Category Archives: Shakespeare & his world

Velazquez, The Spinners Museo Nacional del Prado

Velazquez, The Spinners

One story

Minerva, goddess of weavers,
Had heard too much of Arachne.
She had heard
That the weaving of Arachne
Equalled her own, or surpassed it.

Arachne was just a poor girl, but her artistry had brought her fame.

The nymphs came down from the vines on Tmolus
As butterflies to a garden, to flock stunned
Around what flowered out of the warp and the weft
Under her fingers.

They did not merely admire Arachne’s creations but also loved to watch her working. The process moved them as much as the outcome.

A grace like Minerva’s, unearthly,
Moved her hands whether she bundled the fleeces
Or teased out the wool, like cirrus,
Or spun the yarn, or finally
Conjured her images into their places ...

Surely Minerva (a.k.a. Athena) had taught or inspired her. Arachne scoffed at this idea, claiming that she deserved sole credit for her own art. She openly challenged Minerva to a weaving competition. Minerva duly arrived, disguised as an old mortal woman, and lectured Arachne about giving proper credit to the gods. This speech threw Arachne into a rage.

As she spat at her: “Your brain totters
Like your decrepit body.
You have lived too long.
If you possess daughters or granddaughters
Waste your babble on them.
I am not such a fool
To be frightened by an owl-face and a few screeches.
I make up my own mind,
And I think as I always did.
If the goddess dare practise what she preaches
Why doesn’t she take up my challenge?
Why doesn’t she come for a contest?”

Hearing these words, Minerva abandoned her costume and seemed to grow twice as tall. Everyone was terrified except Arachne, who set about weaving. The competitors worked intently, each hardly aware of the other. Minerva wove an illustration of her own authority, depicting herself as the founder of the city of Athens and the just punisher of various mortals. Arachne vividly and sympathetically depicted a series of women raped by male gods–examples of domination rather than authority.

Arachne’s tapestry was perfect. Minerva could find no fault in it, which enraged her. The goddess tore it to shreds and began beating Arachne with her spindle. Unable to stand the pain, Arachne tried to hang herself. “Pity touched Minerva” and she chose to spare Arachne from her rightful fate. Minerva transformed the girl into a spider, working this magic of transformation skillfully, one stage at a time. From then on, Arachne spun and wove perpetually and (I assume) compulsively, “her touches / Deft and swift and light as when they were human.”

Another story

In 1560-62, Titian painted The Rape of Europa, which now hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Like the first scene in the tapestry that Arachne wove to defeat Minerva,

It showed Europa crying from out at sea
stride the bull that had deceived her.
The high god Jupiter, in his bull form,
Carrying her off—
And glistening with effort.
You could see her feet recoiling
From the swipe of the waves through which he heaved.

Titian added plump winged babies and an Adriatic coast in the background. By the 17th century, this work was in the royal collection in Madrid, where Peter Paul Rubens copied it while Diego Velazquez watched him.

Perhaps Velazquez thought: I am better than Titian and I don’t have to copy his works like Rubens does. My genius is my own. Perhaps that thought struck him with irony or even self-mockery, because he knew what he owed to his predecessors.

Velazquez owned translations of Ovid’s text in which the stories of Arachne and Europa were told. Perhaps he sympathized with Arachne, the artist who had sympathetically portrayed Europa. Or perhaps he recognized her arrogance in himself.

The painting

Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) by Velazquez (1655-1660, Museo Nacional del Prado) shows five women in contemporary clothes, plus a cat. They are weaving, spinning, collecting textile fragments, or watching others at these activities. As A.S. Byatt (1999) notes, the painting depicts light playing on many kinds of fabric, including fine filaments that behave like spiderwebs.

Behind these women, and two steps above them, is what first appears to be a single scene populated by noblewomen or mythological figures, including two flying putti and one woman in a resplendent helmet. Closer inspection distinguishes the background, which is a portion of Titian’s Rape of Europa (mainly the sky, with Europa herself hardly visible to the right), from a stage-like area that supports five women in fancy clothes who are boldly illuminated by sunlight from the left.

