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MONTAIGNE, THE FRENCH RATIONALIST,
MICHEL MONTAIGNE was born in Perigord, 1533, and died in Bordeaux, 1592, in the 59th year of his age. He was the son of a landed proprietor. On succeeding his father he lived a retired life, free from all political and business harassment, on his paternal estate.
In due course he studied law, and was appointed a Councillor in the Parliament of Bordeaux when he was only 21 years of age ; but he soon gave up public life as unsuited to his temperament and genius. Educationally he is the true successor of Rabelais, who died when Montaigne was
Montaigne was an ardent student of ancient literature, and his essays are full of references and quotations. He was neither a scholar, nor a philosopher, nor a theologian, nor a politician. He had formed his ethical views mainly on Plutarch and Seneca, and was by nature and in his criticism of life more nearly allied to Horace perhaps than to any other
If he is to be classed among the Philosophers he must be placed among the Epicureans rather than the Academics. His Essays treat of all sorts of subjects, and are discursive in their character. His way of looking at life was singularly fresh and original, and having no philosophical or political purpose to serve he set down his thoughts and observations as they occurred to him, simply and naïvely, not caring much to preserve consistency. The art in which he especially excelled was the art of living for the day.
The first edition of the Essays appeared in Bordeaux in 1580.
The great essayist and sceptic continues, after a lapse of three hundred years, to speak to us with all the freshness of a contemporary. “We converse with Montaigne,” says Hallam, “or rather hear him talk: it is almost impossible to read his essays without thinking that he speaks to us: we see his cheerful brow, his sparkling eye, his negligent but gentlemanly demeanour: we picture him in his arm-chair, with his few books round the room, and Plutarch on the table.” As a man of letters, who is also in the best sense a man of the world, he stands alone. He is original and unique as a thinker, and at the same time a type of a class which he had done much to create. Though the class he represents may not be a large one, he yet gives expression to a way of estimating life which is a passing mood of all thoughtful minds. He thus leads a large constituency-all the larger that he makes no tyrannical demands, and warns the reader not to labour after even him. Few writers say so many wise things as Montaigne does, and no one appears so little solicitous about convincing others that his sayings are wise. His intellectual philosophy is essentially sophistical and sceptical, his morality conventional, and his moral philosophy epicurean.
We are not disposed, however, to allow to Montaigne, and such easy-going sceptics as he, the superiority to limitations which they affect. It is all very well to proclaim the impossibility of finding absolute truth, and to luxuriate in a cultured indifference, but as the foundation of such talk there lies a philosophical conviction as positive as that of the most ardent zealot. The conviction is that, doomed as man is to nescience, the happiness of each individual is for himself the only solid pursuit, and is to be at all hazards cherished. The standard of happiness will doubtless vary with the idiosyncrasies
and circumstances of each man, but must always, with cultivated men, embrace equability of mind, balance of judgment, a kindly disposition to all with whom they are brought in contact, an indisposition to exertion for any purpose whatsoever as leading to certain disturbance and almost as certain disappointment, a horror of a “Cause," and a strict regard to the comforts of the animal economy generally. And these were, it seems to me, the characteristics of Montaigne, characteristics which belong to natures fundamentally cold and selfish, incapable of sacrifice. Intellectual scepticism is itself, in truth, an implicit dogmatism, and in the field of moral action it is a self-complacent epicurean dogmatism. No man, in truth, holds more tightly to a positive philosophy of life than Montaigne. Doubtless the attitude of inquiry, the que sçais-je? gives a breadth and elasticity of mind and promotes a geniality of nature that have their charms. They are, however, the true possession only of those who are not “too sure” of anything. A steady sustained conviction that there is nothing admitting of conviction runs through Montaigne's life and writings, and he is in respect of this as positive as his neighbours. No man can build his house on shifting sand. Montaigne may in words defy us to find him in earnest, but he fails : for he never doubts his attitude of doubt, and he never loses his grip of his ethical standard such as it is. So far at least he is in sober earnest.
We should like sometimes to find this arch-philosopher of practical life-wisdom in earnest about other things than indifference, and we naturally seek for this quality of earnestness in his views of religion and politics—subjects which call forth the passions of men more than any other. But notwithstanding all that has been said and written on these points, I think we shall find that his whole mental attitude was such as to forbid definite conclusions even on those vital subjects. His Apology for Sebonde does not throw light on his personal religious beliefs. If readers are disappointed in their expectations of definite conclusions here, they have themselves to blame, for they search for something which his philosophy has beforehand told them not to expect. The fact seems to be that in religion he was strictly conventional, and in politics he was equally conventional. “For Heaven's sake,” he might be supposed to say, “don't disturb the status quo; things are bad enough, I grant, but in seeking to make them better, you will probably make them worse. Let us go on from day to day, quietly meeting little difficulties as they arise, and making the best both of the good and of the bad. The practical guidance of life, in the interests of a universal bonhomie - that is our business."
If we prosecute our inquiry after the “earnest” side of Montaigne's character, we shall find it perhaps most conspicuous in a genuine desire to amend the condition of the poor (probably because their condition offended his sensibilities), and in his views on education. It is the latter with which we have to do here; but of both characteristics I would say that they were the fruit of his positive philosophy of negation. A happy, useful (provided usefulness did not call for too much exertion), practically wise life was his summum bonum, and it was this aim that unconsciously determined the substance of his educational theory. In considering, then, his views on education, we must keep Montaigne's personal character and theory of life before our minds. For education, as distinct from instruction, is a subject on which no man can possibly write without being, more or less consciously, controlled in all his utterances by his philosophy of man and of the meaning of human life.
So much is necessary for the proper understanding of Montaigne on education. But more than this is needed for the proper placing of him in the series of educational writers. We have to understand his historical relations and the circumstances of his life and time, of which receptive men like Montaigne are in a special sense the product and reflexion.
Luther died when Montaigne was thirteen years old. It was during the latter period of Luther's life that the Humanistic movement among the leaders of thought north of the Alps began to tell (as all great philosophic and political movements inevitably do sooner or later) upon the education of youth. The reformation of religion was itself, as we have seen, only part of the larger Humanistic movement. For Humanism was essentially a rebellion against words and logical forms in the interest of the realities of life and thought. The Italian Humanists and their pupils prepared the way for the Religious reformation. An intellectual movement of this kind could not fail to make itself felt in education as well as in the domain of religion, for it was truly a philosophical movement; and philosophy ultimately determines all such things. Up to the period of university life, and even beyond it, education consisted in the acquisition of Latin words and rules about Latin, and this, as the boy grew, received the addition of logic with all its scholastic subtleties, and such physics as abridgments of Aristotle could supply. Prior to Montaigne's school-days the intellectual life of the schoolboy was, as may be supposed, very wretched; but those who survived it, and continued to devote themselves to grammar, rhetoric, and logic, certainly acquired an amount of discipline which could not fail to sharpen their wits. Intensity and subtlety of thought were the natural outcome of the educational system, but accompanied with a restricted range of view and a belief in arid terms and phrases. Luther's educational activity, like that of Erasmus and Melanchthon, was directed to aid the Humanists in reviving in the school a regard for substance as opposed to form. Pure Latinity, the study of the substance of the great Roman writers, and of rhetoric and logic by the perusal of those great products of literary genius out of which the rules of rhetoric and logic were themselves generalized, began (as previously in certain schools of Italy) to take the place of mere words and of barbarous Latinity. The typical schoolmaster of this period, though not the most enlightened, was John Sturm, the rector of the High School of Strasbourg,