The Birth of the Essay: Reading Montaigne and Descartes
Andrea Di Carlo | University College Cork
In France, in the sixteenth century, a new philosophical and literary genre emerged as a novel literary outlet, the essay. The word ‘essay’ comes from the French ‘essai’, which means ‘attempt’ or ‘try-out’. The essay is the attempt to redefine knowledge. The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is credited with the creation of the essay. The sixteenth century had been shaken by epoch-making events like the discovery of America, the Reformation and the French Wars of Religion; as a result, Montaigne needed to spell out what he believed in. He could only do this through the essay, a genre which leaves authors ample leeway to explore new ideas.
Montaigne’s Essays went through three editions, the first appearing in 1580. This is because Montaigne’s ideas were always fleeting and volatile. Montaigne claimed that his essays were like ‘chimeras’, creations of his mind which, as such, would always change. Montaigne affirmed that the Essays were ‘consubstantial with its author’, meaning that Michel de Montaigne was the topic of his book. By writing essays, i.e. by attempting to define himself in few pages, he had feedback from himself. What he knew was what was contained in the book and it changed frequently because his ideas were always changing. The essay was a humble work. Its author knew that he did not know anything; thus, the only thing he could do was to get continuous feedback from himself by recording what he believed. In his Essays, Montaigne discussed topics from multiple perspective and drew a conclusion at the end. This strategy was employed by Montaigne as well in his editions of the Essays. Essays was Montaigne’s attempt to clarify his ideas. Montaigne did not feel that he could to commit to any final value judgement. He did, however, acknowledge the fallible nature of human knowledge and the equal worth of different ideas. This raises questions as to how twenty-first century forums for discourse, namely the major social media platforms, are indicative of their early-modern predecessors.
If sixteenth-century France consigned us Montaigne, another Frenchman René Descartes stood out as one of the most important intellectuals of seventeenth-century Europe. Both thinkers lived at a time of socio-political disharmony and both criticised established knowledge in order to develop new ideas. Descartes was to break ground in the way scientific research was conducted, and he did so in his essay Discourse on Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in Science (1637). In it, Descartes argued that in order to make ‘far greater progress in science’ observation and testing were necessary. Descartes (like Montaigne) invoked humbleness. Whilst it was desirable to advance the cause of science, this should not be done with ‘bias’. This is the reason why Descartes championed diligence: a novel system of knowledge should be systematically weighed and carefully considered. As well as confronting the challenges, Descartes also tried to sketch a new moral framework.
Descartes had been one of the many witnesses of the war between the influential Huguenot (Calvinist) minority and the Roman Catholic Church. Albeit a Roman Catholic himself, he needed a new place to pursue his studies and thus moved to Netherlands, which had harboured the large majority of run-away European scholars since the sixteenth century. Far away from religious strife, he sketched a temporary framework for morality. Consequently, Descartes rejected sweeping changes, but recommended abiding by ‘the laws and customs’ and the ‘faith’ of one’s country. Like science, even morality needed a new ‘road’, but it had to be carefully designed. Discourse on Method was Descartes’s essay in which he proposed a strategy as to how one can direct one’s scientific analyses at a time of change. He was not asserting that his method is unquestionable and perfect but quite the contrary. He was offering a new way to study science by asking his readership to co-operate with him. As for morality, Descartes intended to design a moral model, but this needed more time than he was afforded. Descartes committed himself to a temporary prototype, which demanded adherence to the customs and religion of one’s country.
Montaigne created a new philosophical genre to study himself at a time of great change, the essay. An essay is an attempt; it is a way to discuss ideas which can be subject to ongoing evolution. Montaigne’s Essays should be considered a sketch of an autobiography, because his surroundings could always change.
René Descartes tried to rebuild the developing basis of scientific investigation. Living against the backdrop of seismic intellectual change meant that a clearer and more systematic idea of what kind of scientific undertaking was necessary; hence, his Discourse on Method. It is in his Discourse that Descartes drew his road map to aspire to a certain degree of certainty in scientific discoveries. First and foremost, intellectuals ought not to take anything at face value: a careful and systematic analysis is required. Descartes’s principles demand one defines their objectives and provides the necessary evidence; no longer can one rely on dogmas or pre-established ideas; now one need testing and validation. In the same way science was being reformed, Descartes wanted to design a new approach to morality. It could not be done hastily, but it needed more time. Therefore, Descartes did not commit to significant changes, but he recommended abiding by the status quo. With the pandemic being the new normal, Montaigne and Descartes will make necessary and thought-provoking reading.
Descartes, René, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637).
Montaigne, The Essays (1580) (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm).
Moriarty, Micheal and Jennings, Jeremy, eds., The Cambridge History of French Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Andrea DiCarlo is a third-year PhD candidate in early-modern political philosophy and history of philosophy at University College Cork. DiCarlo's research interests lie in early-modern philosophy and literature (Machiavelli, Montaigne, Descartes and Thomas Browne), continental philosophy (Fassin and Foucault) and early-modern history (the Reformation).