When I am playing with my cat, who can know whether she is not amusing herself with me, rather than I with her?1
Montaigne is the most congenial of intellectual companions. He was an exceptionally well-educated member of the local gentry, who spent most of his life on his estate near Bordeaux. A trained lawyer, he served two terms as mayor of Bordeaux and was a minor player on the national political stage, at a period when France was ravaged by religious civil war of unparalleled savagery. In 1571, he vowed to retreat to the 'peace and security' of his library and his own reflections. This retreat was much interrupted by his political responsibilities and by a tour of Italy in 1580-
1, but 1571 marked the beginning of the years of study, rumination and writing that resulted in the Essays.
Two books of essays were published in 1580, and successive editions made alterations and additions, the most important of which was a third book, appended in 1588. Montaigne was working on the essays up to his death, and a posthumous edition in 1594 contains very extensive insertions into the body of the text. Well before then, Montaigne had discovered the subject of his writing, and that subject was himself. This was a revolution in the history of European thought. No authors prior to Montaigne had made themselves the matter of their book, except to present a partial view of themselves, as examples of God's grace or as witnesses to historical events. Montaigne's Essays are loosely structured, but extraordinarily intelligent and critical, ponderings on his own responses to the total diversity of his own experience, his reading, his social interactions, his habits, his environment, his mental cogitations, his sensations and his bodily proclivities. The book found avid readers throughout western Europe. John Florio published it in English in 1613, Francis Bacon's Essays could not have been conceived without it. Descartes, Pascal, and all the major thinkers of the seventeenth century start from questions raised for them by Montaigne, even though, under the influence of the Scientific Revolution, they came to a very different world-view. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Europe's next great essay in autobiography, is clearly of Montaigne's progeny, but so is the modern preoccupation with the self, and every essay that was ever written. As an environmental thinker (a concept he could not have recognized, though he did think about the natural environment), Montaigne may best be considered under three heads: his reaction to attitudes typical of his social class; his reflections on the 'wild'; and the place of animals in his sceptical account of human pretensions to a superior place in the natural order.
There was no appropriate language already in existence for Montaigne's novel investigation of his own psychology, and Montaigne invented one out of metaphors. One of his favourite metaphors is that of the hunt, a pastime closely linked to the social status of a gentleman. When his essay on Cruelty (Book II, no. 11) gets round to his own sense of what is cruel, he confronts us straightaway with the reality of 'the hare squealing when my hounds get their teeth into it'. As always, Montaigne mistrusts any simple analysis of his behaviour. It may be mere squeamishness, too weak to underpin a moral position. He is fully conscious that his distaste for the spectacle of the hunted beast at bay is likely to be mocked by his peers. Yet, his self-awareness forces him to stand aside from his social group and triggers more general speculation about man's natural propensity to cruelty, about the respect and affection religion and our very humanity enjoin that we give to our fellow creatures, beasts and plants, and about the lessons animals have for our presumption: 'I willingly lay aside that imaginary rule over other creatures that we have been assigned'.
Montaigne's capacity to imagine the other finds its most startling expression in his essay on Cannibals (Book I, no. 31), which also turns on questions of cruelty and presumption. This is one of two essays on the New World in which Montaigne deplores the depredations of the European conquerors with a fierce bitterness rarely articulated before him. His subject is the human inhabitants of South America, not the natural environment, but his basic distinction between the wild and the cultivated, the natural and the artificial, has implications for both. For Montaigne, the 'savagery' of Brazilian cannibals is akin to the vigour and virtue of uncontaminated nature. It is European culture that has corrupted nature by artifice. So, the refined cruelty Europeans inflict on their colonial subjects, and on each other in the name of religion, is a barbarity far in excess of the 'barbarity' we ascribe to cannibals. While condemning cannibalism in absolute terms, Montaigne contextualizes the practice in a description derived from explorers' accounts of a very simple, 'natural' society living in equilibrium with the environment, using its resources without cultivating or altering it. The Brazilians desire nothing beyond what their environment liberally provides, so they have no concept of conquest, of property, of trade or of social division. Their cannibalism derives from a competitive sense of honour, as does their polygamy. Montaigne focuses on these two practices so repugnant to his own culture to demonstrate that they are not alien to nature, that they are conceivable within a different environment and make sense within a different social structure. His capacity to imagine the other is also a tool for attacking Europeans' presumption that they are morally and culturally superior: 'there is nothing barbarous or savage about the Brazilian tribes, except that all call "barbarous" anything they are not used to'. Moreover, this view from the other side can be very disturbing. When his 'savages' visited France, they 'naively' marvelled at the disparity between rich and poor and wondered why the destitute did not 'seize the others by the throat or set fire to their houses'.
