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making them moral. He would endeavour, not indeed to
construct a complete system of ethical doctrine, but to con-
tribute a few suggestions based on his own experience and on
the special needs of the age. For instance two conspicuous
vices of the age were cruelty and perfidy, and against these
he raises his voice in unusual accents of stern and uncom-
promising severity 3 .

1 See O. Greard, De la 7?i07-ale de Plutarque, 2nd ed. 1874.

2 Desjardins Les 77ioralistes francais du xvi e sieele, pp. 83 — 102 points out that
the great jurists of Montaigne's day, Cujas, Doneau, Dumoulin, were greatly
influenced by the Stoic element in Roman jurisprudence.

3 See II. 11, De la cruante (as essay which is of great importance for Montaigne's
ethical doctrines) ; II. 17, Quant a cette nouvelle vertu de faint isc et dissimulation,
qui est a cett ' heure si fort en credit, je la hay capitalement, et de tons les vices, je n'en
trouve aucun qui tcsmoigne tant de laschete et bassesse de caur; II. 18 (Du
desmentir), Le premier traict de la corruption des mceurs, c'est le bannissement de la
verite. See also Desjardins, op. cit., p. 259.



But in considering Montaigne's moral philosophy it is
important to distinguish, and to remember that he himself
distinguished, between the promptings of his imagination and
the dictates of his reason, between his theories and his practice.
His imagination for instance approves of the lofty idealism of
martyrs and ascetics, or runs riot in depicting the pleasures of
the senses ; but in practice he obeys his reason, and his reason
j teaches him moderation and self-control 1 . "For my part, I
love life and cultivate it as it hath pleased God to grant it to
me.... I accept cheerfully and gratefully what nature has done
for me, and am pleased with it and proud of it.... Of
philosophical opinions I more willingly embrace those which
are the most solid, that is to say the most human and the most
our own.... Nature is a gentle guide, yet not more gentle than
she is prudent and just. I hunt everywhere for her trail ; we
have confounded it with artificial traces, and for this reason the
sovereign good of the Academics and the Peripatetics, which is
' To live according to Nature,' becomes difficult to define and
explain. So with that of the Stoics, which is akin to it, and
which is ' To conform to Nature.' Is it not an error to esteem
certain actions less worthy, because they are not necessary?
Yet they will never convince me that the marriage of
pleasure with necessity is not a most suitable one, with which,
saith an ancient writer, the gods ever conspire.... These tran-
scendent humours terrify me, like lofty and inaccessible places,
and nothing I find so hard to digest in the life of Socrates as

his ecstasies and his intercourse with daemons It is an

absolute perfection, and as it were divine, for a man to know
how to enjoy his being loyally. We seek for other conditions,
because we understand not the use of our own ; and we
out of ourselves from not knowing what is passing within....
The fairest lives to my mind are those which are regulatepl
after the ordinary human pattern, without miracle, without
extravagance." This is the conclusion 01' the Essays.

It is characteristic of Montaigne's idea of treating man in

1 Cf. Ruel, op. cit. p. 412, Montaigne a un double ideal, un idial praHqtb
du moins qu'il vondrait mettre en pratique, et un autre, artistique, que le plus
souvent son admiration pour Vantiquiti fait apparaitre a son imagination.


general through a single individual that his views on education
refer chiefly to a particular case. The Essay On Pedantry
(I. 24) is indeed of general application, but the longer and
more important one On the Education of Children (I. 25) was
written for the benefit of the expected child of M me de Gurson,
who like the rest of his class — Montaigne assumed that it
would be a boy — would probably take up the profession of
arms at the age of fifteen or sixteen. This limitation to
the requirements of a small and privileged class necessarily
narrows the scope of Montaigne's educational views ; but
many of his precepts are of general import, and his central
thought that the object of education is character and not
learning is the true basis of all sound education 1 . For
he maintains that its object is to make a man better 2 , "to
teach him self-knowledge, how to die well and to live well."
The body should be exercised as well as the mind 3 and the
principal lessons of the mind should be in moral philosophy.
The teacher should not merely burden his pupil's memory
but should stimulate his originality and inspire him with an
" honest curiosity for information about everything." Educa-
tion should be largely practical and not merely from books 4 .
Foreign travel and intercourse with men are therefore
recommended, and intercourse with men should consist chiefly
of an acquaintance with the great men of history, for which
purpose there can be no better introduction than Plutarch's
Lives 5 . This crusade against mere book-learning and this
insistence on the practical side of education lead Montaigne
sometimes to lose his balance, as when in the latter part

