Skip Nav

Of Cannibals Summary

The Essays

❶Considered a classic work of French philosophy, the essays are still widely read and studied in philosophy classes today. Translated by Donald M.

Montaigne Essays Summary

Must Reads
Download This eBook
Similar Books

When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in , aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested. Reader, you have here an honest book; … in writing it, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end.

I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: The ensuing, free-ranging essays, although steeped in classical poetry, history and philosophy, are unquestionably something new in the history of Western thought.

They were almost scandalous for their day. Modern art no longer restricts its subject matters to classical myths, biblical tales, the battles and dealings of Princes and prelates. Montaigne frequently apologizes for writing so much about himself. He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all. But the message of this latter essay is, quite simply, that non, je ne regrette rien , as a more recent French icon sang:. Were I to live my life over again, I should live it just as I have lived it; I neither complain of the past, nor do I fear the future; and if I am not much deceived, I am the same within that I am without…I have seen the grass, the blossom, and the fruit, and now see the withering; happily, however, because naturally.

Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare. He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot. So what are these Essays, which Montaigne protested were indistinguishable from their author? Anyone who tries to read the Essays systematically soon finds themselves overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of examples, anecdotes, digressions and curios Montaigne assembles for our delectation, often without more than the hint of a reason why. Many titles seem to have no direct relation to their contents.

Nearly everything our author says in one place is qualified, if not overturned, elsewhere. Did Montaigne turn to the Stoic school of philosophy to deal with the horrors of war? Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favorites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca , philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles.

Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it. We are great fools. Their wisdom, he suggests , was chiefly evident in the lives they led neither wrote a thing. In particular, it was proven by the nobility each showed in facing their deaths. Socrates consented serenely to taking hemlock, having been sentenced unjustly to death by the Athenians.

Indeed, everything about our passions and, above all, our imagination , speaks against achieving that perfect tranquillity the classical thinkers saw as the highest philosophical goal. We discharge our hopes and fears, very often, on the wrong objects, Montaigne notes , in an observation that anticipates the thinking of Freud and modern psychology. Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change. Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.

Philosophy, in this classical view, involves a retraining of our ways of thinking, seeing and being in the world. And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts?

Montaigne wants to leave us with some work to do and scope to find our own paths through the labyrinth of his thoughts, or alternatively, to bobble about on their diverting surfaces. Their author keeps his own prerogatives, even as he bows deferentially before the altars of ancient heroes like Socrates, Cato, Alexander the Great or the Theban general Epaminondas. There it plays its part by choosing the way that seems best to it, and of a thousand paths it says that this one or that was the most wisely chosen.

The third fundamental goal of essaying himself is to present his unorthodox way of living and thinking to the reading public of 16 th century France.

He often remarks his intense desire to make himself and his unusual ways known to others. Living in a time of war and intolerance, in which men were concerned above all with honor and their appearance in the public sphere, Montaigne presents his own way of life as an attractive alternative. He vehemently opposes the violent and cruel behavior of many of the supporters of the Catholic cause, and recognizes the humanity of those who oppose them.

Espousing an openness antithetical to contemporary conventions, he openly declares his faults and failures, both moral and intellectual. In other words, Montaigne challenges the martial virtues of the day that he believes have led to cruelty, hypocrisy, and war, by presenting himself as an example of the virtues of gentleness, openness, and compromise.

Just as Montaigne presents his ways of life in the ethical and political spheres as alternatives to the ways common among his contemporaries, so he presents his ways of behaving in the intellectual sphere as alternatives to the common ways of thinking found among the learned. He consistently challenges the Aristotelian authority that governed the universities of his day, emphasizing the particular over the universal, the concrete over the abstract, and experience over reason.

Rejecting the form as well as the content of academic philosophy, he abandons the rigid style of the medieval quaestio for the meandering and disordered style of the essay. Moreover, he devalues the faculty of memory, so cultivated by renaissance orators and educators, and places good judgment in its stead as the most important intellectual faculty.

