Montaigne's Politics

Montaigne's Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais

Biancamaria Fontana
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s7ng
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Montaigne's Politics
    Book Description:

    Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) is principally known today as a literary figure--the inventor of the modern essay and the pioneer of autobiographical self-exploration who retired from politics in midlife to write his private, philosophical, and apoliticalEssais. But, as Biancamaria Fontana argues inMontaigne's Politics, a novel, vivid account of the political meaning of theEssaisin the context of Montaigne's life and times, his retirement from the Bordeaux parliament in 1570 "could be said to have marked the beginning, rather than the end, of his public career." He later served as mayor of Bordeaux and advisor to King Henry of Navarre, and, as Fontana argues, Montaigne'sEssaisvery much reflect his ongoing involvement and preoccupation with contemporary politics--particularly the politics of France's civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. Fontana shows that theEssais, although written as a record of Montaigne's personal experiences, do nothing less than set forth the first major critique of France'sancien régime, anticipating the main themes of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire and Diderot. Challenging the views that Montaigne was politically aloof or evasive, or that he was a conservative skeptic and supporter of absolute monarchy, Fontana explores many of the central political issues in Montaigne's work--the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious toleration, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2451-9
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-x)
    B. F.
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-25)

    For over four hundred years, since his death in 1592, Michel de Montaigne has proved a difficult subject for portrait. The small group of loyal friends who first tried to celebrate his qualities and achievements—as the news that the author of theEssaiswas dead spread slowly across Europe—may have found some comfort in the panegyrics, tributes, and praises they lavished upon his memory.¹ But the man who invented a radically novel, breathtakingly modern way of writing about the self had fatally undermined the future efforts of interpreters and commentators, keeping for himself all the original insights, and...

  5. Chapter 1 THE SPIRIT OF THE LAWS
    (pp. 26-44)

    THE NATURE of the laws—both in the sense of customary human norms and of positive, written codes—is a central theme in Montaigne’sEssais. For a substantial part of his adult life—from the mid-1550s to 1570—the practice of the law represented Montaigne’s main public activity. If during that period he developed a deeply felt revulsion for the French legal system and all it stood for, his concern with the general issue of the nature of the laws, far from fading away, continued to resurface in the subsequent drafts of his work.

    Hardly any evidence has survived about...

  6. Chapter 2 IN A LEADEN CENTURY: THE DECLINE OF VIRTUE
    (pp. 45-65)

    IN THE ESSAY “Of Cato the Younger” (I, 37), written as part of the first draft of the text, probably around 1572-74, Montaigne commented upon the absence of any sense of virtue from the experience of his contemporaries, particularly if by “virtue” was meant a practical moral ideal rather than some abstract philosophical notion:

    This century in which we live, at least in our part of the world, is so leaden that not only the practice but even the idea of virtue is wanting; and it seems to be nothing else but a piece of school jargon . . ....

  7. Chapter 3 FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE: THE POLITICS OF TOLERATION
    (pp. 66-84)

    THE ESSAY “Of Freedom of Conscience” (II, 19) occupies a special place within theEssais, and not just in the sense that it is strategically—some claim even symbolically—set at the center of the text, in the middle of Book II.¹ Although the issue of religious dissent and toleration was a recurrent theme in his work, this is the place where Montaigne addressed the subject more fully and systematically. In contrast with the usual practice of presenting a variety of historical examples, the entire essay was constructed around a single historical figure, the Roman emperor Julian, known as “the...

  8. Chapter 4 FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE: GOVERNING OPINION
    (pp. 85-103)

    MONTAIGNE’S CHOICE of Julian the Apostate as the protagonist of the essay on freedom of conscience (II, 19) was not in itself especially novel: for over a century the Roman emperor had exercised a considerable attraction on European Renaissance writers; he featured in fact not just in religious works like Erasmus’sApophtegmata(1531), but also in dramatic ones such as Lorenzo de Medici’sRappresentazione di San Giovanni e Paolo(1489) and Hans Sachs’sDer arg Kaiser Julianus(1553). In France in particular, Julian had been for some time at the center of an intellectual revival: the fact that he had...

  9. Chapter 5 TURNING THE TIDE: TRUST AND LEGITIMACY
    (pp. 104-121)

    On the 17th of August, 1548, the lieutenant Tristan de Moneins, sent by king Henry II to Bordeaux to deal with an outburst of riots against thegabelle(the salt tax), was killed and torn to pieces by the crowd together with some tax collectors.¹ Montaigne recalled the episode, which he claimed to have witnessed “in his childhood” (he was fifteen at the time), discussing the reasons that had brought the unfortunate envoy to his death. Moneins had been safely under armed guard inside one of Bordeaux’s forts, the Château-Trompette, when he had injudiciously agreed to go to the town...

  10. Chapter 6 LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE: POLITICS AS PRACTICE
    (pp. 122-140)

    Montaigne was elected mayor of Bordeaux on the first of August, 1581: the news reached him at the beginning of September at Villa dei Bagni, near Lucca, one of several spa resorts he had been visiting, hoping to find a cure for his kidney stones. The official letters of appointment were waiting for him in Rome when he reached the city at the beginning of October, before starting his journey back to France. He had not canvassed to obtain the post (he had been traveling abroad since June of the previous year), and his first instinct was to decline the...

  11. CONCLUSION Montaigne’s Legacy
    (pp. 141-146)

    In conclusion: what was Montaigne’s legacy to later reflections upon politics, more particularly to our own understanding of it? To a large extent the aim of this book has been to show that Montaigne’s views on political issues should be taken seriously. No doubt theEssaiswere not written as a contribution to what we recognize today as political theory: a discipline of which, in its contemporary form of “art of government,” Montaigne was inclined to question the credentials. Yet the fact that the author’s insights on social and political practices came as the by-product of a broader reflection on...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 147-182)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 183-202)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 203-205)