1 See F. A. Arnst'adt, F. Rabelais und sein Traite a" Education, pp. 16S — 242 ;
G. Schmid in K. A. Schmid, Geschichte der Erziehung, III. i. 208- — 255, Stuttgart,

2 Le gain de notre estude, c'est en estre devenu meilleur et plus sage (I. 25).

3 Ce n'est pas une ame, ce n'est pas u?i corps, qiion dresse ; e'est un homme
(id.). So Locke, who owed a good deal to Montaigne, heads his Thoughts con-
cerning education with Mens sana in corpore sano.

4 // ne dira pas tant sa lecon com we il la /era (id.).

5 It is interesting to compare with Montaigne's views those expressed by
Du Plessis-Mornay in a letter to Louise de Coligny, widow of the Prince of
Orange, for the benefit of her son, Frederick Henry. (In E. Reaume, Morceaux
choisis des prosateurs et poetes francais du xvi e siecle, pp. 223 ff.)




I6 5

of the Essay On Pedantry he praises Spartan education at the
expense of Athenian, and even goes so far as to eulogise the
Turks and Tartars and other unlettered races. A youth, even
of the class with which Montaigne is specially concerned, who
was brought up in strict accord with his principles would
become narrow and unimaginative; his practical understanding
would be developed at the expense of his higher powers 1 .

It has been remarked that there is no question in
this Essay of religious teaching 2 . The same omission is
equally noticeable in Montaigne's whole ethical system.
Whatever his debt to pagan teachers, he owes nothing, at
least directly, to the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed one
Essay at least, and one which in its profound knowledge of
human nature and its frank sincerity is one of the most
remarkable of the whole book, that On Repentance (ill. 2),
is almost anti-Christian in spirit. Montaigne believes that a
man is born with certain qualities which may be developed
or kept in check by education and self-discipline, but which
cannot be wholly changed. We may repent of sins foreign
to our nature which we commit under the influence of sudden
passion, but he finds it difficult to believe in repentance
for those sins which being the result of temperament we
commit frequently and deliberately. If he had to live his
own life over again he would live as he had lived. All this
is very true of the natural man, but it leaves Christianity out
of account. And that briefly represents Montaigne's attitude
towards the Christian religion. " He admits it as a belief,
but he puts it aside as a moral codeV In all ages this attitude
is not an unusual one with ordinary men of the world, but in
Montaigne's day it may be said to have been the normal
attitude with all classes 4 . We have seen instances of it in
the lives of Ronsard and Desportes ; it colours the whole

1 According to Coleridge a child's memory and imagination should !><■ fire)
cultivated, because they are first awakened by nature, but the judgment, <>i com-
paring power, ought not to be excited.

2 Collins, Montaigne, p. 114.

3 L. Joubert in Nouv. Biog. Gin.

4 Une epoque ou croire et vivre iiaient deux choses distinctes ct indiptn
A. Vinet, Moralistes, p. 18.


poetry of the Pleiad ; and it reaches its culminating height in
the mixture of bloodthirstiness, debauchery, and grotesque
superstition which made hideous the court of Henry III.

Naturally a man so clear-sighted and sincere as Mon-
taigne was not wholly blind to this inconsistency, and in the
Essay On Prayers (I. 56), to which in the edition of 1582
he prefixed a formal profession of adherence to the Catholic
Church, he refers to the well-known story of the Heptameron
in which the Queen of Navarre relates how a young prince
(Francis I) who had a liaison with an advocate's wife used on
his return from visiting her to pray at length in a certain
church 1 . But though Montaigne's eyes were open to the
glaring inconsistency of cases like this he never applied his
common sense to the examination of his own attitude. It
was this breach between morality and religion which the
religious revival in France set itself to heal, and which led
the Jesuits to accommodate religion to the morality of the
man of the world, and the Jansenists to raise ordinary morality
to the higher standard of religion.