Like Las Meninas (painted at about the same time and now shown in a neighboring room), this is an enigmatic picture that may have been contrived to support several literal interpretations. One possibility is that the scene on the stage is the story of Arachne, with Athena in the helmet and Arachne standing before her own tapestry, which looks just like Titian’s Rape of Europa. Paintings were sometimes reproduced as tapestries by artisans who had less prestige and were seen as less creative than the original painters. In this case, Velazquez would have pretended to copy an imaginary woven copy of a real painting that he had watched Rubens actually copy in oil. (Today, that copy is displayed in the same room as The Spinners.)

The women in the foreground could just be ordinary workers, shown for contrast. Or they, too, could be figures from the Arachne story. Minerva could be the older lady on the left, shown before she sheds her costume. The steps might separate two episodes from the same story.

The working spinners are arranged in a way that resembles the goddesses and nymphs in Titian’s Diana and Callisto, another painting that Velazquez had watched Rubens copy in Spain (Alpers 2005). One possibility is that Velazquez’ depiction of the spinners is sexually suggestive (Bird 2007), alluding to Titian’s naked nymphs. Or perhaps the main suggestion is that one character is a goddess in disguise.

Evidently, this is a painting about art, coming after the apex of straightforward narrative painting represented by Titian. It is about whether artists are original or derivative–an explicit question in Ovid’s presentation of the Arachne myth. It is about sympathy or empathy for women confronted by unlimited power: male gods who commit rape and a goddess who tortures her victims. It may also be a demonstration of Velazquez’ superiority–as a male court painter–over female artisans. It is about the ability to represent the current physical world, imaginary pasts, and previous representations. It is about the relationship between written stories that unfold in time and three-dimensional space as captured on a flat plane. It is about comparison, assessment, and competition. It is about Velazquez–in a way that would be hard to imagine happening a century earlier.

Selections from Ovid as loosely (but brilliantly) translated by Ted Hughes. Secondary sources: Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others *New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) Wendy Bird, “The Bobbin & The Distaff: Erotic Imagery and the Meaning of Velazquez’s ‘Las Hilanderas’,” Apollo, vol. 166, no. 548, Nov. 2007, pp. 58; A.S. Byatt, “Arachne,” The Threepenny Review, no. 78 (1999): 20–23. See also: Las Meninas and mirrors, was Velazquez left-handed?, Goya’s Familia del infante Don Luis; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); etc.

Hilary Mantel and Walter Benjamin

Both the Mishna (Sanhedrin, 4) and the Quran (5:32) advise that to kill one person is like killing all human beings.* The Mishna says that God created humanity in the form of one original person to remind us of that fact. It means that when Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell’s head chopped off on July 28, 1540, Henry destroyed a whole world.

Hilary Mantel proves this fundamental moral truth by richly imagining the inner life of the Tudor politician in the three volumes of her Wolf Hall trilogy. The main character (almost always called “he,” without a name), progresses through time and interacts with other people like an ordinary fictional protagonist, but often the narration traces his mind as it jumps to the past or envisions possible futures. Much of the trilogy is devoted to daydreams.

Cromwell is an unlikely candidate to be liked–a shrewd and sometimes ruthless political actor, a Protestant fundamentalist (in our terms), and a royalist. He’s also poorly documented. Most people have seen him as the villain or–at best–the cipher who killed Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. His portrait by Hans Holbein makes him seem private and distant. He is literally set further away than Holbein’s other subjects.

I’m guessing that is why Mantel chose him: to exercise her genius for sympathetic imagination. She must invent most of his past and his inner life, presenting a whole subjective world that would otherwise be opaque. We care for Cromwell not because we agree with him or have behaved like him, but because we can see a whole world through his eyes.

Mantel’s imagination is extraordinary, whether she is conjuring ordinary physical things like plums and footstools or spinning stories around the documented facts. Just for example, Elizabeth Seymour is sure she has been chosen to marry Thomas Cromwell. But he has invited her to marry his son. They talk at cross-purposes for a whole conversation until the awkward misunderstanding dawns on both of them. Who but Mantel would have thought to insert that twist?

