In his “Essays,” Michel de Montaigne rejects notions of virtue as a quasi-divine state and instead embraces Stoic and Epicurean notions of virtue as a sort of tranquility of mind and soul. A virtuous man restrains his natural vices and lives an orderly and moderate life.
For the French nobleman and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, knowing how to live and die was fundamental to the human experience. Central to this great task of living and dying well (which is the proper function of man) is virtue. Montaigne’s view of virtue is a bit convoluted, paradoxical, and extremely nuanced. Montaigne eschews notions about the perfectibility of man through virtue. Montaigne differs from other thinkers like Aristotle who believed that virtue could be habituated by training and reforming one’s moral disposition by deliberation and rational thinking. Montaigne is quick to uphold the fallen and sinful nature of man and yet does not accept a general and overarching view of human nature. Montaigne recognizes that each of us is uniquely flawed in different ways and to different degrees. Consequently, in Montaigne’s view, virtue covers one’s true and (almost) unchangeable nature with benevolent actions. Montaigne asserts that virtue implies great struggle and mere right action is not necessarily synonymous with virtue. By exploring and explicating seemingly contradictory statements on the nature of virtue, this essay will attempt to answer what virtue is—or at least what it consists of or looks like—according to Montaigne.
Nature or Nurture: The Path to Virtue
Before one is able to explain the nature of virtue and how (if at all) it may be attained according to Montaigne, one must explore the philosopher’s view of the natural state of man. Throughout his Essays, Montaigne conveys that man has a dual nature. Human beings are at times capable of great feats and noble deeds, and yet are prone to great depravity, cowardice, and weakness:
The virtue assigned to the affairs of the world is a virtue with many bends, angles, and elbows, so as to join and adapt itself to human weakness; mixed and artificial, not straight, clean, constant, or purely innocent… Whoever boasts, in a sick age like this, that he employs a pure and sincere virtue in the service of the world, either does not know what virtue is… instead of portraying virtue, they portray injustice pure and simple, and vice, and present it thus falsified for the education of princes… The most honorable mark of goodness in such a predicament is to acknowledge freely our fault and that of others, to resist and hold back with all our power the inclination toward evil, to go down that slope unwillingly, to hope for the better and desire the better.
A nobleman at heart and by fortune, Montaigne upheld that each human being was endowed with a unique nature with different predispositions, capacities, and propensities toward all things, including specific virtues and vices. As a result, no matter how well an individual suppresses his or her true nature, that nature itself remains unchanged: “Natural inclinations gain assistance and strength from education; but they are scarcely to be changed and overcome. A thousand natures, in my time, have escaped toward virtue or toward vice through the lines of a contrary training… We do not root out these original qualities, we cover them up, we conceal them.” This notion that we must bear the burden of our innate nature contrasts Aristotle’s understanding of human nature as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues that one’s nature (i.e., moral disposition) may be refined (and ultimately reformed) through the process of deliberation and habituation:
The exercise of moral virtue is related to means. Therefore virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act, and where we can refuse we can also comply. So if it is in our power to do a thing when it is right, it will also be in our power not to do it when it is wrong; and if it is in our power not to do it when it is right, it will also be in our power to do it when it is wrong.
For Montaigne, however, virtuous action is akin to the act of outwardly masking one’s internal vice; it is not by the genuine reforming of one’s moral disposition that an individual is able to act in accordance with virtue, thereby refraining from vice. The degree to which an individual seems to act virtuously depends on the docility of the nature with which he has been endowed:
I have sometimes seen my friends call prudence (what Aristotle deems the embodiment of moral virtue) in me what was merely fortune and consider as an advantage of courage and patience what was an advantage of judgment and opinion and attribute to me one title for another… I am so far from having arrived at that first and most excellent degree of excellence where virtue becomes a habit… My virtue is a virtue, or I should say an innocence, that is accidental and fortuitous. If I had been born with a more unruly disposition, I fear it would have gone pitifully with me. For I have not experienced much firmness in my soul to withstand passions, if they are even the least bit vehement… Thus I cannot give myself any great thanks because I find myself free of many vices.
From the aforementioned passage and others like it sprinkled throughout the Essays, it is certain that Montaigne rejected another of Aristotle’s philosophical notions: that happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue only identifiable posthumously by neutral judges. For Montaigne, the individual is the best judge of his own moral disposition, and the adage “know thyself” seems to apply. Because external parties are unable to recognize the state of another individual’s soul, they are incapable of judging and categorizing whether a given action or chain of behavior is indeed virtue or is a docile and non-vicious action in accordance with a meek inner nature.