We are now in a better position for attempting an answer
to the question as to the extent and nature of Montaigne's
scepticism. But it may first be noted that those writers
who have insisted most emphatically on the thorough-going
character of his scepticism cannot be said to have approached
the subject with an unbiassed mind. Some have been over-
anxious to claim him as a champion of free thought, while
others have shewn a similar anxiety to repudiate him as an
enemy to the Christian religion 2 . As M. Faguet aptly
remarks, On est toujours le sceptiqne de qnelqiinn.

The true starting-point for the consideration of Mon-
taigne's scepticism is the recognition of the fact that like most
intellectual phenomena of the Renaissance it has its origin

1 Nouv. xxv. The conversation after the story is an excellent commentary on
Montaigne's Essay On Repentance.

' Owen, Skeptics of the French Renaissance, speaks of him as ' a genuine
untiring inquirer' ; Emerson takes him as the type of a sceptic; for Pascal he
is 'a pure Pyrrhonist' ; for G. Guizot ' scepticism is the heart and centre of the


in classical literature. In the year 1562 Henri Estienne
published a Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus, practically
the only Sceptic writer of antiquity whose works have come
down to us. It was from Sextus that Montaigne derived the
Sceptic formulas with which he adorned the joists and rafters
of his library, and it was from the same writer that he
borrowed freely in the famous Essay, the Apologie de Raymond
de Sebonde (I. 12), in which his sceptical views are stated with
the greatest completeness.

Montaigne tells us that two classes of objectors had found
fault with Sebonde's book, the orthodox because it was useless,
for Christianity can only be apprehended by faith, the un-
believers because its arguments were feeble and inadequate.
Both objections Montaigne meets in his usual original fashion.
The first, he admits, would hold good if we had a real living
faith in Christianity ; but " we are Christians only by the
same title as we are Germans or inhabitants of Perigord 1 ."
The second class of objectors are " more dangerous and more
malicious" ; they must be handled a little more roughly. As
they presume to attack a divine religion with purely human
weapons the best way of meeting them is to convince them
of the " emptiness, the vanity, the miserable condition of
Man." This of course, as Montaigne sees quite well, is to
abandon the defence of Sebonde, for the object of his book
was to prove Christianity by ' reason and argument.' Hut
Montaigne is evidently not at all concerned about Sebonde ;
so leaving him to take care of himself he embarks on a long
discourse on the vanity of natural man "deprived of grace
and divine knowledge 2 ." After comparing him, not to his
advantage, with beasts, he declares that his greatest mis-
fortune is his so-called knowledge. It is better to be ignoranl
than to pretend to know ; even philosophers have arrived at
no result. Man's conception of God is a purely anthropo-
morphic one, based on the idea that man is the centre (-1 the

1 This sentence was added in 1588 ; the whole chapter is about a third longH
in this edition f han it was in that of 1580.

2 On the other hand Montaigne's ethical views arc based on a high estimate of
human nature. Vir'"e, he says, is easy and pleasant. (1. 19, 25.)


universe. Our knowledge of human affairs is no greater than
our knowledge of God, and we are equally ignorant of our
own souls. Not only philosophers differ, but individual
opinion is always changing. Public opinion is equally un-
stable. Man does not even know what he wants. Our ver y
senses are untrustworthy. The conclusion is that human
nature of itself is abject and vile, and that Man's only chance
of elevation above his vile nature lies in the Christian faith.
The second part of this proposition is stated very briefly,
and it has already been invalidated by Montaigne's previous
declaration that true Christian faith does not exist.

Those writers who take Montaigne's scepticism most
seriously point out that this Essay is by far the longest in his
book, and therefore, they add, the most important. I doubt
the correctness of this inference. There is much in the Essay
that is paradoxical and not a little that is puerile. A good
deal is borrowed from Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes
Laertius, from Cicero and Plutarch. Its unusual length may
be accounted for partly by the fact that it is addressed to
some great person 1 , partly by the literary vanity natural to
an author who having mounted his favourite hobby-horse is
anxious to shew off its paces to the best advantage. The
Apology, in fact, is best described in the words of M. Stapfer
as a pendant to the Essay On some lives of Virgil (ill. 5 ) 2 , that
other debauch of Montaigne's reason. For in its sweeping
scepticism it goes far beyond any modern philosopher, not
excepting Hume. Yet the man who heaped paradox on
paradox to prove the vileness of man, who declared that the
best man deserved hanging ten times in his life 3 , was an
ardent admirer of Socrates and Epaminondas and Scipio.
Even in his own, as it seemed to him, degenerate age, he

1 Vous, pour qui fay pris la peine destendre un si long corps, contre ma cousin me,
and Vous, qui par fauthorite que vostre grandeur vous apporle . . .pouvez dun din
d'wil commander d qui il vous plaist. There is an old tradition that the pe>. ,n
addressed was Margaret of Valois, wife of Henry IV. (See note by J. V Leclerc
in his edition.)

