Through most of the early essays, Montaigne maintains some ironic distance from his work, at times mocking the project while other times criticizing his own tendency to jump from one topic to the next. In his fortieth essay, Montaigne finally starts to appreciate the importance of the volume he’s creating and he’s eager to defend, preemptively, against those who praise his style over his substance:
I may be wrong, but there are not many writers who put more matter in your grasp than I do and who, with such concern for this matter, scatter at least the seeds of it so thickly over their paper.
This line is skeleton key to the early Montaigne essays, giving readers a hint that he’s leaving behind far more food for thought than might appear on a single reading. It was on my second reading where I finally discovered the importance of this line, allowing me to go back to the start of the piece and figure out that it’s not really about Cicero and Seneca, it’s about him.
I can imagine Montaigne receiving praise, via letter, from an early reader of some essays and growing increasing frustrated, even angry, at the faint praise, based on his turns of phrase and not the big ideas that he’s raising. Montaigne offers another preemptive defense to those who might argue that he’s not fully developing all of these big ideas, by saying:
If I were to develop them as well as I would increase the size of this tome several times over. And how many tactic exempla have I scattered over my pages which could all give rise to essays without number if anyone were to pluck them apart with a bit of intelligence.
Having read this defense, it becomes quite a bit easier for me to take this essay, because I was initially tempted to argue with Montaigne’s Cicero vs. Seneca dichotomy. Perhaps Seneca left us with deeper, more insightful ideas. But in his day, Seneca’s thought helped prop up Nero, while Cicero’s eloquence defended the Roman Republic. Cicero was a Senator — he stood up, courageously at times, for what he believed. Seneca was a ghostwriter … and often a deeply amoral one at that.
Despite this disagreement with Montaigne, when I see this essay as being a personal defense, I get his point more clearly. First, he criticized Cicero and Pliny the Younger for self promotion. He argues that both:
publicly urged contemporary historians not to forget them in their chronicles; and Fortune – as though moved by pique – has made the vanity behind those requests last to our own day, while the chronicles themselves have long since been lost.
That’s a very harsh assessment, especially of Cicero, but he gets tougher. Both men also:
sought to extract some major glory from chatter and verbiage, using to that end even private letters written to their friends; when some of their letters could not be sent as the occasion for them had lapsed they published them all the same, with the worthy excuse that they did not want to waste their long nights of toil!
That fact about Cicero has always bothered me — so too the fact that every document of his oratories was written after the fact. It was considered a sign of oratorical weakness in his day to have thought out and written down a speech before it was delivered. But you have to wonder, was he as eloquent on his feet as on the page? In all likelihood, no.
As a professional speechwriter, I have to defend the good name of Cicero because I believe that oratory is important and oratorical style is not just ornamental. I’ve always disagreed with Socrates and Plato about the Sophists — so what if the Sophists did nothing more than open the doors of democracy to Athenians that did not think as deeply as Socrates and Plato? I’m willing to let the messiness of democracy play itself out in a cacophony of voices rather than wait for the Philosopher King to emerge in all his wisdom.
While I feel a certain nostalgia for the days of the speechwriter/philosopher, I also tend to believe that a little philosophy can be a dangerous thing. Germany in the 20th century was not born out of irrationality, it was the deeply rational nation of Kant, Hegel, Schoppenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger. I don’t blame Nietzsche and Heidegger for the various ways they were misunderstood, but I do question whether a nation can be built on a philosophical foundation. Perhaps a nation is better off coalescing around simple principles, even those based on myth and superstition, rather than grand concepts that can be warped to dangerous ends.
But I digress, because as I mentioned above, this essay isn’t really about sophists and philosophers, it’s about Montaigne. By criticizing Cicero and Pliny, Montaigne is defending his style of discourse, one that it’s understated and ironic, not bombastic and self promotional. Not naming anyone in particular, Montaigne really goes after people who:
use their leisure to construct and nicely clap together some fair missive or other, in order to gain from it the reputation of having thoroughly mastered the language of their nanny! What more could some wretched schoolteacher do, who earned his money by it! If the eloquent had not been far surpassed by their deeds I do not believe they would ever have written about them. They sought to commend their actions not their style.
Then he really lowers the boom, insinuating that stylistic writing with no deeper meaning is effete:
It is a kind of mockery and insult to value a man for qualities unbecoming to his rank, even if they are otherwise commendable, or for qualities which should not be his chief ones – as though we were to praise a monarch for being a good painter painter or a good architect, or even for being good with the harquebus or at tilting in the jousting-ring;
Montaigne then concludes this essay by discussing his style of letter writing, which tends to support my idea that this essay is really a personal response to someone who missed the deeper value of an earlier essay. He’s making in case, late in the essay, for arguing his points here, to a wider audience, rather in the formal, constricting form of the letter, where he’s not confident that he’ll be able to talk as tough as he’d like.
Even though I disagree with some of the early points raised by Montaigne in this piece, I think it’s one of his strongest essays, if for no other reason than it shows him in the right state of mind, fully cognizant of the value and importance of his essays and willing to fight back against anyone who can’t see exactly what he’s writing.
What he doesn’t see here, but what is very clear to me, is that Montaigne is creating a corpus of essays that matches the eloquence of Cicero with the depth of Seneca. He’s surpassing the masters and making them relevant for generation to come. Whoever saw in this effort little more than trifles has been proven foolish for centuries.