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What happened to Civility: The promise and failure of Montaigne’s modern project by Ann Hartle

02 December 2022

Nick Spencer finds this revisiting of the Essays of Montaigne timely

OF ALL Renaissance men — and most of them were men — who can lay claim to being the first truly modern person, Michel de Montaigne, the hero of Ann Hartle’s short book on civility, has the best case. Born in 1533, Montaigne was a Catholic, a statesman, and most famously a philosopher who retired from public life to compose his Essays.

Literally meaning “trial” or “attempt”, these are (usually) short, discursive, readable, sometimes whimsical, often profound personal intellectual excursions. They travel over a wide range of subjects and sources, but leave the reader with the sense that their real topic is the author himself. “The mind’s principle and most laborious study is studying itself,” Montaigne wrote.

That self — itself a novel topic for philosophical scrutiny — was self-reflective, inquisitive, detached, sceptical. Montaigne was a sincere Catholic but, unusually, trusted by both sides in France’s bitter wars of religion. He was distrustful of authority, capable of viewing traditions from without, and placed a great deal of emphasis on authenticity: “the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

He also placed a premium on civility, not simply as a question of polite manners (though that was part of it), but a sphere of common life which was above politics and in which people, even of violently different views, could engage with one another with respect and consideration. “It is always a tyrannical ill humour to be unable to endure a way of thinking different from your own,” he writes in one essay. Civility enables, and is in turn enabled by, civil society: that space of free association which is not captured by the State.

Hartle, an American academic, is worried that there is too much “tyrannical ill humour” today, especially on US campuses. Students and academics are increasingly unable to endure different ways of thinking, finding in difference not fresh and possibly enriching new perspectives, but hostile disrespect and even hatred. Everything has become political, thereby choking off the space for civility and civil society. In effect, that which Montaigne tried to rise above is threatening, centuries later, to overcome his very “modern project”.

Montaigne, a bit like his fellow countryman Alexis de Tocqueville, has, I think, an infectious sanity. Looking at the world through his eyes helps you to see clearer and further. Accordingly, Hartle’s use of Montaigne’s Essays to analyse our present uncivil conflicts is innovative and helpful. The chapters on the Essays themselves are better than those on our contemporary problems, which are more obviously US-focused (though far from irrelevant here). Moreover, the link between Montaigne’s world, which is well-drawn, and ours could have been made slightly more clearly. Nevertheless, the book is a good contribution to a troubling debate, and one with which Montaigne himself would have been pleased.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and the host of the
Reading our Times podcast.


What happened to Civility: The promise and failure of Montaigne’s modern project
Ann Hartle
University of Notre Dame Press £25.99
Church Times Bookshop £23.39

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