Burn This Book, Part II

To produce the tough and resolute men who create, sustain, and defend civilization requires a discipline that more resembles Parris Island than the Fantasy Island schooling in America that leaves no whim unfulfilled, no vicious tendency unstimulated.  Imposing academic rigor and tough discipline may be the most difficult challenge faced by home-schooling parents, even those less indulgent than Michel’s father.  None of us, probably, has had the success we planned for.  

To make the process of learning easy and “fun” has been the object of educational reformers of the past several centuries.  Walter Scott complained of this tendency in his own day, warning that if children are taught to regard learning as a game, they will rebel against any learning that is necessarily serious.  Montaigne was too dense even to learn from his own experience.  Learning Latin as a native language, he never had to slog through day after day of rote memorization of vocabulary and grammatical paradigms.  As a result, when the time came for him to learn Greek, as he confesses, he made no headway—or with any other demanding subject.

Well, there is no harm in a gentleman not knowing Greek, he would say, but Montaigne’s indulged childhood had more serious consequences.  His father, in the belief that children should not be startled first thing in the morning, had him awakened to music, and there is a luxurious, cowardly streak that runs through Michel’s life.  As mayor, he refused to return to Bordeaux, when plague broke out in the city.  A pardonable weakness, perhaps, but he was a weak sensualist in other matters.  In his essay "On Experience," he confesses that his sexual activity began so early, he could not remember when he had ever been chaste, and the dirty little stain running throughout his writings is an obsession with talking about sex, describing his about bowel movements, referring offhandedly to urination.  

Montaigne had, quite simply, a dirty mind that he wanted to share with the world.  It was wrong, he thought, to shield children from the facts of life.  Even in dissipation, he says, the model student should outdo his comrades, and the ideal sage (as he observes in “On Experience”) should be as well-versed in the mysteries of Venus and Bacchus as in other areas of life.  This is not the robust paganism of the ancient world, but the sly and drooling neo-paganism that dares not confront Christianity except with a sneer and a lie.  

Montaigne spent his whole life alternately undermining the church’s authority and ingratiating himself with those who exercised it. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia takes his death-bed theatrical display seriously—or pretends to.  Perhaps he was serious.  It is not for us to judge, but I have more confidence in the conversion of the combative atheist than in the professions of a life-long hypocrite who (like Descartes) feigned obedience while insinuating the poison of infidelity into the mainstream of French cultural life.  Shelley, it has been thought, might have become a Christian, had he lived longer.  Montaigne could have outlived Dracula and still died with a sneer.

If Christianity were superstitious bigotry, compared with the enlightened wisdom of Socrates and Plutarch, then the civilization of Christendom would be a barbaric deviation from the true paths of enlightenment.  This is precisely the position Montaigne takes in one of his most significant essays, “On the Cannibals,” where he slyly undermines the monarchy, the church, and France itself by comparing them with the Latin American savages who are physically superior to Europeans and inferior in no other respect.

Montaigne may be the first really important multi-culturalist in Europe, and his feigned preference for savages he never really met is only a ploy—just as his intellectual descendants in American universities prate about cultural diversity without ever learning the languages or cultures of other nations.  His “Essay on the Cannibals” is not a singular outburst: his contempt for Christendom is a recurrent theme.  In "On Experience,” for example, he preaches a doctrine of cultural diversity and human variability that would have delighted Margaret Mead.  After a summary of the strange things other people do, Montaigne concludes: “Each nation has many customs and habits that are not only not known, but seem savage and bizarre to some other nation.”  

Then how do we choose?  Montaigne has no difficulty in deciding that other nations and cultures are superior to his own.   While French legal institutions “by their lack of rule and form encourage disorder and corruption,” China is a “kingdom whose government and arts, without having any intercourse or knowledge of our own, surpasses what we have to offer in many branches of excellence.”  In the “Apology for Raimond Sebond,” he takes the final step of equating man with the beasts to which he attributes rational powers: “When I play with my cat, who knows but that she regards me more as a plaything than I do her?”

E.J. Trenchman, a scholar and admirer of Montaigne whose “authoritative” translation (Oxford 1927) of this passage I have quoted, describes the “Apology” as “the most important and most interesting of the Essays, adding that it is “pretty clear, if we keep in mind Montaigne’s hint to the wise to ‘catch his meaning’ and read between the lines, that the title was intentionally misleading, and that the whole chapter is an attack on Christian beliefs in general.”  

