Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Terence Cave: How to Read Montaigne

This review will appear in Practical Philosophy

Terence Cave
How to Read Montaigne
London: Granta Books, 2007, pp. x + 133
ISBN 1-86207-944-1 (pb),£ 11.95

This volume of Granta’s How to Read series deals with an unusual author in an unusual way. Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French aristocrat who devoted almost all of his literary efforts to the writing, expanding, and rewriting of one book – Les Essais. Although he came to be identified as an advocate of Pyrrhonist scepticism, Montaigne has never found a solid place in the canonical history of western philosophy. Since the Essais is not a play, a book of poetry, or a work of fiction, it is somewhat difficult to define its place in the history of French literature.

Cave’s approach to the Essais can be disappointing for the conventional philosophical reader. True to the common format of the How to Read series, the chapters of his book are built around close readings of passages written by the author under discussion. Naturally, the passages chosen from the Essais treat specific topics, such as travel, conversation, philosophical scepticism, and so on. However, Cave has deliberately avoided giving any kind of overview of Montaigne’s opinions on the traditional questions of philosophy. Most strikingly, even though Cave admits the central role of Pyrrhonist scepticism in the Essais, he tells us very little about Montaigne’s epistemological views and basically nothing about the arguments supporting those views.

Cave asks us to approach the Essais not as a work of philosophy, but rather ‘as a work that seeks above all to devise cognitive strategies: strategies of reflection capable of handling not only the abstract business of thinking but also the frictions that arise from living in the real world, whether from religious or ethical restraints, illness, sexuality, or relations with other people’ (p. 4). He uses the term cognitive to capture ‘Montaigne’s enduring preoccupation with thought as an experience to be studied and documented non-judgmentally and non-didactically; his elaboration of a mode of writing that meets this requirement, and the value of the Essais as a book to think with’ (p.5).

In practice, I understand, this approach means that each passage from the Essais must be read as serving one or more of the following functions: it can be a specimen of thought presented as grist for Montaigne’s observational and analytical mill, or as an apology for the kind of open-ended thought that Montaigne enjoys analysing, or as a bit of actual analysis of the thinking process. In keeping with this interpretive strategy, Cave does not think that Montaigne was actually unorthodox in his religious beliefs. Rather, his apparently heretical discussions on belief are actually just set-pieces of the kind of free-wheeling thought that Montaigne is interested in analysing. It was not a burning need to resolve epistemological issues that brought Montaigne to adopt Pyrrhonist scepticism.Rather, that brand of agnostic skepticism usefully grants intellectual legitimacy to the kind of balanced and open-ended processes of internal deliberation that Montaigne was keen to investigate.

To be fair, it should be said that Cave’s book is well written and it does offer the reader a good deal of useful background for reading the Essais. However, I cannot help but wonder whether he might have fallen victim to a hyper-sophisticated version of a subterfuge planned long by Montaigne himself. Somewhat notoriously, Leo Strauss insists that we must always struggle to pierce through the veil of irony and rhetorical distractions used by philosophical writers to hide their unorthodox views from the eyes of potential persecutors. Cave claims that, ‘Just as Montaigne is not out to state a philosophical position in the Essais, so too he avoids asserting religious belief, or indeed talking about divine questions at all’ (p. 47). What better way for a heterodox thinker to distance himself from his heretical doctrines than to pretend that he is merely concerned with the process of thinking itself and not with the content or conclusions of that process?

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College,
Akko, Israel, bdlerner@gmail.com