Finally, Montaigne emphasizes the personal nature of philosophy, and the value of self-knowledge over metaphysics. His concern is always with the present, the concrete, and the human.

Rather than discursively arguing for the value of his ways of being, both moral and intellectual, Montaigne simply presents them to his readers:. These are my humors and my opinions; I offer them as what I believe, not what is to be believed.

I aim here only at revealing myself, who will perhaps be different tomorrow, if I learn something new which changes me. I have no authority to be believed, nor do I want it, feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others.

Thus the end of essaying himself is simultaneously private and public. Montaigne desires to know himself, and to cultivate his judgment, and yet at the same time he seeks to offer his ways of life as salutary alternatives to those around him. Montaigne is perhaps best known among philosophers for his skepticism.

Just what exactly his skepticism amounts to has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. Given the fact that he undoubtedly draws inspiration for his skepticism from his studies of the ancients, the tendency has been for scholars to locate him in one of the ancient skeptical traditions.

While some interpret him as a modern Pyrrhonist , others have emphasized what they take to be the influence of the Academics. Once they recognize two mutually exclusive and equipollent arguments for and against a certain belief, they have no choice but to suspend judgment.

This suspension of judgment, they say, is followed by tranquility, or peace of mind, which is the goal of their philosophical inquiry. We find him employing the skeptical tropes introduced by Sextus in order to arrive at equipollence and then the suspension of judgment concerning a number of theoretical issues, from the nature of the divine to the veracity of perception. We cannot arrive at any certain conclusion regarding practical matters any more than we can regarding theoretical matters.

If there are equipollent arguments for and against any practical course of action, however, we might wonder how Montaigne is to avoid the practical paralysis that would seem to follow from the suspension of judgment. Here Sextus tells us that Pyrrhonists do not suffer from practical paralysis because they allow themselves to be guided by the way things seem to them, all the while withholding assent regarding the veracity of these appearances.

The Pyrrhonist, then, having no reason to oppose what seems evident to her, will seek food when hungry, avoid pain, abide by local customs, and consult experts when necessary — all without holding any theoretical opinions or beliefs. In certain cases, Montaigne seems to abide by the fourfold observances himself. In other words, it appears that his behavior is the result of adherence to the fourfold observances of Sextus. This has led some scholars, most notably Richard Popkin, to interpret him as a skeptical fideist who is arguing that because we have no reasons to abandon our customary beliefs and practices, we should remain loyal to them.

Indeed, Catholics would employ this argument in the Counter-Reformation movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet, for all the affinities between Montaigne and the Pyrrhonists, he does not always suspend judgment, and he does not take tranquility to be the goal of his philosophical inquiry.

Thus Montaigne at times appears to have more in common with the Academic Skeptics than with the Pyrrhonists. For the Academics, at certain points in the history of their school, seem to have allowed for admitting that some judgments are more probable or justified than others, thereby permitting themselves to make judgments, albeit with a clear sense of their fallibility.

But there is no reason why we must accept their notion of knowledge in the first place. While many scholars, then, justifiably speak of Montaigne as a modern skeptic in one sense or another, there are others who emphasize aspects of his thought that separate him from the skeptical tradition.

While working on his judgment often involves setting opinions against each other, it also often culminates in a judgment regarding the truth of these opinions. According to Friedrich, in cataloguing the diversity of human opinions and practices Montaigne does not wish to eliminate our beliefs but rather to display the fullness of reality. Interpreting Montaigne as a skeptic, then, requires a good deal of qualification.

While he does suspend judgment concerning certain issues, and he does pit opinions and customs against one another in order to undermine customary ways of thinking and behaving, his skepticism is certainly not systematic. He does not attempt to suspend judgment universally, and he does not hesitate to maintain metaphysical beliefs that he knows he cannot justify. But it does not necessarily lead one to the epistemological anxiety or despair characteristic of modern forms of skepticism.

