«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»
For Montaigne, however, it is simply further evidence of how custom is capable “de nous saisir et empieter de telle sorte, qu’à peine soit-il en nous de nous r’avoir de sa prinse et de r’entrer en nous, pour discourir et raisonner des ses ordonnances” (1.23.115).16 In order to try and jolt us out of our corrupted state, Montaigne appeals to the example of the “sauvages” of Brazil, arguing that “nous appellons sauvages les fruicts que nature, de soy et de son progrez ordinaire, a produicts : là où, à la verité, ce sont ceux que nous avons alterez par nostre artifice et detournez de l’ordre commun, que nous devrions appeller plustost sauvages” (1.31.205).17 So as to justify this assertion that the “sauvages” are still ruled by “[l]es loix naturelles” (1.31.206), and not simply by a different set of customs than our own, Montaigne erases virtually all marks of custom from them, stating that they are “une nation … en laquelle il n’y a aucune espece de trafique; nulle cognoissance de lettres; nulle science de nombres; nul nom de magistrat, ny de superiorité politique” (1.31.206).18 Their position having been granted the authority of natural law, the Brazilians are then able to come over to Rouen and offer their critique of French society, observing that they “se soubsmissent à obeyr à un enfant, “But the principal effect of custom is to seize and ensnare us in such a way that it is hardly within our power to get ourselves back out of its grip and return to ourselves to reflect and reason about its ordinances” (1.23.100).
“we call wild the fruits that Nature has produced by herself and in her normal course; whereas really it is those that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order, that we should rather call wild” (1.31.185) “[t]he laws of nature” (1.31.185); “a nation … in which there is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority” (1.31.186); I say virtually all because Montaigne later discusses both their religious practices and poetic arts. One possible reason for his excepting these two fields from the cultural blankness of the Brazilians is his desire to keep them free from pernicious European influences: as Bacon’s scientific writings demonstrate, such a blank space serves as the perfect canvas for colonial aspirations.
et qu’on ne choisissoit plus tost quelqu’un d’entr’eux pour commander” (1.31.213), and that the poor can suffer to see the wealth of others without grabbing them “à la gorge, ou missent le feu à leurs maisons” (1.31.214).19 The Brazilians, though, made a third observation, one which Montaigne claims to have forgotten. George Hoffmann, however, has argued convincingly that, given the “organiz[ation of] the essay in sequences [of three] involving food, war, and religion,
evidently patterned on the three orders into which contemporaries divided their society:
commoners, nobility, and the clergy” (208), this observation must have been about religion, and that it was, more specifically, a criticism of a people who find fault with cannibals, but eat their own God. Still, Montaigne’s suppression of such a criticism makes sense not only because, as Hoffmann argues, Montaigne “must [dodge] if he is to avoid unskeptical criticism or uncritical skepticism” (215), but also because of the view which underpins Montaigne’s self-critical skepticism: that meddling in matters of religion is not for humankind because “les choses inconnuës [sont l]e vray champ et subject de l’imposture” (1.32.215).20 Montaigne makes a similar suppression in his essay “Des coustumes,” setting “à part la grossiere imposture des religions, dequoy tant de grandes nations et tant de suffisans personnages se sont veux enyvrez : car cette partie estant hors de nos raisons humaines, il est plus excusable de s’y perdre, à qui n’y est extraordinairement esclairé par faveur divine” (1.23.111).21 Yet, precisely because men “submit to obey a child, and that one of them was not chosen to command instead” (1.31.193); “by the throat, or set fire to their houses” (1.31.193) “things unknown [are] the true field and subject of imposture” (1.32.194) do engage in the imposture of trying to divine God’s will, and he himself has experienced the consequences of this imposture during the Wars of Religion, Montaigne must return to this subject eventually; and when he does so, he does it with a vengeance.
What precipitates Montaigne’s discussion of the Wars of Religion is his realization that custom does not simply produce the desire for novelty, but that the origin of custom itself is novelty. This occurs when Montaigne recounts how he once had to “faire valoir quelqu’une de nos observations [observances]” but did not want to do so “seulement par la force des loix et des exemples, mais questant tousjours jusques à son origine” (1.23.116).22 When he finds that origin, however, he finds its “fondement [est] si foible, qu’à peine que je ne m’en degoutasse, moy qui avois à la confirmer en autruy” (1.23.117).23 This disturbing experience causes Montaigne to doubt the justification for
any novelty, which sets him off on an extended critique of both sides in the war:
Je suis desgousté de la nouvelleté, quelque visage qu’elle porte, car j’en ay veu des effets tres-dommageables. Celle [la Réforme] qui nous presse depuis tant d’ans, elle n’a pas tout exploicté, mais on peut dire avec apparence, que par accident elle a tout produict et engendré : voire et les maux et ruines, qui se font depuis sans elle, et contre elle. …Mais si les inventeurs sont plus dommageables, les imitateurs [la Ligue Catholique] sont plus vicieux (1.23.119).24 “I leave aside the gross impostures of religions, with which so many great nations and so many able men have been seen to be besotted, for since this matter is beyond the scope of our human reason, it is more excusable for anyone who is not extraordinarily enlightened by divine favor to be lost in it” (1.23.95-96).
“not as is usually done, merely by force of laws and examples, but by tracking it to its origin” “foundation so weak that I nearly became disgusted with it, I who was supposed to confirm it in others” (1.23.101).
“I am disgusted with innovation, in whatever guise, and with reason, for I have seen very harmful effects of it. The one [the Reformation] that has been oppressing us for so many years is not the sole author of our troubles, but one may say with good reason that it has accidentally produced and engendered everything, even the troubles and ruins that have been happening since without it, and against it. But if the inventors have done more harm, the imitators [the Catholic League] are more vicious” (1.23.104-105).
