The distinguished contemporary French political philosopher Pierre Manent has spent four decades chronicling the development of modern self-consciousness, including the flight from human nature and “the moral contents of life” that define modern self-understanding in its most radical forms. Manent’s work combines penetrating analyses of great works of political, philosophical, and religious reflection with judicious independent thought. In both, he illumines the interpenetration of politics and the things of the soul. That dialectical melding of politics and soul permanently defines the human condition, even in the most remote times and climes.

Many readers over the centuries have succumbed to Montaigne’s considerable charms and deeply impressive artistry.

Manent continues that work with learning and grace in Montaigne: Life without Law.1 Montaigne (1533–92) is much more than a literary figure for Manent. His Montaigne is first and foremost a philosopher and a moral reformer, even a founder of one vitally important strain of modern self-understanding. In this new form of consciousness, human beings take their bearing neither from great models of heroism or sanctity or wisdom, nor from natural and divine law. Rather, Montaigne asks his readers to eschew self-transcending admiration for others, no matter how exemplary great souls may seem to be. He wishes those who follow him to reject the path of repentance for sins, and to bow before the demands and requirements of one’s unique self, what he calls one’s “master-form.” His Essays,written, published, and revised between 1570 and 1592, demonstrate that he genuinely admired Socrates and the Roman hero Cato. But Montaigne rather shockingly claims to have learned nothing fundamental from them, and he has no interest whatsoever in imitating their greatness. Nonetheless, there is something enticing about Montaigne’s turn to the authority of the self in place of the classical Christian demand to put order in one’s soul in light of the requirements of the Good itself. Many readers over the centuries have succumbed to Montaigne’s considerable charms and deeply impressive artistry.

Manent includes Montaigne among the great modern founders and reformers, rivaled only by his immediate predecessors Machiavelli and Jean Calvin. A paradigmatic modern founder and reformer such as Calvin tried “to liberate the truth from the human intermediaries” that he believed stood in the way of a direct relation between God and each individual soul. But once one rejects “ecclesiastical mediation,” Manent asks, why stop with the authority of scripture itself? All distances, all superintending moral authorities, become suspect under the new dispensation. Calvin would be appalled by modern appeals to groundless human autonomy and to the “self” in place of the authoritative Word of God. In addition, Calvin says little to those “disinclined to piety,” surely the majority of human beings caught up in the pressing demands of ordinary life. In his turn, the greatest political reformer-founder of modernity, Machiavelli, says little or nothing to the human being “without ambition.” Montaigne limns a third modernist path, one that defers neither to the Word of God, nor to the temptation of a glory-seeking republican political life. His path is as far from piety as it is from amoral Machiavellian political self-assertion.

Manent ably establishes that Montaigne does indeed have an authority to which he defers. That authority “is life itself in its ordinary tenor, in the variation of humors and the irregularity of its accidents.” Life, however, in Manent’s formulation “needs to be brought to life and, if I can put it in this way, installed in a light that causes its fullness to appear, while preserving its imperfection.” This is Montaigne’s great revolutionary aim. Manent’s brilliant book throws light on a paradox of the highest order in connection with that aim. Montaigne’s account of the new model man appears eminently human and humane, but in truth it is unthinkable and unlivable. This is because “life without law” strips humanity of true self-knowledge and the accompanying capacity for reasonable moral and political choice, and also moral reformation. Moreover, as Blaise Pascal complained in his Pensées, published in 1670, eight years after his death, Montaigne talked far too much about himself, the only authority he treated as genuinely authoritative. In the end, there is something deeply solipsistic and unnaturally antinomian about Montaigne’s new model of the moral life.

Pascal admired Montaigne’s Essays and constantly cited or appropriated passages from them,even as Montaigne’s replacement of the soul with the self genuinely horrified him. Following Pascal, Manent notes Montaigne’s radical rejection—in the great essay “On Repentance” from Book III of the Essays—of repentance and of the need to prepare oneself for a truly Christian death. Accepting one’s “master-form,” and rejecting repentance as of dubious “sincerity,” leads Montaigne to the conclusion that neither he, nor any other man or woman, can really do better. We are, in effect, destined to navigate within the parameters of our own unique “master-form.” Reform, repentance, or conversion are not sincere or authentic human possibilities. Quietly but firmly, Montaigne ends “by expelling from human life every rule, every principle, capable of guiding it, every criterion of the better.”

But in an important respect, Manent does not believe Montaigne’s claim. Montaigne calls himself “an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher” since his self, even though it points toward “so many philosophical examples and reasons,” remains closed to all wisdom outside itself. Manent asks, can it truly be the case that Montaigne “was never internally divided by a law that he was to obey nor guided by a teaching he was convinced he ought to follow, nor even moved by a model to which he ought to conform”? Was Montaigne miraculously free from the drama of good and evil that is constitutive of every human soul? Was he so self-contained that “he simply developed according to nature, which is to say his nature”? Montaigne’s account of the self, his self, is, strictly speaking, unbelievable. But it has become the default position of those who affirm the primacy of the self, freed from any connection to ends and purposes outside the immediate self that point to a life well lived in accordance with goodness and truth. Through this lens, Montaigne’s alluring humanism seems far less humane than it does at an initial glance.