In his essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin explores a distinction between a story and a novel. A story is succinct, vivid, subject to many interpretations, meant to be remembered in full and retold to others. It is a communal object, recited orally to a group of people who enjoy each other’s company as they listen and speak in turn.

In contrast, a novel is profoundly individual, a silent communication from one author to one reader at a time. It provides so much detail and interpretation that the reader’s creativity is constrained by the author’s intentions; and it’s too long and carefully constructed to be paraphrased, let alone memorized and retold. Although novels have diverse subjects, the classic topic is one person’s inner life as he or she progresses toward a conclusion; and the clearest conclusion is death. Don Quixote is the “first great book of the genre.”

The novel arises once words can be mass produced for private consumption. It is a capitalist object, meant for a market. It also arises when people become truly afraid of death–not just of dying, but of observing and talking about death. “Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one.” But in the bourgeois 19th century, “the general consciousness the thought of death … declined in omnipresence and vividness.” The novel fills a gap by allowing us to imagine the death of an individual who is safely fictional as a way of contemplating our own mortality.

In a story, the hero is admirable beyond realism but hard to imagine from the inside. In a novel, the protagonist is flawed, and the more you read, the more flaws you see. Don Quixote “teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and do not contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom.” Yet we identify with the protagonist because her or his life functions like ours. Any life is a vast array of experiences, memories, and hopes, banal in their totality but unique in their details. A novel consoles us by implying that our life, too, is worthy. Benjamin says:

To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.

A life is coherent because the present person has memories of her or his own past. Each of us has a unique collection of memories, and we are sufficiently attached to it that we are sad to think it will vanish with our deaths. We vainly counter that fate with monuments and memoirs and by boring children with our recollections. But a novel allows us to see someone else’s memories as a permanent object:

“No one,” Pascal once said, “dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.” Surely it is the same with memories too—although these do not always find an heir. The novelist takes charge of this bequest, and seldom without profound melancholy. …

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

Benjamin means to criticize the novel and lament the decline of the story. But his real target is capitalism, and the novel gets caught in the crossfire. Certainly, he understands what an achievement a novel is. And none seems to fit his theory better than Mantel’s trilogy.

Particularly as Cromwell approaches his end, he seems obsessive about cataloging his past, as if he could leave it as a coherent legacy. He thinks:

All your life you tramp the empty road with the wind at your back. You are hungry and your spirit is perturbed as you journey on into the gloom. But when you get to your destination the doorkeeper knows you. A torch goes before you as you cross the court. Inside there is a fire and a flask of wine, there is a candle and beside the candle your book. You pick it up and find your place is marked. You sit down by the fire, open it, and begin your story. You read on, into the night.

This scene of reading is exactly how Benjamin understands the novel, in general. It is a private experience of taking stock of a life to persuade oneself that it has meaning, even though each of us is but one among billions and fated to vanish.

Benjamin would probably emphasize that Thomas Cromwell was an early bourgeois, building a commercial commonwealth at the expense of the aristocracy and the clergy. Mantel describes foreign and court politics more than domestic policy, but the novel probably conveys–and it is plausibly true–that Cromwell revolutionized English society along bourgeois lines. That would make him a perfect choice for the protagonist of a Benjamin-style novel.

Benjamin doesn’t mention that Quixote is about two men, not one. So is the Wolf Hall trilogy. Cromwell tells Henry:

“What would I want with the Emperor, were he the emperor of all the world? Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.”

Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light. He says, “You know, Crumb, I may from time to time reprove you. I may belittle you. I may even speak roughly.”

He bows.

“It is for show,” Henry says. “So they think we are divided.”

As this passage suggests, Cromwell and Henry are mirror and light to each other. We can see their relationship either way, Cromwell reflecting the royal will or Henry shining because of Cromwell’s brilliance. Cromwell can also see himself as a combination of the mirror and the light. “The silver plate, reflecting himself to himself: the mirror and the light of all councillors that are in Christendom.”

