Montaigne & the Instability of the Self

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Recently I’ve been taking a graduate course examining the writings and thinkers of the Renaissance. One such provocative writer and thinker examined was Michel de Montaigne. One of the things that I am struck by in Montaigne’s writings is the way in which he seems to view the ‘Self’. It seems to me that Montaigne’s estimation of self-hood is very similar to that of Buddhist philosophy (which I’ve attempted to discuss in three previous video posts found here, here, and here). What follows, then, is a short paper I wrote for the class discussing Montaigne’s concepts of the ‘Self’. Enjoy!

 

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne represents not only a literary turning point within the thought and writing of Renaissance Humanism but, a veritable revolution in the history of Western literature itself. To say that Montaigne is a unique figure is an understatement. Ahead of his time, Montaigne is truly the first of his kind, single-handedly inventing a whole new genre of writing and a bold new form of literary expression. The most candid, and thus the most human, of writers and thinkers, Montaigne is a firebrand of radical introspection. The cusp of Montaigne’s work is found in his probing observations and analyses of the intricacies of his own subjectivity. Montaigne utilizes a deeply contemplative mindfulness within his meditations upon his own consciousness, his own thoughts, feelings, actions, perceptions, conceptions, behaviors, ideas. Closely and intimately examining his own materiality, and all the other minutiae of every-day existence, Montaigne reveals a clarity of vision regarding the universality of the human condition that is utterly poignant and unavoidably prescient. Yet, in doing so Montaigne presents a description of the Self that was not only subversive within his own time but, that continues to subvert even the modern world’s sensibilities of self.

Michel de Montaigne witnessed a world of violent instability all around. He watched as his country was torn apart by civil wars. His most beloved of friends, Etienne de La Boetie fell victim to the plague (Bakewell 13). He mourned the death of his father (Blackwell 13). He was shocked by the unexpected death of his brother (Bakewell 24). He grieved the loss of 5 of his six children, “only one survived to become an adult” (Bakewell 2). This mounting and all-pervasive instability, this world beset by impermanence, is what led Montaigne to put pen to paper and what kept the pen in motion for over two decades, writing his voluminous and monumental work, Essais, or Essays.
Yet, in crafting Essays Montaigne was no memoirist. Sarah Bakewell explains that Montaigne “did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements” or to “lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events” (Bakewell 3). Instead, his writings are deeply ‘reflective’ explorations, and ‘reflective’ in two senses of the term. In the first and most obvious sense, his writings are ‘reflective’ in that they are profoundly introspective, that is, deeply ‘self-reflective’. They are concentrated ruminations and deliberative musings. David Hansen writes that Montaigne is keenly aware of his own “thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and actions” (128). In his essay “Of Experience”, Montaigne, himself, states that “I study myself more than any other subject; ‘tis my metaphysic, my physic” (Montaigne). The central object of Montaigne’s investigative reflecting is himself. Montaigne is an explorer of his own subjectivity.

However, Montaigne’s writings are ‘reflective’ explorations in another sense. Because Montaigne delves so deeply into his own humanity, his writing becomes ‘reflective’ of the whole of humanity, that is to say, ‘reflected’ within Montaigne’s self-reflections one finds a reflection of themselves. When one explores the reflections of Montaigne, one is exploring one’s own reflection., one is exploring a reflection of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own Self-hood. Sarah Bakewell states that “This idea” of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity” is a cultural invention that is traced back singularly to Montaigne (1). Montaigne writes that “Authors communicate themselves to the people by some especial and extrinsic mark; I, the first of any, by my universal being; as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, a poet, or a lawyer” (Montaigne). In other words, as Montaigne goes on to say in “Of Repentance”, is that “every man carries the entire form of human condition” (Montaigne). As Ian Fraser explains the “Universal moves through the particular and the individual” (87). In Montaigne’s writing one sees a simultaneity between the universal, the particular, and the individual. The universal is reflected in the particular and the individual, and the individual and the particular are reflected in the universal.

