was Montaigne a relativist?

The most interestingly radical form of cultural relativism has three elements, I think:

  1. People’s norms, habits, values, and ways of thinking are pervasively diverse.
  2. The variation is not so much among individuals as among large groups; or (to put it another way) beliefs and values cluster into composites that we call “cultures.”
  3. Since our perceptions and assessments of any culture are shaped by our own, we cannot know or judge objectively.

I do not necessarily share these premises but believe they are essential to the history of thought. Modernism and postmodernism (in all their varieties) are basically responses to these three ideas. I am open to the possibility that cultural relativism was discovered/invented several times in human history–e.g., in India in the 15th century–yet I have long believed that the rise of cultural relativism in Europe around 1800 was epochal; it prompted entirely new ways of thinking that spread with European power around the world.

But what about Montaigne (1533-92)? A case can be made that he was already a thoroughgoing cultural relativist during the Renaissance. Unlike the later figure of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), who has also been called a relativist, Montaigne was hardly obscure in his own time. He had a profound and direct influence on thinkers as important as Shakespeare, Bacon, Pascal, and Descartes. Thus I can see three possible theses:

  1. Montaigne was a cultural relativist, and these other figures understood that. They were exposed to cultural relativism far before the modern era and either endorsed it privately or deliberately rejected it–but in either case, it was in their worldview.
  2. The major thinkers whom Montaigne influenced did not understand the idea of cultural relativism. They read the relevant passages in his Essais without seeing their radical implications, as we do.
  3. Montaigne did not conceive of cultural relativism. Neither he nor his early readers understood his writing as relativistic, in the modern sense. Nor should we.

Key passages to consider come from the essays “On Habit” and “On the Cannibals” (translated here by M. A. Screech). In “On Habit,” Montaigne first catalogs many of the bizarre ways in which behaviors and norms vary across history and geography. He lists nations where sons are supposed to beat their fathers, where people grow hair only on the left sides of their bodies, where women are the only warriors, where it is honorable to have as many lovers as possible, and where, over 700 years, no woman ever had sex outside of wedlock because it was unthinkable.

Apparently, Montaigne believes the first premise of cultural relativism that I summarized above–that manners are “infinite in matter and infinite in diversity”:

To sum up, then, the impression I have is that there is nothing that custom may not do and cannot do. … The laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom; since many inwardly venerates the opinions of the manners approved and received about him, he cannot without remorse free himself from them nor apply himself to them without self-approbation.

Further, Montaigne seems to endorse the second principle of cultural relativism, that beliefs and values come together in whole structures that we might (today) call “cultures”:

It is greatly to be doubted whether any obvious good can come from changing any traditional law, whatever it may be, compared with the evil of changing it; for a polity is like a building made of diverse pieces interlocked together, joined in such a way that it is impossible to move one without the whole structure feeling it [emphasis added].

But I am not so sure that Montaigne believes the third premise of true relativism: that our understanding and assessment of cultures are determined by our own cultures. I think he rather argues that proper understanding and evaluation are more difficult than we assume because we are biased in favor of the familiar.

…. But the principal activity of custom is so to seize us and grip us in her claws that it is hardly in our power to struggle free and come back into ourselves, and reason and argue about her ordinances [emphasis added.]

“Hardly in our power” does not mean impossible or undesirable; on the contrary, our main duty is to “struggle free” from custom so that we can “reason and argue” better.

For instance, when Montaigne was disgusted by a French nobleman who blew his nose with his bare hands, he forgot to ask whether that might not actually be a good idea. “I considered that what he said [in his own defense] was not totally unreasonable, but habit had prevented me from noticing just that strangeness [about our own habits, such a blowing our noses into cloths] which we find hideous in similar customs in another country.”

In “On the cannibals” the main point is that we recoil at eating human flesh because it is not our custom, but we ignore the closer-to-hand horrors of torturing people on account of their religious faith. If we paid more attention to the strangeness and indefensibility of our own nation’s norms, we would discover the greatest (and most objective or universal) virtues, which include gentleness and tolerance. As Montaigne writes in “On Habit”:

The Barbarians are in no wise more of a wonder to us than we are to them, nor with better reason–as anyone would admit if, after running through examples from the New World, he concentrated on his own and then with good sense compared them. Human reason is a dye spread more or less equally through all the opinions and all the manners of us humans, which are infinite in matter and infinite in diversity [emphasis added].

Thus Montaigne is not skeptical about our duty–or our ultimate ability–to understand and judge the diverse ideals of human beings. He just thinks that this is harder than we assume. He is trying to shake our naivety in order to improve our reasoning, much like the Hellenistic philosophers when they taught paradoxes of logic and perception in order to strengthen our intellectual discipline and dissuade us from arrogance.

If this is not only what Montaigne meant, but also how his first readers understood him, then they did not derive cultural relativism from his texts. Instead, they drew conclusions reminiscent of Epicurean philosophy: it is hard to know what is right, foolish to set oneself above other people, and wise to focus on the inner life.

One more problem arises. If we detach ourselves as much as possible from our own local customs in order to attain objectivity, won’t we become critical of “traditional law” and then damage society by striving to undermine its norms? The solution to that problem is to live a contemplative and not an active life, to withdraw to one’s chateau and write introspective essais instead of trying to influence the world. For …

it is his soul that the wise man should withdraw from the crowd, maintaining its power and freedom to freely to make judgements, whilst externally accepting all received forms and fashions.

I conclude that Montaigne was not quite a relativist, nor was anyone for another century after him. Because he shunned politics, he was not the most helpful guide to the design of societies; but he was an excellent theorist of moderation, modesty, and introspection.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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