For this among other reasons, Montaigne was put on the index in the 17th century, and although less rigorous generations of Catholics have preferred not to understand the purpose of Montaigne’s relentless, pyrrhonian skepticism—if only because he is one of the masters of French prose and—to give the Devil his due—a writer as engaging as Voltaire.  But Diderot and his allies were correct in their admiration of Montaigne as their master, and the Jacobins were also right to want to remove his body to a shrine in Paris.  (Unfortunately, in a classic Jacobin screw-up, they got the wrong body.)

There  is thus no secret to what it was the Montaigne wanted to liberate us from: from Christendom, from Christianity as a religion binding on our conscience and moral behavior, and from Christ himself.  This sly little Gascon is at once the foundation of Western self-hatred and one of the fathers of modern education.  His celebrated “que sais-je?” is both a justification for his own self-abusing introspection and an invitation to the rationalist fury that Descartes—another hypocrite—unleashed upon the Christian world.  “It is the self-inflating irony of the teenager who asks, with a melodramtic flourish, “What do I know?” about this or that, meaning “I know as much as I need to know, with or without any of your so-called knowledge.”

Montaigne’s skepticism dissolves all faith, not just Christian faith, but faith in all forms of legitimate authority, that of parents, tradition, the church, and not just the Catholic Church—Montaigne despised Luther for thinking he knew the truth or believing there was a truth that could be known.  If decent American parents wish to set their children upon the proper course, whether they are planning a pre-school program or a course of professional preparation, they had better begin with the recognition that the evils of modern education go back to the 16th century and that these evil principles are shot through are failing culture like streaks of gangrene through a rotting limb.

It is only fair to hold Montaigne responsible for the toxins he introduced into Europe.  He is “that man by whom the offence cometh,” as Jesus told his disciples. (Mat. 18.7).

“Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life, halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.”

Where was the Inquisition when you needed it?

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    “Montaigne could have outlived Dracula and still died with a sneer.” That’s priceless!

    So the roots of the degeneration of education run deeper than most suspect. This is not something I had given any thought too, despite wishing to know the roots of the educational rot, though it is not surprising that said rot has its roots in the enlightenment.

    Looking at Montaigne’s portraits, he looks like a rather dark, brooding figure, rather sly, and quite unhappy. One might suspect a rage hidden just underneath.

  2. Frank Brownlow says:

    There’s an interesting, rather sinister link between Montaigne and Francis Bacon through Bacon’s older brother Anthony who, after being in trouble for sodomy while living as a spy in France, spent a couple of years with Montaigne.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Bacon has many interesting connections that seem paradoxical only on the surface and to those who do not wish to understand how we have got to where we are. He is connected, on the one hand and most obviously, with the development of science and the scientific method, and thus with Descartes and the founders of the Royal Academy, but on the other, with anti-Christian neopaganism (Read his The New Atlantis!) and thus with Bruno but also Descartes, who was an aspiring Rosicrucian. There is nothing paradoxical. England’s greatest scientific mind, Sir Isaac Newton, was a devotee of Biblical numerology and alchemy, and among the most prominent early members of the Academy were alchemists and Hermeticists. Montaigne’s genius does not have a mystical side to counterbalance his skepticism, and one of the reasons he seems to have admired King Henri IV was the ambitious monarch’s indifference to religion–though there is one curious letter in which an English visitor who made merry with the King about Easter time claims they celebrated “The Eleusinian Mysteries.”

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes this neo-paganism and curiosity for the occult has a long history. I am surprised to see Bruno mentioned here as too few know of his influences on Joyce and Einstein. And of course the occult is everywhere around us today in its ugliness decadence and evil but what is not so noticeable is the goodness and splendor in the beautiful. Put negatively, I guess the real absence is Virgil’s understanding that there are tears in things and this life. Thank you Tom for posting these thoughts on Montaigne.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Even as neopagans go, Bruno was a bad egg. Ficino was at least courtly and a serious student, while Pico was brilliant and bold and had the courage to return to the Church and humbly put himself under the authority of Savonarola, but Bruno was a pompous boaster completely without discretion. He’s the role model for 20th century crackpots like Crowley and Joyce.

  6. Brandon E Taylor says:

    I had a colleague of mine recently post the following quote from Montaigne to facebook:

    “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”

    This quote was intended as a response to those advocating broad shutdown and isolation measures.

    While not disagreeing with the sentiment of the post, I did however indicate that I found the quote ironic coming, as it did, from a man that spent a good deal of time hunkering down – sheltering in place, if you will – in the family chateau.