2 Montaigne, p. 8r.

• J 111. 9. Cf. Shakespeare's "Use every man after his desert, ' tn d who should
'scape whipping?"


could admire L'Hospital and La Noue and his friend La
Boetie, of whom and of friendship generally he writes in terms
that are almost transcendental. So far from conforming to
custom, like a true sceptic, as the only possible moral law, he
hated every kind of cruelty, and protested against duelling as
a barbarous and irrational practice. He also believed firmly
in the existence of a beneficent and all-directing God.

But we must not push this line of argument too far. That
Montaigne had a good share of what Hume calls ' mitigated
scepticism ' there can be no doubt. New discoveries, a new
world, a new solar system, had impressed upon him the
instability of human knowledge. The condition of his
unhappy country, torn with civil war, bankrupt in money
and credit, contemptible in the eyes of other nations, had led
him to take a low estimate of human virtue. If his scepticism
was "corrected by common sense and reflection 1 ,'' if it was
warmed by the impulses of a rich and imaginative nature, it
was still there, indolent, unsystematic, paradoxical, but coming
to his contemporaries with the charm of novelty, and charming
them all the more by its very defects. For it was not so
much the rhetorical fireworks of a set piece like the Apology
which appealed to them as the general tone and character of
Montaigne's mind, his hatred of dogmatism, his habit of
bringing all questions, even scepticism itself, before the bar of
common sense and daily experience 2 . The Latin treatise of
Cornelius Agrippa On the incertitude and vanity of learning
had only appealed to a small audience 3 . But now while men
still more or less believed in that theme upon which Pico della
Mirandola had nearly a century ago discoursed so eloquently,
the dignity of Man, there came one who told them in language
which they could all understand that Man was vile and that

1 "There is indeed a mitigated scepticism... which may be both durable and
useful and which may in part be the result of this Pyrrhonism ores | ititism,
when its undistinguished doubts are, in some measure, corrected by common Bense
and reflection." Hume, Works, IV. 187.

2 See W. E. H. Lecky, Rationalism in Enrop,- (ed. of [88a), t. 03 ff. I here
is a just and sensible account of Montaigne's scepticism in Lanusse, pp. i.;i E

3 It was translated by Louis Turquet in 1582.



much of his pretended knowledge was a sham. It was like
the pleasant shock of a cold douche.

This altered estimate of Man and his works may possibly
have had its origin in the Copernican theory of the solar
system. If our planet is not the centre of the Universe, what
becomes of the microcosm, Man ? Other planets may be
inhabited by beings infinitely greater in knowledge and
virtue. Further it may be noticed with less of conjecture that
Montaigne's scepticism is a natural developement of that
spirit of free inquiry which was the motive power of the
Renaissance. While in Rabelais this spirit inspired a hopeful
desire to make the world better and wiser, in Montaigne it
tended to drapa^ua, to a resigned conservatism alike in ethics,
politics, and religion.

Le sceptiqite est celui qui tie croit pas a la science et qui croit

a lui-mime Le douteur est le vrai savant : il ne doute que de

lui-meme et de ses interpretations, mats il croit a la science. So
said one of the greatest of modern men of science 1 . In
Montaigne's day science was in its infancy, and for science in
the strict sense he had no aptitude. He was neither a Pare
nor a Palissy. But in his own field, the study of human
nature, his method was almost scientific. He doubted that he
might know, and he based his knowledge on investigation and
experiment. His laboratory was his own mind ; he entered
it as free from bias as is humanly possible, and he stated his
results with an astonishing candour and sincerity. And it is
this better side of his scepticism which bore the fairest fruit
in the immediate future. The free-thinkers of the first half of
the seventeenth century, Des Barreaux and Theophile de
Viau, La Mothe le Vayer and Saint-Evremond, who found in
Montaigne an incentive to self-indulgence and intellectual
dilettanteism, are of far less importance than Pascal, who
borrowed from his sceptical armoury weapons for the defence
of revealed religion, or than Descartes, who built upon the
basis of doubt a complete metaphysical system 2 .

