December 8, 2020


Inventing the authority of a modern self: A review of  Montaigne: Life without Law, by Pierre Manent (Daniel J. Mahoney, December 2020, New Criterion)

His Montaigne is first and foremost a philosopher and a moral reformer, even a founder of one vitally important strain of modern self-understanding. In this new form of consciousness, human beings take their bearing neither from great models of heroism or sanctity or wisdom, nor from natural and divine law. Rather, Montaigne asks his readers to eschew self-transcending admiration for others, no matter how exemplary great souls may seem to be. He wishes those who follow him to reject the path of repentance for sins, and to bow before the demands and requirements of one's unique self, what he calls one's "master-form." His Essays,written, published, and revised between 1570 and 1592, demonstrate that he genuinely admired Socrates and the Roman hero Cato. But Montaigne rather shockingly claims to have learned nothing fundamental from them, and he has no interest whatsoever in imitating their greatness. Nonetheless, there is something enticing about Montaigne's turn to the authority of the self in place of the classical Christian demand to put order in one's soul in light of the requirements of the Good itself. Many readers over the centuries have succumbed to Montaigne's considerable charms and deeply impressive artistry.

Manent includes Montaigne among the great modern founders and reformers, rivaled only by his immediate predecessors Machiavelli and Jean Calvin. A paradigmatic modern founder and reformer such as Calvin tried "to liberate the truth from the human intermediaries" that he believed stood in the way of a direct relation between God and each individual soul. But once one rejects "ecclesiastical mediation," Manent asks, why stop with the authority of scripture itself? All distances, all superintending moral authorities, become suspect under the new dispensation. Calvin would be appalled by modern appeals to groundless human autonomy and to the "self" in place of the authoritative Word of God. In addition, Calvin says little to those "disinclined to piety," surely the majority of human beings caught up in the pressing demands of ordinary life. In his turn, the greatest political reformer-founder of modernity, Machiavelli, says little or nothing to the human being "without ambition." Montaigne limns a third modernist path, one that defers neither to the Word of God, nor to the temptation of a glory-seeking republican political life. His path is as far from piety as it is from amoral Machiavellian political self-assertion.

Manent ably establishes that Montaigne does indeed have an authority to which he defers. That authority "is life itself in its ordinary tenor, in the variation of humors and the irregularity of its accidents." Life, however, in Manent's formulation "needs to be brought to life and, if I can put it in this way, installed in a light that causes its fullness to appear, while preserving its imperfection." This is Montaigne's great revolutionary aim. Manent's brilliant book throws light on a paradox of the highest order in connection with that aim. Montaigne's account of the new model man appears eminently human and humane, but in truth it is unthinkable and unlivable. This is because "life without law" strips humanity of true self-knowledge and the accompanying capacity for reasonable moral and political choice, and also moral reformation. Moreover, as Blaise Pascal complained in his Pensées, published in 1670, eight years after his death, Montaigne talked far too much about himself, the only authority he treated as genuinely authoritative. In the end, there is something deeply solipsistic and unnaturally antinomian about Montaigne's new model of the moral life.

Posted by at December 8, 2020 6:13 PM