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Montaigne: The Father of Us All

Over at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan has an appreciation of Montaigne, noting that the 17th century French essayist invented a literary form that upended politics throughout the west and still shapes the blogosphere today.

As Sullivan reminds us, Montaigne turned ‘declamation into conversation’: he wrote essays as if he were talking to friends at a coffee shop or at the dinner table rather than as if he were standing at a podium and giving a formal lecture.

This doesn’t just make essays more readable. It points to the most profound change modernity brings: the shift from imposed to received authority. In the 17th century, people were supposed to do what they were told. The Church punished you if you committed heresy, the State punished you if you questioned the king. The anointed ruler and the ordained bishop were authorities who could not be questioned without sin. It was better to obey a bad king than to oppose him.

Montaigne’s style, equal to equal, prefigures the change between then and now. Authority must be earned. The rulers must be chosen by the ruled. A church can attract by example and teaching, but can no longer ‘compel them to come in’ as was too often done in the past.

The essayist is no longer the authority who must be obeyed; he is a vendor with a stall in the market, offering his wares to those who pass by. If you like a blog, you read it; if it convinces you, you change your mind. But you don’t think of your ‘duty’ to honor and obey the author of an essay or a weblog.

That change in stance was more important and more influential, perhaps, than anything specific that Montaigne wrote. Not all intellectuals, even today, are comfortable with the loss of hierarchical status. There seem to be many people on our universities who would be quite happy to see the government enforce their wisdom on the ignorant masses beyond the gates; the world remains full of unarmed prophets wishing for swords.

Sullivan is right to hail Montaigne as the literary father of the blog and the world of blogging continues to move along the lines Montaigne first laid out. With the addition of comments, Montaigne’s conversational style has turned into an actual conversation. Readers can respond and have their (curated, at this site) contributions published alongside the author’s original reflection.

Not all blogs have Montaigne’s mix of passion, integrity, wisdom and urbanity, but it’s an ideal that all of us should try to keep in mind. Via Meadia thanks Andrew Sullivan for reminding us how much we owe to those who have gone before.

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  • Luke Lea

    I’m no expert but didn’t some of the ancient writers, particularly in Rome, practice a similar style?

  • Jim.

    One could argue that the core of the Enlightenment is its upending of the old Aristotelian hierarchy of persuasiveness — Authority (also trustworthiness, or expertise) at the top, Emotional appeal in the middle rank, and Logic (reason, evidence) as the least persuasive.

    The horrible irony of the Rule by Experts that is so popular in today’s Blue (Leftist) governing style, is that they now need to drown out Kant’s “Sapere aude!” battle cry to be “effective”. Thus will the Enlightenment die — strangled not by clergy or ignoramuses, but by power-hungry bureaucrats.


    Their conversations were still tremendously contrived.

    Socratic “conversations” were often little more than Plato setting up a paper tiger for Socrates to tear up; it was not necessarily a conversation among friends.

    Even when it was… It’s said that Marcus Brutus didn’t appreciate Cicero’s inclusion of him in his “dialog” writings, because Cicero was clearly kissing up to him as a paragon of the patrician class, rather than for any purpose of dialectic wisdom-seeking.

  • Cromwell

    Montaigne the first blogger? I’d think more Lilburne, Overton,
    Milton, Bastwick, Prynne and the other radical Puritans of the late 1630s and 40s.

  • Steve W from Ford

    I am generally very pleased to read your analysis of world events and so I was very surprised to see your link and favorable mention of the vile Andrew Sullivan. His vicious smears of Sarah Palin and her family and his more recent disparagement and outright lies about Mormons has long since proven what a nasty, partisan hack he is.
    Mr Sullivan is best ignored. To link to this evil little man while praising him is to condone a twisted Manichean view of the world expressed in the nastiest ways imaginable and as such is far below the normal high standards of this blog.
    I hate to say it but I fear you lost your way a bit with this post.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Steve W from Ford: There are many subjects on which Mr. Sullivan and I do not agree, and I have criticized some of those on the blog. When I happen to agree with something he says, I see nothing wrong with pointing that out as well. Maintaining civility where possible and reaching out across divides to find common ground is something that needs to happen for democracies to work; since you can never do anything perfectly I’d rather err on the side of promoting comity. Those who want to find strong attacks on Andrew Sullivan — or on Walter Mead for that matter — won’t have much trouble finding them on the web.

  • WigWag

    Montaigne may be the greatest essayist who has ever lived. He gave us far more than his own writing; he profoundly influenced others including Shakespeare. Montaigne clearly influenced “The Tempest” and probably “Hamlet” as well. Montaigne was one of the inventors of liberalism in a time when the Church and the Monarch reigned supreme. He famously said, “It is an untoward disease that a man should be so riveted to his own beliefs that he should fancy that others cannot believe otherwise than he does.”