1 Claude Bernard, Introduction a F etude de la niMecine expert men tale.
There is a good and sensible account of Montaigne's philosophy by
L. E. Kastner in the Modern Language Quarterly for April, 1902.


There is one point on which censors and admirers of
Montaigne are alike agreed, and that is the splendour of his
style. On this subject it is perhaps his severest critics who
have expressed themselves with the most unqualified approval,
as if their severity was partly due to a determination not to
allow their reason to be led captive by his genius. It is
Pascal who speaks of" the incomparable author of The Art of
Conversation" : it is Guillaume Guizot who says that "he is
the most complete " of French writers, and that " his resources
of style are infinite."

In the translation of Sebonde's Natural Theology Montaigne
had sh§wn that he could handle a difficult subject in a style
remarkable for simplicity and extreme clearness. But the
style is quite unadorned and has no individuality. For the
true Montaigne we must go to the dedicatory letter to his
father which stands at the head of his translation, or to the
long letter in which he gives him an account of La Boetie's
illness and death, or to the dedications which he prefixed to
each group of La Boetie's works. Thus when he began to write
the Essays he was already in possession of an admirable style,
subtle and supple, fitting the thought as a glove fits the hand.
If in the earliest essays it is still somewhat cold and colourless,
this fault is soon mended, and before long Montaigne handles
his instrument with perfect ease and assurance. The passage
in which he describes his favourite style will serve as a
specimen of his own :

Le parler que i'ayme, e'est vn parler simple et naif, tel sur le papier
qu'a. la bouche : vn parler succulent et nerueux, court et serrc, plutost
difficile qu'ennuieux, esloigne d'affectation et d'artifice : desregle*,
cousu et hardy : chaque lopin y face son corps : non pedantesque, non
fratresque, non pleideresque, mais plutost soldatesque, comme Suetone
appelle celuy de Julius Caesar 1 .

Tel sur le papier qua la bouche. That is not an inapt
description of Montaigne's own style, of which Emerson says,
"I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It
is the language of conversation transferred to a b"<>k."
Montaigne would have relished that remark, for as we have

1 1. 25 (text of 1580). The passage was somewhat altered in the ed. "t [588.



seen he says of himself, "Je stiis moins faiseur de livres que de
nulle autre besogne." But he deceived himself. If his book
seems to be spoken rather than written, this is the result of a
deliberate intention, of an elaborate art. The favourite style
of the day, formed as it was on Latin models, had something
artificial in it. Montaigne determined to be sincere even in his
style. His style should be a reflexion of his own downright,
brusque and impulsive nature. It should imitate the natural
eloquence of a good talker who never hesitates for the right
word. That is the reason why it is sometimes difficult to
follow his meaning. As he admits himself, he passes from
one subject to another, as in conversation, without any con-
necting words, sans I'entrelasser de parolles, de liaison, et de
cousture, introduictes pour le service des oreilles foibles, ou
nonchallantes 1 . Another cause of his obscurity, at least to the
inattentive readers of whom he complains, is his love of
digressions. O Dieu ! que ces gaillardes escapades-, he says of
Plutarch, and it is equally true of himself. He wrote in much
the same way as he travelled, having indeed a fixed goal, but
reaching it only after many deviations from the straight
course. The Essay On Coaches (ill. 6) will furnish a good
example of his method. It is not long, especially in the
edition of 1588.

It is obvious, he begins, that great writers are wont to give
several reasons for things besides the one which they believe
to be the true one. For instance, what is the reason for
blessing people when they sneeze ? What is the cause of sea-
sickness ? He believes he has read in Plutarch that it is due
to fear. This he doubts from his own experience, for though
he is often sea-sick he is never in any fear at sea. Here
follows a digression on the nature of fear. Riding in a coach
or litter, especially a coach, affects him in the same way as
being on board ship. Mark Antony was the first Roman to
drive lions in a coach, and Elagabalus drove even stranger
teams. The mention of these inventions suggests another
observation, namely that excessive expenditure shews weak-
ness in a monarch. This leads to a somewhat long discussion
1 in- 9- 2 ib.


on the difference between extravagance and true liberality in
princes, followed by an account of the Roman Amphitheatre,
chiefly taken from the Seventh Eclogue of Calpurnius.

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