Reading “Reading Montaigne” 1

Before turning to “Reading Montaigne”, I want to notice passages from Merleau-Ponty’s talk, “In Praise of Philosophy”.  It seems clear that Montaigne is in his mind throughout the talk, and evidence of this occurs just at its end:  Montaigne is given the final (quoted) words of the essay.  But earlier there are passages that provide undeclared portraiture of Montaigne.

The philosopher is marked by the distinguishing trait that he possesses inseparably the taste for evidence and the feeling for ambiguity.  When he limits himself to accepting ambiguity, it is called equivocation.  But among the great it becomes a theme; it contributes to establishing certitudes rather than menacing them.  Therefore it is necessary to distinguish good and bad ambiguity.  Even those who have desired to work out a completely positive philosophy have been philosophers only to the extent that, at the same time, they have refused the right to install themselves in absolute knowledge.  They taught not this knowledge, but its becoming in us, not the absolute but, at most, our absolute relation to it, as Kierkegaard said.  What makes a philosopher is the movement which leads back without ceasing from knowledge to ignorance, from ignorance to knowledge, and a kind of rest in this movement…


The enigma of philosophy (and of expression) is that sometimes life is the same to oneself, to others, and to the true.  These are the moments which justify it.  The philosopher counts only on them.  He will never accept to will himself against men, nor to will men against himself, nor against the true, nor the true against them.  He wishes to be everywhere at once, at the risk of never being completely anywhere.  His opposition is not aggressive; he knows that this often announces capitulation.  But he understands the rights of others and of the outside too well to permit any infringement.  If, when he is engaged in external enterprises, the attempt is made to draw him beyond the point where his activity loses the meaning which inspired it, his rejection is all the more tranquil in that it is founded on the same motives as his acceptance.  Hence the rebellious gentleness, the pensive engagement, the intangible presence which disquiets those who are with him.  As Bergson said of Ravaisson in a tone so personal that one imagines him to be speaking of himself:  “He gave no hold…He was the kind of man who does not offer sufficient resistance for one to flatter himself that he has ever seen him give way.”

The first passage bears importantly on the discussion of Montaigne’s skepticism (and so of his knowledge and his ignorance) in “Reading Montaigne” (“RM”), so I will be thinking of it when I get to that particular, difficult juncture.  Also, and related, both passages could be said to be portraiture of Socrates as well as of Montaigne.  In fact, just a bit later in the essay, Merleau-Ponty writes “We must remember Socrates” as the copestone for the section. But Merleau-Ponty’s Socrates shadows Montaigne’s Socrates.  Remember that Socrates finally eclipses various other heroes of Montaigne (like Cato the Younger) by the time of the essays in Book III, so it will be hard to describe Montaigne as he appears in them without also to some extent describing Socrates as he appeared then to Montaigne.  (By the way, since I have conjoined Socrates and Montaigne here, I note that the second passage instructively relates to my ongoing discussion of disposibility and that I in part chose it for that reason.  Oh, and one other parenthetical item, since I have mentioned Socrates:  I recall that Pierre Hadot makes interesting use of this talk of Merleau-Ponty’s in some of his work on Socrates, for example in What is Ancient Philosophy?)  I will later notice another passage from the talk when I discuss the section on Montaigne’s religion in “RM”; what Merleau-Ponty says of Socrates’ religion elucidates what he says of Montaigne’s.

I judge “RM” to have the following structure:  Introduction, Montaigne’s skepticism, Montaigne’s religion, Montaigne’s skepticism, and a critical summation of Montaigne, weaving all the earlier discussions together.  My hope is to take up first Montaigne’s skepticism, second his religion, third his stoicism, and finally to take up the summation.

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