    Montaigne was also very sympathetic to the Jews in a profoundly antisemitic age. Perhaps this is because his mother was descended from conversos and several of his converted family members continued to practice their original faith in secret. Montaigne wrote disparagingly the the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. At the very least, Montaigne was a philosemite.

    It seems odd to me that Professor Mead would thank Andrew Sullivan for anything. Sullivan has been called an anti-Semite by one of his mentors, Leon Weselti and has recently been described as a “Jew-baiter” by Jeffrey Goldberg.

    Professor Mead is an intellectual descendant of Montaigne; Andrew Sullivan most certainly is not. Montaigne was a genius; Sullivan is a clown who works overtime to keep the Jew-hatred titillated.

    Professor Mead shouldn’t be thanking him.

  • Anthony

    Declamation at Via Meadia: “freedom to take up and turn over absolutely any subject in human experience on any prompting or none….” All may perhaps redound to the progress of leviathan and the civilizing process…

  • Gary L

    I’m not sure if Eric Hoffer is as widely read as he was when I was a student in the early 70s – or if he’s read at all. In his 1967 book The Temper of Our Time, Hoffer wrote of his youthful discovery of Montaigne. In 1936, as a migrant laborer, he had lined up a job mining for gold near Nevada City CA. Realizing that he was likely to be snowbound for a considerable spell, he sought suitable diversion:

    “I needed something to read, something that would last me for a long time. So I stepped over in San Francisco to get a thick book. I did not really care what the book was about –history, theology, mathematics, farming, anything – so long as it was thick, had small print, and no pictures. There was at that time a large secondhand bookstore on Market Street called Lieberman’s, and I went there to buy my book. I soon found one. It had about a thousand pages of small print and no pictures. The price was one dollar. The title page said these were The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. I knew what essays were, but I did not know Montaigne from Adam. I put the book in my knapsack and caught the ferry to Sausalito.

    “Sure enough, I got snowbound. I read the book three times until I knew it almost by heart. When I got back to the San Joaquin Valley I could not open my mouth without quoting Montaigne, and the fellows liked it. It got so that whenever there was an argument about anything – women, money, animals, food, death – they would ask, `What does Montaigne say?’ Out came the book and I would find the right passage. I am quite sure that even now there must be a number of migratory workers up and down the San Joaquin Valley still quoting Montaigne. I ought to add that the Montaigne edition I had was the John Florio translation [published in 1603]. The spelling was modern, but the style seventeenth century – the style of the King James Bible and of Bacon’s Essays. The sentences have hooks in them which stick in the mind; they make platitudes sound as if they were new. Montaigne was not above anyone’s head. Once, in a workers’ barracks near Stockton, the man in the next bunk picked up my Montaigne and read it for an hour or so. When he returned it he said, `Anyone can write a book like this.’” .

    While it may not be true that anyone could write a book like Montaigne, we must take as solid proof that the existence of an estimated 133,000,00 blogs (according to the sorta reliable Wikipedia), proves that anyone could blog like – well, if not at the level of a Montaigne, at least like that of an Andrew Sullivan……….

  • Luke Lea

    @ WigWag – “Montaigne was also very sympathetic to the Jews in a profoundly antisemitic age.”

    Was it really a profoundly antisemitic age? I’d say the late 19th and early 20th century was a profoundly antisemitic age, at least in Europe. It is so easy to go overboard on the extent and importance of antisemitism in European history. But WigWag and I have had this argument before. It has the same effect as attributing widespread racism to Euro-Americans of gentile descent today. Besides being untrue it needlessly fans the flames of ethnic division.

  • Leon

    Appreciate very much discussion concerning Mchel Montaigne and his influence on western ideas of liberal, democratic society.
    Important also to note that Montaigne lived in 16th century, not 17th as it is stated in the blog, therefore preceding many of great fathers of liberal thought including Baruch Spinoza and John Locke.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Leon: you are correct about Montaigne’s dates. An intern is being flayed even as I write. We’re not sure whether this particular intern was responsible for this particular error, but we find that swift response keeps them on their toes.

  • Bob from Ohio

    “Those who want to find strong attacks on Andrew Sullivan — or on Walter Mead for that matter — won’t have much trouble finding them on the web.”

    You are missing SteveW’s point. He is not asking you to attack Sulivan, just ignore him.

    Sullivan’s disgusting attacks on Palin ought to have resulted in his shunning. Yet, he is on a Sunday newsprogram as an honored regular and he gets published by a national (though dying) magazine.

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