Though his disgust is directed at both parties, Montaigne places the blame squarely on the shoulders of those individuals who, because of “grand amour de soy et presomption” (1.23.120), have “estim[é leurs] opinions jusque-là que, pour les establir, il faille reverser une paix publique, et introduire tant de maux inevitables et une si horrible corruption de meurs que les guerres civiles apportent” (1.23.120).25 In other words, the novelty of an individual opinion, in the process of spreading throughout society at large, produces massive social disorder: the birth throes of custom are, for Montaigne, the death knell of an ordered and peaceful society.
Religion, of course, provides individual presumption with a particularly dangerous means of grounding its authority, as Montaigne is well aware. And yet, the temptation to such presumption, especially if backed with the best intentions, is so strong that even Montaigne cannot avoid momentarily giving in to it. His essay “D’un enfant monstrueux” [Of a Monstrous Child] begins straightforwardly enough, with the statement that “[c]e conte s’en ira tout simple, car je laisse aux medecins d’en discourir” (2.30.712), and most of what follows lives up to this promise, being primarily a physical description of the child, which has two bodies and one head.26 Montaigne then notes, however, that this feature “pourroient bien fournir de favorable prognostique au Roy de maintenir sous l’union de ses loix ces pars et pieces diverses de nostre estat” (2.30.713).27 Montaigne “a lot of self-love and presumption”; so “esteem[ed their] opinions to establish them[, to] overthrow a public peace and to introduce so many inevitable evils, and such a horrible corruption of morals, as civil wars and political changes bring with them” (1.23.105).
“This story will go its way simply, for I leave it to the doctors to discuss it” (2.30.653).
quickly moves to disclaim this position, though, saying that “de peur que l’evenement ne le démente, il vaut mieux le laisser passer devant, car il n’est que de deviner en choses faictes” (2.30.713).28 And the essay closes with Montaigne reading the child back to a position of blankness, arguing that “[c]e que nous appellons monstres, ne le sont pas à Dieu” and that “[n]ous appellons contre nature ce qui advient contre la coustume : rien n’est que selon elle [la nature], quel qu’il soit” (2.30.713).29 Still, Montaigne has ventured a prognostication of his own here, and, while it could be argued that his moving to reject it gives further credence to his critique of the practice in others, it is difficult to wipe this interpretation from our memory.
This problem resounds throughout the Essais. Everywhere Montaigne tries to erase custom, novelty, and presumption, it continues to exist. Thus, while the people of the New World are “si nouveau et si enfant qu’on luy aprend encore son a, b, c” (3.6.908), Montaigne ends by fearing “que nous aurons bien fort hasté sa declinaison et sa ruyne par nostre contagion” (3.6.909).30 Though his intent in piling up customs is supposedly that, “ayant en l’imagination cette continuelle variation des choses humaines, nous en ayons le jugement plus esclaircy et plus ferme” (1.49.297), all he ends up with is a pile of customs “might well furnish a favorable prognostic to the king that he will maintain under the union of his laws these various parts and factions of our state” (2.30.654) “from fear that the event should belie it, it is better to let it go its way, for there is nothing like diving about things past” (2.30.654) “We call contrary to nature what happens to be against custom; nothing is anything but according to nature, whatever it may be” (2.30.654).
“so new and so infantile that it is still being taught it’s A B C” (3.6.842); “that we shall have very greatly hastened the decline and ruin of this new world by our contagion” (3.6.842) and a pile of books: “[m]ais il y a des livres entiers faits sur cet argument” (1.49.300).31 The disease of custom spreads and infects so uniformly and pervasively that, in the end, Montaigne would end in up in the same predicament as when he finds he has lost his point in writing a given essay: “Si je portoy le rasoir par tout où cela m’advient, je me desferoy tout” (1.10.40).32 Thus, any attempt to reform custom leads one towards the same perverse path that followed upon the Reformation.
This paradox of producing dangerous novelty in the attempt to reform custom poses a problem for Montaigne not only in the venue of religion, which, after all, he holds by definition to be beyond human understanding, but also in that of government and laws, which deal precisely with the regulation of human activity, and therefore ought to be within our intellectual grasp. As Montaigne convincingly asks, “quelle chose peut estre plus estrange, que de voir un peuple obligé à suivre des loix qu’il n’entendit onques” (1.23.117)?33 And yet, despite his disgust at the baselessness of so much customary law, Montaigne’s faith in our ability to reform it has been seriously undermined by his experiences in the Wars of Religion, such that he claims that “[i]l y a grand doute, s’il se peut trouver si evident profit au changement d’une loy receue, telle qu’elle soit, qu’il y a de mal à la remuer” (1.23.119).34 His reason for this claim is that “une police, c’est comme un bastiment de diverses pieces jointes ensemble, d’une telle liaison, qu’il est “that we may strengthen and enlighten our judgment by reflecting upon this continual variation of human things” (1.49.262); “[b]ut there are entire books written on this question” (1.49.265) “If I erased every passage where this happened to me, there would be nothing left of myself” (1.10.32).
“what can be stranger than to see a people obliged to obey laws that they never understood” (1.23.102) “It is very doubtful whether there can be such evident profit in the changing of an accepted law, of whatever sort it be, as there is harm in disturbing it” (1.23.104).
impossible d’en esbranler une, que tout le corps ne s’en sente” (1.23.117).35 In other words, the effects of reform are unpredictable precisely because the body of laws and customs is the body that holds us together.
And yet, the paradox has another side, one which is hinted at in Montaigne’s gesture of tendering and retracting an interpretation of the monstrous child: if what has been written cannot be fully erased, it can be mutated and distorted in a fashion that enables an alternative reading. In fact, precisely that necessity which brings people together can be
used to remotivate the law: