Saturday, January 28, 2006

Montaigne's Legacy

It's Saturday and that means Montaigne! At least until I finish The Cambridge Companion. There is an interesting essay in this book by Warren Boutcher that explains just why Montaigne was (and is) so amazing. It all centers around the word patron which during Montaigne's time had two distinct meanings. One meaning is that of "pattern" or "mould" as in someone you pattern yourself after. The other is patron as in someone who patronizes the arts, but it is more complicated than that. An arts patron in Montaigne's time was very different than in our time. In the Renaissance a patron was believed to actually make art. He (sometimes she) had money and privilege and would use that money and privilege to commission a book or a building or a painting. The patron was seen as the one who gathered all the materials and skilled people together for the creation of art, and in so doing was given the credit for its creation. Patronage was always done for a reason, there was always a design--furthering a reputation, gaining political points, fame, glory. Patrons also wrote books. Their books amounted to telling other people what to write, but they got all the credit. Books during Montaigne's time were either written by patrons or by scholars. In either case, the books were merely accumulations of other people's thoughts. It was a matter of choosing the right pieces of other books to bring together for your own to prove your argument. This gave you and your book authority. And authority was what everyone was looking for because authority could further your reputation, your career, your fortune. Then, along came Montaigne who had no designs of patronage, though he did have designs to be a patron--someone after whom others could model their lives. He declared that the only authority he needed was himself. He freed himself from the tradition of his time by taking up the study of himself. This then gave him the liberty to criticize and judge contemporary society as he saw it. He was original in a time when no one else was and it earned him fame and honor--distinctions upon which he had no designs. He was called the "French Socrates" by the Vatican and, though he was careful in limiting how and about what one could make personal criticisms, he was also seen as the "Luther of secular philosophy." He opened the door not only for a new art form--the personal essay--but also a new way of thinking.