To me, Montaigne’s religion isn’t a thorny question; he’s clearly a Roman Catholic. Throughout the essays, Montaigne keeps coming back to the ‘fallen state’ of man and how philosophy cannot manufacture the salvation that can come only from the Deity.
But for hundreds of years, Montaigne had the reputation of a skeptic or even a heretic, which makes this essay the perfect opportunity to introduce mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.
I’ve encircled Montaigne throughout this project with thinkers who extend on his ideas or carry them into our contemporary world. The most prominent of these thinkers are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and David Foster Wallace. But these four thinkers beg the inclusion of one more member, and that’s Pascal, a man who started off his masterpiece Pensees determined to slay Montaigne, but eventually ends up becoming someone very similar to him.
When thinking critically about Montaigne, boy did Pascal let him have it:
His foolish project of describing himself! And this not casually and against his maxims, since every one makes mistakes, but by his maxims themselves, and by first and chief design. For to say silly things by chance and weakness is a common misfortune; but to say them intentionally is intolerable …. What good there is in Montaigne can only have been acquired with difficulty. The evil that is in him, I mean apart from his morality, could have been corrected in a moment, if he had been informed that he made too much of trifles and spoke too much of himself.
I cannot dismiss Pascal’s criticisms out of hand because he has a point – some of Montaigne’s essays remind me of the material that Kramer submitted to Elaine for inclusion in J. Peterman’s autobiography:
ELAINE: These Kramer stories are unusable! (Thumbs through them) I mean, some of them aren’t even stories! (Holds one out) Look, this is a list of things in his apartment!
But it’s the insouciance of Montaigne’s project that makes it so charming, something that T.S. Eliot pointed out in his introduction to a translation of the Pensees:
Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.
By the way, having just recently come across these Eliot quotes, I feel more comfortable in my suggestion that “The Hollow Men” was Montaigne inspired. Eliot was charmed by Montaigne, and somewhat in awe of him:
What makes Montaigne a very great figure is that he succeeded, God knows how—for Montaigne very likely did not know that he had done it—it is not the sort of thing that men can observe about themselves, for it is essentially bigger than the individual’s consciousness—he succeeded in giving expression to the skepticism of every human being. For every man who thinks and lives by thought must have his own skepticism, that which stops at the question, that which ends in denial, or that which leads to faith and which is somehow integrated into the faith which transcends it.
And that final clause, I believe, is the best description of Montaigne’s faith – one that somehow integrates his questioning, skeptical nature and transcends it. As mentioned previously, I think “The Hollow Men” is Eliot’s bridge poem to that same type of transcendence and so it makes perfect sense that he finds Montaigne to be his ideal guide. This brings me, finally, to today’s Montaigne essay – a macabre little piece about conjoined twins.
Montaigne describes the twins in gruesome detail, but refuses to surrender to the popular notion that the children are monsters:
What we call monsters are not so for God who sees the infinite number of forms which he has included in the immensity of his creation: it is to be believed that the figure which astonishes us relates to, and derives from, some other figure of the same genus unknown to Man. God is all-wise; nothing comes from him which is not good, general and regular: but we cannot see the disposition and relationship: What a man frequently sees never produces wonder in him, even though he does not know how it happens. But if something occurs which he has never seen before, he takes it as a portent.
Those portents are the real subject of this essay. Given the ongoing civil war in France, Montaigne suggests that one could easily see in the conjoined twins a metaphor for France and how it can survive and perhaps even thrive with two religious faiths under one King. But Montaigne doesn’t fall for this … instead he suggests that we should look at the conjoined twins as a poetic description of France’s current condition:
This double body and these sundry limbs all depending on one single head could well provide us with a favorable omen that our king will maintain the sundry parties and factions of our State in unity under his laws; but for fear lest the outcome should belie it we should let that happen first, for there is no divining like divining about the past! … Once things have happened we can find some interpretation of them which turns them into prophecies. As was said of Epimenides: he always prophesied backwards.
To prophesize backwards is to be a poet, to have the ability to reorder the universe and place it into a unique juxtaposition that alters our understanding of it. Yesterday I went to see the wonderful new movie “Source Code” and wondered afterwards why I love alternate universe movies so much but despise time travel movies. And I think this is the reason why – time travel is akin to prophesy, the idea that time and action are linear and small tweaks can upset the single train of action. Alternate universe stories, on the other hand, are poetic, they make us appreciate the multiplicity of choice and chance. They let us see the world as it is in a slightly altered state that doesn’t destroy the entire fabric of life. I find this view of life far more optimistic and wonderful, one that embraces possibilities.
Perhaps the reason why Pascal had such a difficult time with Montaigne at first – and I’ll discuss in later essays how he eventually found (unacknowledged) peace with him – is that Montaigne isn’t really a philosopher, he’s a poet. His gift was finding poet juxtapositions that make us think about the way we act and think a bit differently. The fact that he had the courage to do this in the realm of religion is upsetting to some. But to me at least, I find his questioning faith-affirming, not rejecting.