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Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy

Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the "Essais"

David Quint
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7ztr2q
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  • Book Info
    Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy
    Book Description:

    In a fresh reading of Montaigne'sEssais, David Quint portrays the great Renaissance writer as both a literary man and a deeply engaged political thinker concerned with the ethical basis of society and civil discourse. From the first essay, Montaigne places the reader in a world of violent political conflict reminiscent of the French Wars of Religion through which he lived and wrote. Quint shows how a group of interrelated essays, including the famous one on the cannibals of Brazil, explores the confrontation between warring adversaries: a clement or vindictive victor and his suppliant or defiant captive. How can the two be reconciled? In a climate of hatred and obstinacy, Montaigne argues not only for the political necessity but also for the moral imperative of trusting and submitting to others and of extending mercy to them.

    For Quint, this ethical message informs other topics of theEssais: Montaigne's criticism of stoic models of virtue, his project to reform the cruel behavior of his noble class, his self-portrait that depicts his relaxed and unstudied nature, and his measuring of his own behavior against the classical virtue of Socrates. Quint's reading, attentive to Montaigne's verbal artistry and to his historical and cultural context, shows the essayist always aware of the other side of the issue. The moral thought of theEssaisemerges as startlingly modern, both in the perennial urgency of Montaigne's concerns and in the self-questioning open-endedness of his doctrine.

    Originally published in 1998.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6480-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xvii-2)
  5. Chapter One CLEMENCY AND REVENGE: THE FIRST ESSAY AND ITS PLACE IN MONTAIGNE’S BOOK
    (pp. 3-41)

    TheEssaisBegin with a fearful showdown. Put yourself, Montaigne asks his reader in the opening essay, in the position of the defeated, face to face with your enemy, who “has vengeance in hand.” By which tactic can you soften the heart of your foe and save your life: by humble submission that seeks to stir pity and commiseration, or by a brave defiance and constancy that will impress your foe with your valor?

    Which, indeed, of these “entirely contrary means,” those of the essay’s tide, “Par divers moyens on arrive a pareille fin” (“By Diverse Means We Arrive at...

  6. Chapter Two CRUELTY AND NOBLESSE: “DE LA CRUAUTÉ” AND “COUARDISE MERE DE LA CRUAUTÉ”
    (pp. 42-74)

    This passage from near the beginning of “De Part de conferer” (3:8) interprets the scenes of horror that run through theEssaisand that often, as we have seen, bring an individual essay to a gory and emphatic conclusion. The rhetorical force of such scenes of inhuman cruelty aims to persuade Montaigne’s reader, as it does the essayist himself, to the course of clemency. The passage at the same time indicates how, in several central essays of his book, Montaigne will rewrite its opening opposition between clemency and revenge as a struggle between clemency andcruelty.The initial distinction that...

  7. Chapter Three THE CULTURE THAT CANNOT PARDON: “DES CANNIBALES” IN THE LARGER ESSAIS
    (pp. 75-101)

    At a fairly early point in “Des cannibales”(1:31) Montaigne placed a passage that has greatly contributed to the idea of the noble savage, and that has caused the essay to be read as an encomium of the natural way of life enjoyed by the inhabitants of the New World. It is the passage cited and imitated by Shakespeare inThe Tempest(2.1.143–64), when the old courtier Gonzalo envisions the Utopian commonwealth he would build if he could rule Prospero’s island. Montaigne asserts that the existence of the Brazilian cannibals surpasses in happiness not only the mythical Golden Age but...

  8. Chapter Four AN ETHICS OF YIELDING: “DE L’ART DE CONFERER” AND “DE LA PHISIONOMIE”
    (pp. 102-144)

    Here is one more gloss that the widerEssaisoffer on “Des cannibales.” About one third of the way into his long exploration of skepticism in the “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” Montaigne sums up his argument and declares its apologetic moral.

    J’en diray seulement encore cela, que c’est la seule humilité et submission qui peut effectuer un homme de bien. Il ne faut pas laisser au jugement de chacun la cognoissance de son devoir; il Ie luy faut prescrire, non pas Ie laisser choisir à son discours: autrement, selon Pimbecilité et varieté infinie de nos raisons et opinions, nous nous...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 145-168)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 169-172)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 173-173)