Philippe Desan

Montaigne The Self, the Other and Time Publication date : November 23, 2022

Philippe Desan is Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He specialises in the history of Renaissance ideology, and more specifically Montaigne. He is the author of Montaigne. Une biographie politique (Odile Jacob, 2014) and Montaigne : penser le social (Odile Jacob, 2018).

With Montaigne, the advent of modernity introduces the figure of the introspective subject, which is also the basis for a permanent critical process: the interpretation of oneself and the world as a way of living.
In this new book, Philippe Desan presents Montaigne as a renowned thinker of the self and also as a critic of his times. The author highlights sociality and sociability aspect of his work because Montaigne was a statesman.
Montaigne’s Essays, a paradoxical text that is both in accordance the society of his time and at odds with certain imposed practices, reflects the author’s desire to belong (conform to the rules of society) and to stand out (express his individual self). Unable to influence the politics and society of his time, he ended up accepting the political, social and religious status quo. But his book enabled him to dominate it. Through the introspective quality of essays, he could judge and therefore command it. He soon understood that the world is the object of our own interpretation, which passes through our individual consciousness – the world is constantly reconstructed from this experience. Essays are thus a space of freedom to construct the modern world.
Desan looks at Montaigne’s work from several perspectives: firstly, based on a definition of essays, as a transgressive and exhibitionist form. He also questions the nature of “ordinary knowledge” at the end of the Renaissance. Observing animal sociality and the New World “cannibals” led Montaigne to think about his own social practices and to explore, in counterpoint, the bestiality and barbaric nature of this era torn apart by civil and religious wars. But was Montaigne, who declared that nobody would remember the events that marked the second half of the 16th century one hundred years later, really a historian of his time? Time in Montaigne is sometimes situated outside history, perhaps because he was hoping to find posterity through his work. The book also points to the importance of health and illness in his life and work. And his metaphors for a corrupt, contaminated, contagious and degenerative society and state inevitably lead to politics. Which is why Montaigne is still relevant today.
In conclusion, this book opens up a dialogue between Montaigne, Velasquez and Foucault and helps readers understand Montaigne’s modernity as a possible epistemological break between the 16th and 17th centuries.