Yet, what, specifically, is the universal particularity, or the particular universality, that one sees reflected in the explorations presented in Montaigne’s Essays? It seems that part of what one sees in the exploratory writings of Montaigne’s particular Self-hood is the universal impermanence and instability of the ‘Self’. Montaigne sees the Self as something in constant motion. The Self, “the features of my picture,” like the world, like “the earth the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt” moves incessantly and is perpetually altered and changed (Montaigne). The Self, the object of his reflective deliberation, cannot be fixed, “tis always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Instead the Self can only be taken “as it is at the instant” it is considered (Montaigne). Thus, his portrait of the Self is not so much a still life or a still frame but, instead functions as a kind of time lapse photography, capturing neither the stable substantiality nor the concrete constancy of “being”, but rather the “passage” of the Self “from day to day” and “from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne notes that “Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion” (Montaigne). Montaigne emphasizes becoming, and in exploring the landscape of the ‘Self’ Montaigne’s Essays are a cartography in motion, charting a moving geography constantly shifting.

Montaigne’s reflective explorations of introspection into the human condition reveal that the Self is amorphous and unstable. He demonstrates that the Self is a material conglomeration of temporal thoughts, fleeting feelings, insubstantial sensations, and impermanent perceptions, a constellation of ephemeral actions and variable patterns of behavior. This patterned constellation, though recognizable, is empty of absolute essence. To impose the idea of a solid Self onto these ‘patterns’ is nothing short of an example of apophenia (false pattern recognition). There is no one unchanging, stable Self. The varying objects of one’s materiality are also events, and the substances of the Self are also processes which implore one to live fully within the present moment, “not because it is fleeting, but because it is full” (Mijolla 62).

Works Cited

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Great Britain: Random House UK, 2010. Print.

Fraser, Ian. “Two of a Kind: Hegel, Marx, Dialectic and Form.” Capital & Class, vol. 18, no. 61, Spring97, pp. 81-12. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9702240185&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Hansen, David T. “Well-Formed, Not Well-Filled: Montaigne and the Paths of Personhood.” Educational Theory, vol. 52, no. 2, Spring2002, p. 127. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7186551&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Mijolla, Elizabeth de. Autobiographical Quests: Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Wordsworth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994. Print.

Montaigne, Michel de. Essays. 8 Aug. 2016. Project Gutenberg. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

 

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“God is Dead”: Nietzsche, the Death of all ‘Gods’, and the Birth of the Postmodern

A few months back I completed a graduate course examining 19th-Century thinkers and writers. As part of the course work I wrote a research paper and  presented a brief presentation on corresponding to the topic of that research project. In other words, this was a wonderful opportunity to continue my ever-present exploration into the work of Nietzsche. Here, I focused primarily upon his concept of the Death of God, attempting to ground the idea contextually and attempting to explore the idea’s implications by offering a kind of close reading of Nietzsche’s parable of the madmen. I hope you enjoy it! Feel free to leave a comment. Please ‘like’ the video on YouTube if you’d like to see more of these.

The Ethics of Freedom and Responsibility

For the French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, there is no deeper or more towering truth than that of man’s freedom. Indeed, Sartre emphasized mankind’s ultimate and prevailing makeup as being free to such an extreme as to suggest that freedom was not to be seen as a mere facet or feature of humanity but, rather as being synonymous with humanity. Not to be confused as an inclination or a capacity, Sartre proposed a heightened understanding, man is freedom. It is then, this theme, above all others, that runs the very breadth of the Sartrean corpus, underpinning and informing nearly all assessments and assertions in their entirety. I believe that it is through his deep and abiding commitment to man as being unabashedly free that he may have been the most ethically orientated of the existentialists.
In Thomas Flynn’s book Existentialism: A Brief Insight , an introductory text to existentialist thought and thinkers, he underscores and outlines several themes of Existentialism, many, if not all, are directly linked and related to Sartre. The first is a line directly from Sartre himself, “Existence precedes essence.”1 Through this theme comes the understanding that ‘essence,’ the substance and characterization of who and what man is, arrives only after existence and does so only as a result of man’s cumulative choices.2
Flynn also suggests that Existentialism has Humanism as a major theme and orientation. As he states, and as Sartre would certainly agree, “Existentialism is a person-centered philosophy.”3 As the title of one of Sartre’s lasting works more than implies, for Sartre “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Hence, here freedom is an exercise distinctly focused upon man’s mission for meaning within a world found to be altogether meaningless and in this pursuit of authenticity man must passionately avoid conformity.
The word ‘existence’ comes from the Latin words ex , meaning ‘out’ or ‘exit,’ and sister , meaning ‘to stand.’ Thus, to exist literally means ‘to stand out.’ Like Nietzsche, admonishing man to free himself from the “herd” and like Heidegger who warned against the wiles of the “they,” Sartre calls for man to stand out from the crowd, from the everyday, and even from ourselves.4
This leads to the next theme Flynn mentions, “Freedom/responsibility

