Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Week 3. Montaigne on Adversity

Moving from Lipsius to Montaigne, it is interesting to note that Lipsius is said to have read Montaigne’s Essais in 1582 or 1583, just at the time he was composing De Constantia. He is even said to have encouraged Christopher Plantin to produce an edition. Lipsius praised Montaigne as a modern Thales in a letter to T. van Leeuwen written in May 1583 (Epist. Select. Cent. Prima Misc. (Antwerp, 1605) 43 = Iusti Lipsi Epistolae I (Brussels, 1978) 268). Montaigne returned the complement, describing Lipsius in the 1588 edition of the Essais as one of the most learned men alive (2.12). The pair corresponded around this time too. Three of Lipsius’s letters survive (Epist. Select. Cent. Secunda Misc. (Antwerp, 1605) 41, 55, 92 = Iusti Lipsi Epistolae III (Brussels, 1987) 626, 644, 711; all three are reprinted with a French translation in Michel Magnien, ‘Trois lettres de Lipse à Montaigne (1587[?]-1589)’, Montaigne Studies 16 (2004), 103-11).

(For the above I am in part indebted to Alan Martin Boase, The Fortunes of Montaigne: A History of the Essays in France, 1580-1669 (London, 1935), 19-20. See also Olivier Millet, ‘Dominicus Baudius lecteur de Montaigne ’, in Paul J. Smith and K. A. E. Enenkel, eds, Montaigne and the Low Countries (Leiden, 2007), 120, and note also Millet’s La Premiere reception des Essais de Montaigne (Paris, 1995), Magnien’s ‘Montaigne et Juste Lipse: une double méprise?’, in C. Mouchel, ed., Juste Lipse (1547–1606) en son temps (Paris, 1996), 423-52, and his ‘Aut sapiens, aut peregrinator: Montaigne vs. Lipse’, in M. Laureys, ed., The World of Justus Lipsius, A Contribution Towards his Intellectual Biography (Rome, 1998), 209-32.)

However, despite the admiration they shared for one another, it is striking how much Montaigne’s attitude towards fate and adversity differs from Lipsius’s. In Essai 3.10 (‘On Restraining Your Will’) a number of statements imply a distance between the two. For instance, Montaigne writes ‘to cure poverty of possessions is easy: poverty of soul, impossible’, which suggests a pessimism about the acquisition of virtue quite different from Lipsius’s ambitious therapeutic project. Montaigne goes on to encourage flight from public evils rather than developing the inner resources necessary to cope with them, let alone embrace them as potentially advantageous. He often describes a struggle between reason and desire that implies a complex psychology quite different from the Stoic model embraced by Lipsius that holds that desires and emotions are ultimately the product of rational judgements. Montaigne’s goal is to control his emotions, not eradicate them. While there are many Stoic resonances in what Montaigne has to say, and even a qualified alignment with Stoicism (‘What Stoics did from virtue I teach myself to do from temperament’), there seems to be a clear distance between his position and Lipsius’s.

Comparing Montaigne with Lipsius, one natural place to look is Montaigne’s Essai 1.12, entitled ‘On Constancy’. In stark contrast to Lipsius, public evils remain real evils for Montaigne, and the virtue of constancy enables us to bear these troubles patiently: ‘The role played by constancy consists chiefly in patiently bearing misfortunes for which there is no remedy’. Lipsius’s quite different strategy is to argue that so-called misfortunes or public evils are not only not really evil at all, but in fact benefit us, reflecting the fact that they ultimately derive from divine providence.

Others have commented on this difference. Paul Friedland has written ‘Although Montaigne and Lipsius read many of the same classical texts and, in fact, appear to have been admirers of each other, the conclusions that they drew with respect to the question of suffering […] could not have been more different’ (Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France (Oxford, 2012), 151). On this topic at least Montaigne is the modern stoic (small ‘s’) while Lipsius remains a faithful follower of the ancient Stoics. While others might be able to embody Lipsius’s Stoic ideal, Montaigne seems unable to do so himself (‘Let us not attempt to follow such examples: we shall never manage it’).