Home > Montaigne M., Philosophy > A skeptical move of my own

A skeptical move of my own

In my post this morning on Montaigne, I speculated about why Montaigne ended the essay as he did, with a vivid picture of slaughter and lack of compassion. The choice to end the essay with an example, especially after he had seemingly just reached a conclusion, puzzled me. My sugges­tion was that he aimed to provoke a particular reaction, sadness, that primed the reader for the next essay, “Of Sadness”.

I do not want to retract that hypothesis. But I do want to qualify it in light of further reflection on the essay. For just preceding the example is the conclusion of the essay, the moral, and that moral is precisely that “it is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment” on man. This should provide some pause about my hypothesis. Montaigne has just shown us by example how distinct techniques may provoke the same response: both obsequiousness and stubbornness may, for example, elicit mercy. And he has further shown us how the same technique performed on different people may bring about entirely contrary reactions. Indeed, the example of Alexander that ends the essay shows exactly this.

So it is then a bit strange to suggest that Montaigne’s choice about how to end the essay is an attempt to cause a particular feeling in his readers. The very skepticism the essay attempts to establish undercuts any such attempt. I can certainly say that his choice worked that way in my case, but it would be quite disrespectful to the essay to generalize my case and make it Montaigne’s intention. Montaigne cannot predict and control that accurately his reader’s path through the Essays.

But, as I said, I do not wish to retract my hypothesis, but rather merely qualify it. We can understand what Montaigne is doing by considering the preface “To the Reader”, in which Montaigne describes the book as work on himself. So what I want to suggest now is that Montaigne is attempting to produce an effect in himself, using a technique based on his own self-understanding. Remember that he self-identifies as someone more prone to compassionate mercy than esteeming mercy—thus a sad image such as he presents is likely to impact him in the right way.

Seen as an attempt by Montaigne to provoke an effect in himself, then, we can understand the strange conclusion to his first essay. That it had the same effect in me is a fortuitous coincidence—or a clear source of interpretive bias. I am not competent to say which.

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