Montaigne's most sustained discussion of man's general relationship with other inhabitants of his environment is to be found in the very long Apology for [or, Defence of] Raymond Sebond (Book II, no. 12). It serves as an introduction to a translation Montaigne had been asked to make of Sebond's Natural Theology, written in the early fifteenth century. Sebond had argued that truth can be read in the Book of Nature, but only if those who observe nature and interpret it do so in the light of Christian revelation. His subject matter here forces Montaigne to investigate traditional theological attitudes to the natural world and to explore the cosmological, psychological and biological science of his day. The strategy of his essay requires him to be sceptical, for he has chosen to undermine those who object that Sebond's arguments are weak by demonstrating how fallible all human reasoning is. Montaigne accumulates evidence on two counts: first, to show that opinions held about the workings of nature are incoherent and self-contradictory; second, to show what a feeble creature man is, despite his much lauded faculty of reason on which is founded his presumption to rule the rest of creation. He pursues this second theme through a copious inventory of examples where animals put man to shame, in their ability to communicate, their creative skills, their ingenuity, their powers of deduction, their memory, their moral virtues of fidelity and courage, and many more. Fact and fable are all grist to his mill. Montaigne revels in the literature from which he takes his examples, and that shows him to be a man of his time. In the middle of the sixteenth century lavish books were printed reproducing all that was known about animals, with detailed, realistic illustrations. They adhered to a basic grouping of species, but it is the profusion of animal life, rather than its taxonomy, that still entrances the browsing reader of these works, where the fabulous is interleaved with familiar creatures from the Old World and exotic beasts from the New. Their text is exhaustive about anatomy, habitat, feeding, breeding, and so on, but it dwells just as much on references to the animal in historical texts, poems, fables, proverbs, sayings and emblems. Animals are literary and cultural objects, as much as objects of scientific observation. The same could be said about the study of the natural environment outside books. The sixteenth century was the great period of the curiosity cabinet, filled with a heterogeneous collection of animal and mineral objects designed to excite wonder at the uninhibited variety of natural forms rather than to initiate scientific research.
Montaigne's apparently undisciplined gathering of the more amazing feats of animals recounted in books, interspersed with the occasional personal observation, has analogies with the encyclopedism and collecting mania of his contemporaries (and exactly the same appeal as exotic 'wildlife series' on television). There are, however, features of Montaigne's discourse that betray a rather different preoccupation. In emphasizing the role of animals in human culture and in subjecting their remains to the wondering gaze of the possessor of a curiosity cabinet, encyclopedias and collections tended to promote an anthropomorphic view of the animal world just as effectively as the moral and Christological lenses through which their medieval predecessors had read the Book of Nature. Montaigne's purpose is not to show how man can know nature and therefore feel easy with it, but to discomfort man, to show that his claim to be superior to animals is undermined by counter-examples at every turn. He claimed in his essay on Cruelty that humility with respect to the rest of creation is both a proper human attitude and a Christian one, but it does go against the grain of a certain theological attitude that puts man and his immortal soul on a level above all other living things and also identifies the 'bestial' with the degenerate and morally corrupt. Moreover, there runs through Montaigne's catalogue of animal behaviour that same sense of the other that allowed him to grope towards an anthropological understanding of the alien cannibals. He does not rest in a state of wonder, but conceives imaginatively a world where other forms of language operate, other values hold, in which animals have an incomplete sense of what makes humans tick, but no less complete than our insight into them, a world where cats amuse themselves with humans no less than we amuse ourselves with cats.
Montaigne's kind and generous attitude to non-human creatures was the product of a pre-scientific mentality. For him, the natural environment was an array of mobile forms, a playground for his agile mind. When Descartes, in his Discours de la méthode of 1637, defined the natural world as the scientific object of man's investigating reason, he constructed it as a machine. Animals for Descartes were functioning mechanisms without thought, language or sensation. Montaigne's respect for animals survived the Scientific Revolution in the fables of La Fontaine. In La Fontaine, too, animals have their mode of communication and teach mankind a lesson.
1 Book II, Essay 12 of The Complete Essays. All references to Montaigne in the text are to Book and Essay numbers of this work.
See also in this book
Montaigne's major writings
The Complete Essays, trans. M.A. Screech, with good introduction, London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1991.
Burke, P., Montaigne, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Daston, L. and Park, K., Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, New
York: Zone Books, 1998. Sayce, R.A., The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.
Screech, M.A., Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays, London: Duckworth, 1983.
Was this article helpful?
If Pregnancy Is Something That Frightens You, It's Time To Convert Your Fear Into Joy. Ready To Give Birth To A Child? Is The New Status Hitting Your State Of Mind? Are You Still Scared To Undergo All The Pain That Your Best Friend Underwent Just A Few Days Back? Not Convinced With The Answers Given By The Experts?