Saturday, September 24, 2005

In Which Montaigne Gives Jean Bodin a Metaphorical Slap in the Face

In his essay "In Defence of Seneca and Plutarch" we find Montaigne getting a bit riled up. Jean Bodin was best know for his books in which he laid out a philosophy of history and it's study. He also wrote a book on witchcraft that was used to justify the murder of thousands. But it is for his books on history that Montaigne here takes exception. Montainge cleverly meanders his way into the attack on Bodin by first starting with a Calvinist pamphlet that has the nerve to compare his beloved Seneca with the Cardinal of Lorraine. He scoffs and declares the Cardinal's fame simply the result of being fortunate to live when he did and whose "ability was [not] anywhere near Seneca's nor... his pure and as inflexible as his." Montaigne's supporting evidence for Seneca is Seneca's own writing where his "virtue is so evidently alive and vigourous." From here he turns to Bodin. First, he lays on the charm: "Jean Bodin is a good contemporary author, endowed with far better judgement than the mob of scribblers of his time: he merits our own considered judgement." Then, he sharpens the knife: "I find him a bit rash in that passage of his Method of History where he accuses Plutarch not only of ignorance (on that he can say what he likes: I do not hunt that game) but also of frequently writing 'things which are incredible and entirely fabulous' (those are his very words)." Plutarch is one of Montaigne's favorite authors and he is not going to let Bodin get away with his rashness. He writes, "to charge him [Plutarch] with having accepted as valid currency things unbelievable and impossible is to accuse the most judicious author in the world of lack of judgement." So Montaigne begins to circle and stalk Bodin. First he takes the example Bodin uses in his accusation of Plutarch, the story of a Spartan boy who allowed a stolen fox cub hidden under his tunic to tear out his stomach rather than be caught out in his theft, and calls it a "badly chosen example." He then goes on in great detail explaining why. What it boils down to is that Bodin did not take into consideration the history of Sparta and "hundreds of harsher and rarer examples." Finally, Montaigne goes in for the kill, "We must not judge what is possible according to what seems credible or incredible to our own minds (as I have said elsewhere). It is nevertheless a major fault into which most people fall--and I do not say that of Bodin--to make difficulties about believing of another anything which they could not or would not do themselves." Ah, but Monsieur Montaigne, you did say that of Bodin ever so slyly and indirectly, for what else were you doing the last three pages? Montaigne follows this with another quibble with Bodin. Apparently Bodin did not think Plutarch dealt fairly with his comparisons between famous Greeks and Romans. But this is a mild and uninteresting dispute that sandwiches the serious accusation. The editor does not note how this essay was received. He does say, however, that it was pretty nervy of Montaigne to challenge Bodin's historical interpretation. In these days of everyone being a critic, what Montaigne did is not so daring. But I am left with a longing for more criticism written with the wit and intelligence of Montaigne's. Next week's Montaigne essay: "The Tale of Spurina"