The Great Struggle of Virtue
In Areopagitica, John Milton famously argued that “cloistered virtue is not virtue at all.” In his Essays, Montaigne presents a modification of Milton’s poignant argument against censorship in the form: Virtue necessarily implies great internal struggle. In simple terms, right action—if it comes to pass naturally—is not actually virtue for Montaigne:
But virtue means something greater and more active than letting oneself, by a happy disposition, be led gently and peacefully in the footsteps of reason. He who through a natural mildness and easygoingness should despise injuries received would do a very fine and praiseworthy thing; but he who, outraged and stung to the quick by an injury, should arm himself with the arms of reason against this furious appetite for vengeance, and after a great conflict should finally master it, would without doubt do much more. The former would do well, and the other virtuously; one action might be called goodness, the other virtue. For virtue presupposes difficulty and contrast, and that it cannot be exercised without opposition. Perhaps this is why we call God good… but we do not call him virtuous: his operations are wholly natural and effortless.
For Montaigne, the virtuous man restrains or represses his natural vices, yet virtue is not a God-like transformation or transcendence of the higher part of the soul over the more base. No matter how virtuous an individual is, he or she never truly sheds all vestiges of fallen human nature. “What good I have in me I have, on the contrary, by the chance of my birth. I have gotten it neither from law, nor from precept, nor from any other apprenticeship. The innocence that is in me is a childish innocence: little vigor and no art.” On the same accord, those who have lost due to old age the vigor or aptitude to take part in certain vices are no more virtuous now than they were before, as virtue deals primarily with the will when one has the potency to act.
Another aspect of Montaigne’s view of virtue and the human condition is the notion that there is no “human nature” that is perfectly homogeneous and common to all. As Montaigne argues extensively in the Essays, there are varying degrees of human nature, and some of us are much more prone to vices such as incontinence, licentiousness, and avarice than others. Humble or otherwise, Montaigne attributes what his peers lauded as virtue as mere innocence and docility of nature. He even went as far to doubt his own agency to resist indecent desires—that is, if he so possessed such desires. He affirms the notion that the individual was the best judge of his or her own character:
Those of us especially who live a private life that is on display only to ourselves must have a pattern established within us by which to test our actions, and, according to this pattern, now pat ourselves on the back, now punish ourselves. I have my own laws and court to judge me, and I address myself to them more than anywhere else. To be sure, I restrain my actions according to others, but I extend them only according to myself. There is no one but yourself who knows whether you are cowardly and cruel, or loyal and devout. Others do not see you, they guess at you by uncertain conjectures; they see not so much your nature as your art. Therefore do not cling to their judgment; cling to your own.
In this passage, Montaigne clearly breaks from Aristotle in two ways: He rejects the notion that an individual’s virtue may be measured by external judges and that moral virtue may be identified by magnanimity, or greatness of soul, as demonstrated by external honors. Instead, virtue for Montaigne is something that is both internal and relative to a specific individual.
An Earthy and Human Virtue
In the Essays, Montaigne eschewed the grandiose notions of virtue as a quasi-divine state echoed first by Plato and later by Aristotle, and instead embraced Stoic and Epicurean notions of virtue as a sort of tranquility of mind and soul that boldly faces the task of living and dying well and with human dignity. Breaking from Platonic notions of the transcendence of the soul, Montaigne invoked Seneca, “Who would not say that it is the essence of folly to do lazily and rebelliously what has to be done, to impel the body one way and the soul another, to be split between the most conflicting motions?” Proceeding further, Montaigne asserts,
Our mind likes to think it has not enough leisure hours to do its own business unless it dissociates itself from the body for the little time that the body really needs it. They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humors frighten me, like lofty and inaccessible places; and nothing is so hard for me to stomach in the life of Socrates as his ecstasies and possessions by his daemon, nothing is so human in Plato as the qualities for which they say he is called divine.
A large part of Montaigne’s unease with Platonism and other transcendental philosophies may stem from Montaigne’s sentiment that human beings consist of both body and soul: two essential elements that form an imperfect whole. And thus, to embrace one while rebuking the other is antithetical to fulfilling the function of a human being, that is, living and dying well.
Thus far, I have attempted to show what virtue is for Montaigne by showing what it is not. It is not an objective yet ethereal or God-like state of being that is attainable by all through habituation and right action, regardless of human frailty and weakness. Montaigne does present a definition of virtue that is both tangible and attainable—albeit in a convoluted manner—in the Essays. Montaigne asserts, as does Christianity, that the first step of the sanctification process, of attaining virtue, is admitting one’s fallen nature and propensity for vice: “The most honorable mark of goodness in such a predicament is to acknowledge freely our fault and that of others, to resist and hold back with all our power the inclination toward evil, to go down that slope unwillingly, to hope for the better and desire the better.” Montaigne takes skepticism toward one’s own nature even further: “I learn to mistrust my gait throughout, and I strive to regulate it. To learn that we have said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing; we must learn that we are nothing but fools, a far broader and more important lesson.” According to Montaigne, man is neither wholly good nor bad, but is instead a mixture of both. In order to achieve virtue, we must humbly acknowledge our true and fallen nature.