.”5 Here Flynn explains, “Existentialism is a philosophy of freedom. Its basis is the fact that we can stand back from our lives and reflect on what we have been doing. In this sense, we are always ‘more’ that ourselves. But, we are as responsible as we are free.”6 Flynn makes clear that man is free to make the choices that will determine his essence. Thus, as a consequence of this freedom of choice, what man is and what he becomes is ultimately his decisive responsibility alone. So it is that “When Sartre insists that one must ‘choose, that is invent’ he doesn’t mean simply ‘improvise.’ Rather, he is referring to the responsible decision to opt for or against freedom itself.”7
Flynn concludes his list of Existential themes with this assertion, “Ethical considerations are paramount.”8 It is true that for all the Existentialist thinkers and philosophers we have thus far examined, the ethical has been given much weight in the work of each. Ethics, morals, and values, their meaning, their place, their purpose and their basis, each philosopher has in their own way grappled with such concepts and their implications. I argue that it is through the ethical lens that we can more fully appreciate the premises set by Sartre. Though understated, here freedom, responsibility, and authenticity become the fullest expressions of ethicality.
Sartre, a devout atheist, seems to parallel and echo Nietzsche and his sentiments in much of his work. “Man’s situation, as Sartre sees it, is absurd and tragic.”9 Without the presence of the divine man is utterly alone in a universe devoid of all meaning, “man is condemned to be free.”10 The only guidance available to man is that of his own accord and as such whatever he becomes will be the outcome of his own choice. Yet, unlike Nietzsche, Sartre, without the existence of God, does not call for the abandonment of values. Quite the contrary, with no deity enthroned within the heavens, according to Sartre man bears even more the responsibility of living ethically. This is where Sartre is truly unique, as Walter Kaufmann states, “Secular existentialism is a tragic world view without, however, being pessimistic. Even in guilt and failure man can retain integrity and defy the world.”11 This is the deepest affirmation through the deepest negation, the absolute Yes emerging from the absolute No.
Sartre makes clear, “when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but he is responsible for all men.”12 Here he suggests that when making and enacting decisions one should ask, “What if everyone acted this way?” and “What would happen if everybody looked at things that way?”13 Thus, as I exercise my freedom through choice I must become cognizant of the fact that “I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.”14 For Sartre, “no one could be free in a concrete sense unless everyone were free.”15
“[Sartre] insisted that each of us acknowledges what we are doing with our lives right now.” 16 Man’s freedom is infinitely abounding yet; responsibility pervades and inundates every aspect of this infinity. Though Sartre did not fulfill the promise he posed at the conclusion of Being and Nothingness to one day provide an existential work dedicated to the exploration of ethics, in many ways he already had.

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1 Thomas Flynn, Existentialism: A Brief Insight (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2006), 11.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 139.
5 Ibid., 11.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid., 60.
8 Ibid., 11.
9 Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridian, 1975), 47.
10 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction, 2nd ed., ed. L. Nathan Oaklander (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1996), 313.
11 Kaufmann, Existentialism…, 47.
12 Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” 311.
13 Ibid., 312.
14 Ibid., 311.
15 Flynn, Existentialism… , 59.
16 Ibid., 77.