Rather than despairing at his ignorance and seeking to escape it at all costs, he wonders at it and takes it to be an essential part of the self-portrait that is his Essays. Moreover, he considers the clear-sighted recognition of his ignorance an accomplishment insofar as it represents a victory over the presumption that he takes to be endemic to the human condition.

It seems to be the default belief of all human beings. The first step toward undermining this prejudice is to display the sheer multiplicity of human beliefs and practices. By reporting many customs that are direct inversions of contemporary European customs, he creates something like an inverted world for his readers, stunning their judgment by forcing them to question which way is up: Here incest is frowned upon; in other cultures it is the norm.

Here we bury our dead; there they eat them. Here we believe in the immortality of the soul; in other societies such a belief is nonsense. Montaigne is not terribly optimistic about reforming the prejudices of his contemporaries, for simply reminding them of the apparent contingency of their own practices in most cases will not be enough. The power of custom over our habits and beliefs, he argues, is stronger than we tend to recognize.

Indeed, Montaigne devotes almost as much time in the Essays to discussing the power of custom to shape the way we see the world as he does to revealing the various customs that he has come across in his reading and his travels.

Custom, whether personal or social, puts to sleep the eye of our judgment, thereby tightening its grip over us, since its effects can only be diminished through deliberate and self-conscious questioning. Yet Montaigne never explicitly expresses his commitment to moral relativism, and there are aspects of the Essays that seem to contradict such an interpretation, as other scholars have noted. These other scholars are inclined to interpret Montaigne as committed to moral objectivism , or the theory that there is in fact objective moral truth, and they point to a number of aspects of the Essays that would support such an interpretation.

First, Montaigne does not hesitate to criticize the practices of other cultures. For a relativist, such criticism would be unintelligible: Rather, since there is no external standard by which to judge other cultures, the only logical course of action is to pass over them in silence.

Morally and politically, Montaigne has often been interpreted as a forerunner of modern liberalism. This is due to his presentation of himself as a lover a freedom who is tolerant of difference and who wishes to maintain a rather robust distinction between the private and public spheres.

The question of the extent to which he is trying to transform the political values of his contemporaries, as well as the question of the extent to which Montaigne takes his position to be founded upon metaphysical principles, are both subjects of debate. Some read him as writing the Essays with primarily political intentions, and among those who subscribe to such a reading, there is disagreement as to the nature of his argument.

On the other hand, some interpret Montaigne in a more postmodern vein, arguing that he is not so much making an argument on the basis of truth claims as he is simply changing the subject, diverting the attention of his readers away from the realm of the transcendent and its categorical obligations to the temporal realm and its private pleasures.

Still others hold that politics does not occupy the central place in the Essays that some might think, and that the political content of the Essays is neither dogmatic nor rhetorical, but rather is part and parcel of his fundamental project of seeking self-knowledge for himself and inspiring that same desire in others.

He is simply offering a new moral and political figure to be considered, inviting readers to reflect for themselves on their own beliefs and practices in an effort to act as a Socratic gadfly to the slumbering French body politic. Always amazed at the diversity of the forms of life that exist in the world, Montaigne consistently remarks his tolerant attitude toward those whose ways of life or fundamental beliefs and values differ from his own; he is not threatened by such disagreements, and he does not view those who are different as in need of correction:.

I do not share that common error of judging another by myself. I easily believe that another man may have qualities different from mine. Because I feel myself tied down to one form, I do not oblige everybody else to espouse it, as all others do. I am as ready as you please to acquit another man from sharing my conditions and principles. I consider him simply in himself, without relation to others; I mold him to his own model. He performs his office dutifully, but he does not identify himself with his public persona or his role as citizen, and he believes that there are limits to what may be expected from him by the state.

Similarly, he makes a sharp distinction between true friendship and the sort of acquaintances produced by working relationships. While he believes he owes everything to his friends and he expects the same in return, from those with whom he is bound by some professional relationship, he expects nothing but the competent performance of their offices.

