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.
Pascal admired Montaigne’s Essays and constantly cited or appropriated passages from them,even as Montaigne’s replacement of the soul with the self genuinely horrified him. Following Pascal, Manent notes Montaigne’s radical rejection—in the great essay “On Repentance” from Book III of the Essays—of repentance and of the need to prepare oneself for a truly Christian death. Accepting one’s “master-form,” and rejecting repentance as of dubious “sincerity,” leads Montaigne to the conclusion that neither he, nor any other man or woman, can really do better. We are, in effect, destined to navigate within the parameters of our own unique “master-form.” Reform, repentance, or conversion are not sincere or authentic human possibilities. Quietly but firmly, Montaigne ends “by expelling from human life every rule, every principle, capable of guiding it, every criterion of the better.”
But in an important respect, Manent does not believe Montaigne’s claim. Montaigne calls himself “an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher” since his self, even though it points toward “so many philosophical examples and reasons,” remains closed to all wisdom outside itself. Manent asks, can it truly be the case that Montaigne “was never internally divided by a law that he was to obey nor guided by a teaching he was convinced he ought to follow, nor even moved by a model to which he ought to conform”? Was Montaigne miraculously free from the drama of good and evil that is constitutive of every human soul? Was he so self-contained that “he simply developed according to nature, which is to say his nature”? Montaigne’s account of the self, his self, is, strictly speaking, unbelievable. But it has become the default position of those who affirm the primacy of the self, freed from any connection to ends and purposes outside the immediate self that point to a life well lived in accordance with goodness and truth. Through this lens, Montaigne’s alluring humanism seems far less humane than it does at an initial glance.
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