Montaigne and the Art of Free-thinking

February 17, 2011

It is perhaps unsurprising that a major literary classic written in the late 16th century should prove if not inaccessible, at least difficult to approach for the modern reader. The paradox, in the case of Michel de Montaigne's Essais, is that reaching out for his audience by means of an accessible, engaging prose had been one of the author's utmost concerns when writing the book.

In pursuit of this goal, Montaigne was willing to sacrifice the literary conventions of his time. Thus the language he adopted was colloquial, occasionally even vernacular, and an object of criticism for lovers of pure French style; the innumerable erudite references in the text were presented as casual, and possibly inaccurate, recollections, while philosophical arguments were interspersed with personal remarks and anecdotes.

The very title of Essais - a novel formula when the book was first published in 1580 - suggested the unskilled, tentative speculations of an amateur, rather than the polished artefact of an accomplished author. While for centuries the artfully casual tone and unsystematic design of the Essais contributed to its success with the public, the same features puzzle and disorient modern readers, who are generally used to more focused, explicit and clearly labelled literary products.

The starting point of Richard Scholar's Montaigne and the Art of Free-thinking is precisely the realisation that today "Montaigne is treated like the human equivalent of a world heritage site: as a monument to a past age, worthy of preservation, but hardly to be visited". Scholar's book is motivated by the laudable desire to improve this state of affairs, making Montaigne once again accessible to his potential readers. As a rule, modern interpreters have reacted to the fragmented, meandering structure of the Essais by imposing some arbitrary order upon the text; essentially, this is done in two ways, either by associating the author with one (or several) intellectual currents - such as scepticism, stoicism or humanism - or by concentrating upon some internal feature of the text while ignoring its surrounding context.

In Scholar's view, each approach - the intellectual-historical and the literary - is insufficient on its own, and he argues that the two must be combined for a full understanding of Montaigne's work. While this claim is clearly unobjectionable, Scholar's own contribution to the exercise consists in suggesting yet another comprehensive category through which the Essais should be read and interpreted, namely the notion of "free-thinking". Here the term free-thinking does not refer to the rejection of religious belief; rather it indicates, literally, the practice of thinking freely, outside the limits of conventional rules and dogmas.

Thus Montaigne's circular reasoning, shifting opinions and self-contradicting arguments and his deliberate omissions and ambiguities should all be seen as the creation of a truly free spirit; indeed Scholar compares the Essais to another contemporary classic, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, casting Montaigne as the Don Quixote of intellectual adventure.

The idea of approaching the Essais as a rule-breaking work is not exactly novel: it has been part of the interpretative tradition since the publication of Jean Starobinski's seminal Montaigne en Mouvement in 1982, in which the open character of the Essais was captured by the metaphor of motion. Somewhat more modestly, perhaps, Scholar's study takes the form of a commentary of selected passages and sections of the book, designed to guide the reader - whose perspective is privileged over that of the author - through the maze of obscure references, intricate arguments, claims and counter-claims that characterise it.

The result is a learned, well-written and useful companion to the Essais (although one that requires some preliminary knowledge of the author and work), rather than a novel understanding of the meaning of freedom in Montaigne's thought.

Montaigne and the Art of Free-thinking

By Richard Scholar. Peter Lang, 229pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781906165215. Published 28 October 2010

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