After addressing Montaigne and Christianity, Merleau-Ponty turns to Montaigne and the Stoics. It will help us think about that relationship if we remind ourselves of a passage of Montaigne’s from Of Experience.
It is from my experience that I affirm human ignorance, which is, in my opinion, the most certain fact in the school of the world. Those who will not conclude their own ignorance from so vain an example as mine, or as theirs, let them recognize it through Socrates, the master of masters. For the philosopher Antisthenes would say to his pupils: “Let us go, you and I, to hear Socrates; there I shall be a pupil with you.” And maintaining this doctrine of the Stoic sect, that virtue was enough to make a life fully happy and free from need of anything whatever, he would add: “Excepting the strength of Socrates.”
Socrates trumps Antisthenes, even for Antisthenes; Socrates is master of masters. So he was for Montaigne too. This passage is one in which Montaigne signals his passage from the Stoics to Socrates.
Hamann dubbed Socrates the prophet of the Unknown God (thinking, of course, about St. Paul on Mars Hill). Merleau-Ponty notes of Montaigne that he invokes an Unknown God. But Montaigne also invokes, as Merleau-Ponty sees it, an Impossible Reason. Merleau-Ponty is driven to this phrase (and by the way, the capitalization is mine, not MMP’s) by Montaigne’s repeated strain of withdrawal, of preserving some piece of ourselves, some place in ourselves, from which we can see all that we do, all that we commit, all that we have committed to, as external–as something happening almost to someone else, as the vicissitudes of a role we play, but not of ourselves. This withdrawal, this holding back, this is what tempts Montaigne in stoicism. He can see that mixing in marriage, in love, in social life, in politics is to live according to others. Montaigne would rather live according to himself.
But, Merleau-Ponty argues, Montaigne cannot really hope to do what he would rather do. “He had described consciousness, even in its solitude, as already mixed according to its very principle with the absurd and foolish. How could he have prescribed consciousness dwell in itself, since he thinks it is wholly outside itself? Stoicism can only be a way-point.”
Montaigne knows that the world pulls us in, and does so not so much against our will as because of the nature of our consciousness. We will be mixed up with the world–that’s that. We cannot hole up in consciousness and let the world go by without touching it and without being touched. Socrates is the master of masters–in the world but not of it. Married with children, a soldier, an occasional (forced) politician, a man of conversation: he was decidedly mixed up with the world. But he somehow managed to avoid being mixed up by the world. In Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus, Porphyry marvels at Plotinus’ ability “to be present at once to himself and his friends”. Socrates had this ability; Montaigne could see it (as could Antisthenes: it is Socrates’ “strength”). Montaigne wants to find a way to live as Socrates did. He wants to understand how to live according to himself while he lives according to others. That could seem impossible–but Socrates realized the impossibility. So what are the “conditions and motives for this return to the world”, for this overcoming of Stoicism, this mixing with the world? That is the question Merleau-Ponty asks as he ends the section on Stoicism and prepares to begin the long final section of the essay–the answer to the question. Put the question this way: how can a person become disposable to the world, available to it, without becoming unhandy to himself?