create the world of literature, a new intellectual realm ostensibly removed from public debate and the rational and legal standards that govern it.

Although he seeks to elevate life above law, Montaigne is no anarchist. He comports himself in public with a kind of ironic conventionalism, obeying the laws not because they are just and reasonable but because they are laws. Though human reason is incapable of discovering truly just laws, we should follow the arbitrary laws of our country for the sake of the peace and order that make a rich private life possible. Within the arrière-boutique, however, we need observe no such constraints.

The Montaignean honnête homme—the well-off, well-connected, and well-educated lover of books, travel, and conversation, true to himself, moderate in his opinions, devoid of prudery, and humane in his judgments—would become the dominant social figure of seventeenth-century France. The prestige of this moral ideal has only grown with time. Nonetheless, Manent doubts that the way of life Montaigne proposes can truly be called human.

Manent’s first doubt concerns the utter passivity of the interior life Montaigne chronicles. Despite his immense learning, Montaigne claims that no philosophic or religious teaching has fundamentally altered his way of life. Such changes would be inauthentic—acts of disloyalty to the forme maîtresse. The changes Montaigne chronicles concern merely his humeurs, his moods and the states of his body, which he does not initiate, but passively endures or enjoys. He takes this passivity so far as to suggest that even “the beliefs, judgments, and opinions of men” have “their revolution, their season, their birth, [and] their death, like cabbages.” Montaigne thus unceremoniously deflates the human pretension to freedom and rationality; we are, on this view, nothing more than presumptuous greens. As Manent remarks, however, this means that Montaigne’s own moral teaching amounts to a call to renounce our presumption merely so we can vegetate in peace.

Manent furthermore doubts that Montaigne, for all his fine-grained self-observation, really knows the human heart. Montaigne’s greatest yet most critical reader, Pascal, argues that our hearts can never truly accept Montaigne’s ironic conventionalism. The desire to be ruled by just and rational laws, Pascal argues, is “natural to man” and cannot be gotten over. Avoiding the issue, as Montaigne does, simply exacerbates our disquiet with worldly life. The Montaignean sage who has ceased to care about the transcendent by learning how to stay “at home” is an illusion. Beneath all the pleasing distractions, Pascal sees restlessness, fear, and emptiness deep in the heart of every honnête homme.

Manent calls Montaigne’s knowledge of the human heart further into question when he compares him with ?St. Augustine on the connection between sexuality and shame. In the Essays,Montaigne remarks that Augustine, “through an overtender and respectful attitude,” erroneously believes that the shame associated with sex is natural. Montaigne endeavors to show that shame is merely conventional, by parading an immense variety of human sexual practices and taboos before us without making any distinction between the more and the less natural among them. He also insinuates that he has liberated his own mind from all taint of prudery—implying that his reader, too, can experience that liberation.

From the sober perspective provided by the Western experience of the never-ending sexual revolution of the past half-century, Manent counters that, “in spite of our highly systematic efforts, we have not succeeded in abolishing all shame.” Adolescents blush as much as ever at the mention of the unmentionable, however far the line demarcating it may have shifted. Our long and costly social experiment, Manent argues, “confirms the judgment of Augustine rather than that of Montaigne.” Montaigne’s attempt to liberate life from the constraints of law, reason, shame, and metaphysical aspiration is ultimately a quixotic effort to liberate us from the deepest concerns of our own hearts.

Manent’s recent work has focused on the history of political forms, from the ancient city to the modern nation-state. This inquiry has been animated by a concern for the future of European democracy now that its functional framework, the nation-state, has been called into question. The decline of the nation-state, Manent suggests, has been driven by impatience with legal limits such as borders, assumed to be arbitrary. Montaigne: La vie sans loi reveals that the deepest root of this European malaise—from which America is not immune—is the mode of self-understanding that originates in Montaigne, the view that all laws and limits are fundamentally arbitrary and that liberation from such constraints is the goal of the human search for wisdom. Overcoming that malaise will require a renewal of our desire to govern ourselves, in the belief that the created world is a place in which reason can discover laws worth following, not merely because they give us space for comfortable passivity but because rational self-government is an indispensable element of true human dignity.  

Benjamin Storey is associate professor of political science at Furman University.

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