In Montaigne: Life without Law (August 2020), originally published in French in 2014 and now translated for the first time into English by Paul Seaton, Pierre Manent provides a careful reading of Montaigne’s three-volume work Essays. Although Montaigne’s writings resist easy analysis, Manent finds in them a subtle unity, and demonstrates the philosophical depth of Montaigne’s reflections and the distinctive, even radical, character of his central ideas.
From “Introduction: The World and the Promise“
If there is a shared diagnosis of the causes of the European malaise, no doubt it is the following: we have lost confidence in our own powers. One could also say: we have made promises that we cannot keep, we know that we cannot keep them, and we have neither the strength nor the courage to renew them or to conceive others. In a profound peace, in complete liberty, in a prosperity that is still enviable, we no longer have the strength to promise anything to ourselves, whereas in terrible disorders, in servitude and misery, our forebears conceived the hopes of science and power, of liberty and happiness, on which we have lived during three or four centuries. What has the promising and enterprising animal become? What has the European become?
This profound change in our relationship to ourselves and to our future causes us to look with astonishment at who we were for so long a time, and it encourages us to consider attentively the one who promised, projected, and undertook. The promise that seemed so clear when it bore us becomes so mysterious when it abandons us! What did the promising animal then resemble? What did he promise, and how? How we would love to see with his eyes and to will with his will! To be sure, answers to such questions come in great number, clothed in majuscules. Our fathers promised themselves “the relief of man’s estate.” They promised that man would become, “as it were, the master and possessor of nature.” They promised us the freedom “to pursue happiness.” These promises, moreover, were not so poorly kept, but that does not tell us what was the source of the promise, what the one who promised such great things saw, and how he readied himself.
To be sure, the promise aimed at something unseen, but it was not simply something conceived by the “imagination.” The one who promised intended to make it real, to “realize” the thing that was imagined, and he was confident in his ability to carry through with this realization. Is that all? No, it is not all, and, in fact, it misses the essential. What we just said only concerns ordinary promises, those that are inscribed within a given order of things and only aim to modify it, to simply draw from it something worthwhile. The promise that interests us, the promise that made us what we are, or still were yesterday, the promise that is coextensive with Europe, is something else as well because it is a promise that aimed to change the very order of human things. Where could such an idea have come from? The imagination of poets has always invented other worlds, but worlds in speech, or in sculpted stone or painted walls. But here it was a matter of really bringing into being a new world, or at least a renewed, or reformed, one. The last word is the best: not to invent elements of the human world that did not exist, but to radically reform, to give a new form to, the constituent elements of the human world, by radically reforming the political order, the religious order, and the order of knowledge. Perhaps one can say in a synthetic way that it was a matter of reforming actions and words and the way in which they were related or were connected to each other. The promise of modern Europe, the promise that astonishes us and that seems to have exhausted its strength, was the promise of a new action and a new word, the promise of a new relationship of word to action and of action to word.
The last formulation, however, causes us to pause, to hesitate. Action and word, these are the two halves, distinct but inseparable, of man’s being. How can one change them without changing the central organ (if I can put it that way) of man’s humanity? If we radically reform that . . . then, adieu to man! This, however, is what we did, without abolishing humanity but by profoundly transforming the human world. Once again, how did we do that?
Man is the speaking animal, and he is the acting animal. One cannot do anything to change that, except by destroying man. What one can change perhaps, what in fact we were able to change, was the relationship between the two. The simplest form of the relationship is distance. One can bring action closer to or move it farther from speech, and the same with speech vis-à-vis action. If, for example, the believer receives the rules of his action from a church that interprets scripture for him, the word that regulates action is doubly removed from the action that it regulates. Between word and action are the church and scripture. As everyone knows, it was by suppressing the mediation of the church that the Reformation brought the action of the Christian closer to the Christian Word.
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