These conceptions of happiness each rest on the notion of a universal human nature. Convinced of the possibility that the content of happiness differs so significantly from one person to the next, Montaigne wishes to preserve a private sphere in which individuals can attempt to realize that happiness without having to contend with the interference of society.

Other vices he treats in terms of the degree to which they clash with society. Montaigne has been thought by some to have been a hedonist, and while others would disagree with this interpretation, there is no doubt that he thinks pleasure is an integral part of a happy human life, and a very real motivating force in human actions, whether virtuous or vicious.

Much of his ethical reflection centers around the question of how to live as a human being , rather than as a beast or an angel, and he argues that those who disdain pleasure and attempt to achieve moral perfection as individuals, or who expect political perfection from states, end up resembling beasts more than angels. Thus throughout the Essays the acceptance of imperfection, both in individual human beings and in social and political entities, is thematic.

This acceptance of imperfection as a condition of human private and social life, when combined with his misgivings about those who earnestly seek perfection, leads Montaigne to what has appeared to some as a commitment to political conservatism. Yet this conservatism is not grounded in theoretical principles that endorse monarchy or the status quo as good in and of itself. Rather, his conservatism is the product of circumstance. Yet this rule is not without its exceptions. In the next breath he expresses the view that there are times when innovation is called for, and it is the work of judgment to determine when those times arise.

In the seventeenth century, it was his skepticism that proved most influential among philosophers and theologians. The former was primarily a theological treatise that united Pyrrhonian skepticism and Christian negative theology in an attempt to undermine Protestant challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church.

There, in addition to skepticism, Descartes took up a number of Montaignian themes, such as the diversity of values and practices among human beings, the power of custom to govern our judgment, and the decision, after having recognized that the philosophers have been unable to bring any of their questions to a decision after centuries of investigation, to engage in self-study. Ultimately, of course, Descartes parted ways with Montaigne quite decisively when he developed his dogmatic accounts of knowledge, the nature of the soul, and the existence of God.

Pascal, on the other hand, also profoundly influenced by the Essays , concluded that reason cannot answer the theoretical question of the existence of God, and that therefore it was necessary to inquire into the practical rationality of religious belief. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. In Schopenhauer as Educator , he writes of Montaigne: In the twentieth century Montaigne was identified as a forerunner of various contemporary movements, such as postmodernism and pragmatism.

Judith Shklar, in her book Ordinary Vices , identified Montaigne as the first modern liberal, by which she meant that Montaigne was the first to argue that cruelty is the worst thing that we do. In essaying himself publicly, he essays his readers as well, and in demonstrating a method of achieving self-knowledge, he undoubtedly intends to offer readers opportunities for self-discovery. Michel de Montaigne — Michel de Montaigne is widely appreciated as one of the most important figures in the late French Renaissance, both for his literary innovations as well as for his contributions to philosophy.

Thus Montaigne writes that in composing his essays, he is presenting his judgment with opportunities to exercise itself: F The third fundamental goal of essaying himself is to present his unorthodox way of living and thinking to the reading public of 16 th century France.

Rather than discursively arguing for the value of his ways of being, both moral and intellectual, Montaigne simply presents them to his readers:

Introduction

Main Topics

Privacy Policy

Complete summary of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's The Essays. eNotes plot summaries cover all the significant action of The Essays.

Privacy FAQs

Michel de Montaigne was a French statesman and author, and one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. He is celebrated for popularizing the essay as a literary genre, and for his effective merging of casual anecdotes, political commentary, and autobiography.

About Our Ads

"Of Cannibals" is an essay from a collection by Michel de Montaigne, simply titled Essays, or Essais in the original French. The collection of over essays delves into the reality of human. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, by Michel de Montaigne The essay segues innocuously to a discussion of lying via the observation, ‘Not without reason is it said that no one who is not conscious of having a sound memory should set up to be a liar’ (30).

Cookie Info

Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French author who developed the essay as a literary genre. His first two books of essays were published in Synopsis. When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in , aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected.