Today's installment of Who's Who in the Medical Humanities surveys Michel de Montaigne. If there is a patron saint for this blog, it is no unquestionably Montaigne. He is so brilliant, so incisive, so daring and yet so cautious, all at the same time. The University of Chicago publishes a journal entirely dedicated to his work, entitled Montaigne Studies.
As always, the goal here in the Who's Who series is to introduce the scholar, give the briefest and thinnest sketch of his/her life, and then to attempt to explain the relevance to modern-day medical humanities. Biographical details are generally obtained from the fine Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry ("SEP"), and a short bibliography follows this post.
Montaigne was born into wealth in France in the Perigord, part of the Dordogne River Valley, near Bordeaux. He was educated in the humanist tradition, though his father eschewed the typical pedagogy of learning Latin in formal schooling, and instead required Montaigne to speak Latin in the home. His father procured an office for him in the Court of Periguex, and during this time he made the acquaintance of his most intimate friend, Etienne de La Boetie, whose subsequent death would affect Montaigne deeply.
Montaigne suffered from kidney stones, and, according to the SEP, it was on a trip to several hot springs in Italy (seeking relief from his pain) that he learned he had been elected as Mayor of Bordeaux. He was re-elected, but came under criticism for "having abandoned the town during the great plague in an attempt to protect himself and his family." Ibid.
Montaigne completed two editions of his principal work, Essays, with the third being supervised by his adopted daughter in 1595. Montaigne is generally credited with having invented the modern essay. If you have not taken the time to read any of the Essays, I highly recommend doing so. While I would not suggest they are easy to read, they are incredibly thoughtful, incisive, and engaging, with wit and wisdom aplenty. When I am looking for a quote or an epigraph for a paper, my first stop is usually with Montaigne's Essays. If he had nothing to say on the matter, or, if, as is much more likely, I cannot find what he did have to say on the matter, then I widen my search.
Though there are literally dozens if not hundreds of possible ways of assessing Montaigne's contributions to the medical humanities, I will offer two here.
The first is that Montaigne was a humanist in the proper sense of the term, that is, one who relied (at least in part) on the wisdom of antiquity to sketch out perspectives on issues that arise out of people's lived experiences. It is unlikely that Montaigne would have considered himself an academic or a scholar; he was highly suspicious of what he referred to as "pedantism," and rejected the view of philosophy as a purely theoretical science. SEP.
In the tradition of the early humanists, Montaigne disdained the theoretical speculations of the high Scholastics. His was a mind focused on actual practices. The SEP notes:
Instead of focusing on the ways and means of making the teaching of Latin more effective, as pedagogues usually did, Montaigne stresses the need for action and playful activities . . . The use of judgment in every circumstance, as a warrant for freedom and practical intelligence has to remain at the core of education.
Montaigne, then, was an exemplar of some of the core elements of the studia humanitatis: a focus on the wisdom of antiquity (in Latin), a disdain for empty theorizing, and a strong preference for the use of classical thought in the service of virtue, of improving human practices and experience. To the extent any aspects of this project has import for the modern medical humanist (and one of the implicit objectives of this blog is to argue that such a project is highly significant to analysis of medical practices), Montaigne is both singular and indispensable.
The second sense, related to the first, is sketched most fully in Stephen Toulmin's excellent book, Cosmopolis. Montaigne was highly distrustful of grand claims to certainty and objectivity. He was in fact, a skeptic (taking as his inspiration the skepticism mainly of Sextus Empiricus and the Pyrrhonians), but Montaigne's skepcticism is intricate and highly resistant to modern typologies. Insofar as Montaigne was interested in mediating classical sources through contemporaneous social practices, experiences, and concerns, it should be altogether unsurprising that Montaigne was suspicious of grand claims to certainty and objectivity. He relied heavily on the notion of doubt well before Descartes transformed doubt into method. He was suspicious of principles or rules, preferring much more the exercise of natural judgment that he saw as crucial to the knowledge-building process.
Toulmin sketches further how Montaigne's focus on the particular and the local was transformed, less than a century later, by Descartes, Galileo, and Bacon, into a concern over the universal and the timeless, concepts that Montaigne would almost certainly have been -- ha ha -- deeply skeptical of. I have taken a particular interest in objectivity since my undergraduate days (my senior thesis explored issues of causation and objectivity in philosophy of science), and I submit that for all the considerable good conceptions of Cartesian and post-Cartesian (scientific) objectivity have done, they have also caused much mischief. Indeed, Toulmin's book is largely an account of that mischief, and the sources of the rising belief in certainty, universality, and objectivity.
It is not my project here, of course, to survey the imposing literature on the nature and extent of that mischief, but a great many thinkers and theorists, across many different disciplines and modes of inquiry have done so. What is my project is to suggest that Montaigne is one of the most important Western paragons of a mode of knowledge and inquiry that begins by eschewing reliance on universal, objective, certainly knowable facts about the world in favor of judgment arising out of social practices. The SEP puts it nicely:
Judgment has to determine the most convincing position, or at least to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each position. The simple dismissal of truth would be too dogmatic a position; but if absolute truth is lacking, we still have the possibility to balance opinions. We have resources enough to evaluate the various authorities that we have to deal with in ordinary life.
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Montaigne's apparent cultural relativism. He was one of the earliest critics of the attitudes and practices towards the indigenous peoples of the New World, questioning whether the customs of cannibals in the New World were really more barbaric than some of the atrocities persons of different religions inflicted on each other during Montaigne's lifetime. The link between Montaigne's refusal to excoriate the customs of different peoples and his emphasis on actual practices ought to be apparent: "Neither the Hellenstic Sage, nor the Christian Saint, nor the Renaissance Scholar, are unquestioned models in the Essays. Instead, Montaigne is considering real men, who are the product of customs." Ibid.
Humanist, skeptic, essayist, rhetor, relativist, pluralist, in these roles and in so many others, Montaigne was both a product of his time (as Toulmin makes clear) and centuries ahead of it. For the modern-day medical humanist, I contend that Montaigne is literally an indispensable source. Ad fontes!