He himself gives reasons for this sort of hesitation. In “The Apology for Raymond Sebond,” the longest of his essays by far, Montaigne tells us he sees no essential differences between human beings and animals, and sometimes judges animals to be quite superior in judgment and character. We are surely in uncharted territory.

Pascal was appalled by Montaigne’s advice to his readers that they approach death “without fear or repentance.” He thought Montaigne’s completely pagan views on death and repentance were “inexcusable.” Nor was this simply offered from the point of view of faith. Montaigne recommended “a death of cowardly ease,” where one diverts oneself from the most fundamental and consequential questions of human existence. As a Christian, however, Pascal offered an alternative of a humiliation that led, paradoxically, to elevation and ultimate redemption.

Montaigne defends a humility of sorts, but one completely upended from a Christian frame or horizon.

To be sure, Montaigne is not a vulgar relativist: he still acknowledges the high (Socrates and Cato) and the low (men, quite numerous in his time, who administered torture and cruelty). He despised fanaticism and religious wars. But in the end, “it is the master-form of each, which is what it is, but which necessarily constitutes the only base of operations for a human conduct that knows itself.” Montaigne defends a humility of sorts, but one completely upended from a Christian frame or horizon. In these and other ways, Manent conclusively demonstrates that Montaigne decisively breaks with both the Christian and Socratic perspectives, the bedrock of what thinkers in the Western tradition call “sapiential.”

All three perspectives, the classical-Socratic one, the Christian one, and Montaigne’s new conception of the self, aim for self-knowledge. But Manent incisively shows that true self-knowledge must be arrived at indirectly and cannot be willed into being. A precondition of self-knowledge and spiritual growth for the classics and Christians alike is “the putting in order of the soul,” a process that requires conversion or metanoia. The faculties and dispositions of the soul must be ordered by turning to the light of truth and obeying the requirements of non-subjectivist conscience. Self-knowledge is therefore unthinkable without an effort to perfect the soul.

But Montaigne’s substitute for the soul, the self or master-form, makes no such demands. To reject the soul and the arduous task of ordering it and elevating it is to be content with the self as it is. Vulgarized and popularized, Montaigne’s account of the self has predictably produced men and women who lack Montaigne’s remarkable classical learning and his capacity to admire (if not imitate) Socrates and Cato. It leads inexorably to what C. S. Lewis called “the poison of subjectivism,” where the soul is severed from conscience rightly understood and liberated from that eros of the mind that allows us to discover the freedom and grace that accompany true self-transcendence. Montaigne entombed this precious heritage in the serpentine labyrinth of his Essays.

Manent has three additional insights about Montaigne’s modern moral reformation that shed important light on our situation. In a penetrating analysis of the famous essay “On Cannibals,” Manent shows how Montaigne pioneered the cultural relativism in contemporary anthropology and ethnology that asserts, in effect, that “all ‘cultures’ are equally rational” and that “all ‘cultures’ are equally irrational.”

Montaigne was not wrong to argue that civilized people, especially during the wars of religion, committed numerous barbaric acts. Here Montaigne’s aversion to fanaticism and what Machiavelli before him called “pious cruelty” is quite admirable. But by effacing any difference between civilization and barbarism, Montaigne has left us with an infinite diversity of customs, none in principle better than the other. Montaigne’s sophisticated cultural relativism inevitably gave rise over time to a vulgar cultural relativism, one we are still living with. Such an approach, Manent rightly observes, is simply and “entirely incapable of guiding action.” It necessarily disarms civilization in any encounter with barbarism.

Secondly, as the translator of the book Paul Seaton notes in an excellent foreword that accompanies his translation, Montaigne opts for a “self-sufficient private life that, by writing, creates the ‘public’ that is invited to become privy to his ‘candor and human wisdom.’ ” Montaigne is the first and principal creator of the modern “republic of letters.”

Lastly, Manent exposes the fully radical, even revolutionary, character of Montaigne’s moral reformation. Montaigne is much more than an “accidental” philosopher: he aims at nothing less than putting forward a “new law” for Western civilization, where the law is commanded “not to command.” The genial Montaigne is the principal architect of the subversive “hypothesis that human beings can lead a life without law.” Over several centuries, Montaigne’s valorization of the self gave way to a “dictatorship of relativism” that commands us in the name of autonomy and authenticity to disregard all law, all command, all moral authority. Rights thus become increasingly disconnected from any appreciation of the ends and purposes that are inherent in moral judgment and prudential choice. Would the civilized Montaigne applaud what he has wrought? I have my doubts, even if it is hard to conjecture.

In a remarkable book titled Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, also published in English in 2020 by the University of Notre Dame Press, Manent responds to Montaigne’s challenge. Here Manent persuasively defends the enduring relevance of the old cardinal virtues—courage, justice, prudence, and moderation—and of a conception of non-arbitrary conscience that can provide practical reason with rich moral content. And he argues that the principal motives of human action—the pleasant, the useful, and the noble, properly conjugated—define the criteria for moral judgment and political action. In his two recently translated books, Manent continues his impressive political and philosophical efforts to reconnect human liberty with natural law, practical reason, and the moral contents of life. This is moral and political philosophy of a very high order, and of great and enduring relevance.

1Montaigne: Life without Law, by Pierre Manent, translated by Paul Seaton; University of Notre Dame Press, 262 pages, $42.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 4, on page 74
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