Breaking from Christian teaching, Montaigne presents a shockingly candid—albeit well-reasoned—approach to the concept of repentance. Contrary to the established religious doctrines of his time, Montaigne saw no great need for repentance:
I rarely repent and that my conscience is content with itself—not as the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man; always adding this refrain, not perfunctorily but in sincere and complete submission: that I speak as an ignorant inquirer, referring the decision purely and simply to the common and authorized beliefs. I do not teach, I tell.
Repentance is superfluous for Montaigne. He asserts that we judge souls by their mean and settled state, rather than by their ebbs and flows: “As vicious souls are often incited to do good by some extraneous impulse, so are virtuous souls to do evil. Thus we must judge them by their settled state, when they are at home, if ever they are; or at least when they are closest to repose and their natural position.”
Recourse and remediation in action is a better amelioration than merely admitting fault without reforming one’s character. For Montaigne, repentance deals primarily with “sins of sudden passion”:
There are some impetuous, prompt, and sudden sins: let us leave them aside. But as for these other sins so many times repeated, planned, and premeditated… I cannot imagine that they can be implanted so long in one and the same heart, without the reason and conscience of their possessor constantly willing and intending it to be so. And the repentance which he claims comes to him at a certain prescribed moment is a little hard for me to imagine and conceive.
Repentance deals with involuntary and non-voluntary sins of passion rather than premeditated malice. As a result, repentance becomes largely superfluous. The one who must repent either lacks self-control or is not sincere because one’s act of malice was done with a hateful and vindictive spirit.
How to Live Virtuously
Virtue for Montaigne is not a transcendental or esoteric state of being, but is rather something tangible, earthy, and simple. Montaigne’s notion of virtue is imbued with Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, which tend to be materialistic and celebrate the well-ordered enjoyment of human life instead of denouncing the flesh in favor of elevating the soul. Accordingly, living and dying with fullness and unity between body and soul becomes the “greatest task of all” for Montaigne: “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” In clear rejection of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, Montaigne asserts, “The value of the soul consists not in flying high, but in an orderly pace. Its greatness is exercised not in greatness, but in mediocrity. As those who judge and touch us inwardly make little account of the brilliance of our public acts, and see that these are only thin streams and jets of water spurting from a bottom otherwise muddy and thick.” Montaigne calls us to live as human beings, being kind, charitable, and merciful to ourselves, others, and the natural world which is so incredibly beautiful. Montaigne insists that we are human beings, a body and a soul unified. Therefore, pleasures such as food, companionship, conversation, reading, sex, and so on are to be enjoyed temperately and moderately so as to neither deny nor relinquish our humanity:
Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself. It regards as great whatever is adequate, and shows its elevation by liking moderate things better than eminent ones. There is nothing so beautiful as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being. He who wants to detach his soul, let him do it boldly, if he can, when his body is ill, to free it from the contagion; at other times, on the contrary, let the soul assist and favor the body and not refuse to take part in natural pleasures and enjoy them conjugally…. They [pleasure and pain] are two fountains: whoever draws the right amount from the right one at the right time… is very fortunate…. Pain, pleasure, love, hatred, are the first things a child feels; if when reason comes they cling to her, that is virtue.
Montaigne understands virtue as living within the bounds of natural reason and mankind’s dual nature (body and soul). This understanding is quite clearly a departure from the Christian monastic tradition of the Middle Ages (of which Aquinas was a part) that was derived—in large part—from the teachings of the Neo-Platonists. Enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life—both those of the flesh and those of the mind—as an element of virtue has its roots in Stoicism and Epicureanism. If we are to live virtuously, we must carefully listen to the voice of reason and conscience, the two pillars of the natural law, and enjoy a simple and orderly life. “It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully…. The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.”
Virtue for Montaigne is an ideal to which all may aspire, but one that implies great struggle. Virtue entails the conquest over one’s base desires by the application of reason and conscience. Because we are never able to fully shed the vestiges of our innate nature, our task is to order our lives to the best of our ability and to cover our internal vices with external virtuous actions. Yet we must never cease to embrace our dual human nature that consists of both body and soul. As such, pleasures of the flesh like friendship are to be sought “temperately” and within reason. Pain, likewise, is to be avoided in so far as it does not compromise our character. Montaigne’s notion of virtue is influenced by the doctrines of Epicurus, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, and many other brilliant thinkers. As a result, it is a complex and nuanced view of virtue. In short, it is striving for perfection and human order, but realizing that to err is to be human and self-flagellation is folly.
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The featured image is a portrait of Michel de Montaigne (c. 1570s) by an unknown artist and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.