As in the original master-slave dialectic, Henry needs Cromwell as much as vice-versa. Both are appealing in their respective ways, mixing needs and interests with a strong sense of responsibility. Each embodies his proper role–much like Archbishop Cranmer, who “does what is in him. It is all any man can do.”

It’s important that the trilogy is historical fiction. Mantel gives us access to an unfamiliar objective world along with an unfamiliar subjectivity. The implication is that a lifeworld can survive for five hundred years after the observer dies; maybe the same can happen to you or me. Yet the result feels fragile and precious, dependent on Cromwell’s survival as a character and Mantel’s art. That fragility charges the novel with suspense even though most readers will have a pretty good sense of how things must end. (Well, it’s how all things must end.)

Mantel has invented a diction to summon the world of her novel: 21st-century English that closely describes 16th-century England, with a dose of free indirect discourse (third-person narration that adopts some of the tone of the character being described). Clear anachronisms are rare and may be mistakes. “Why do we not, as the tennis players say, cut to the chase?” asks Ambassador Chapuys, using a phrase that originated in early Hollywood. Several characters refer wittily to the sentence, “Et in Arcadia ego,” which was coined ca. 1618. And Cromwell’s thought, “Florence made me … London unmade me,” suggests a reference to Purgatorio, V. 133, which only became famous after 1800. If these are flaws, they are tiny, and perhaps it’s best to think of the book as a loose translation of 16th century speech into modern English.

In sum, Mantel seeks to build something that is a terrible shame to end. That is exactly what we should say about any human life: even the life of a renaissance courtier who had many other people’s deaths on his conscience. In this sense, the novel is a moral achievement as well as a creative one.

*I ignore knotty questions about these two texts and how they relate. Most of the online commentary about them is sectarian and uncharitable toward other people’s faiths. Let’s assume that many Jews and many Muslims have read these passages in the way I am suggesting here.

See also: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies; history and fiction in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety; Calvino’s free hyper-indirect discourse; and Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life (with a digression on Benjamin and the importance of death in the novel). My own effort at a Tudor novel is The Anachronist. Finally, Clair Wills offers a much less favorable review in The New York Review. I don’t share her verdict, but she makes significant points.

two degrees of Christopher Marlowe

In The Reckoning (1994), Charles Nicholl carefully investigated the 1593 murder of Christopher Marlowe, arguing that it resulted from a struggle between the rival spy networks of Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux (the 2nd Earl of Essex). It’s a compelling read and a brilliant use of scattered historical records to reveal hidden connections. But The Reckoning predated the current enthusiasm for actually mapping networks and crowd-sourcing the data. Now we have Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, a network map of documented figures from English history, 1500-1700. Using that tool, one can quickly create a map that shows the networks of Christopher Marlowe and Essex, with Raleigh appearing as an intermediary.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 7.57.44 PM

The diagram is by no means complete. For instance, Thomas Kyd is in the database but not linked to his former housemate, Marlowe; and the man who probably stabbed Marlowe, Ingram Frizer, isn’t on the map at all. But that isn’t a criticism, for the organizers ask visitors to add data. How many more stories will come to light as the map grows and historians use it?

(See also the murder of Marlowe and my version of “come with me.”)

“a different Shakespeare from the one I love”

“Kids today don’t appreciate Shakespeare.” That is a tired, perennial complaint. It is not the point that the eminent Shakespearean Stephen Greenblatt makes in “Teaching a Different Shakespeare From the One I Love.” In fact, he admires the way his students approach and use Shakespeare, but he notes two important differences from his own response when he was their age. First, his students are less likely than he was to identify with Shakespeare, to claim his works as part of their inheritance. And second, they are less likely to be moved by the language itself, “touched by the subtle magic of his words.”

Both observations resonate with my own experience. My father was, like Greenblatt, a Jewish-American academic who claimed the English 16th century as his birthright. Dad was perfectly well aware that his ancestors lived in Eastern Europe in Shakespeare’s time and that people like them were banned from–and hated in–England. But if someone had said that Shakespeare wasn’t really my father’s because he belonged to the English (or to gentiles), Dad would have taken those as fighting words. Like Greenblatt, he might have said that the renaissance heritage “was mine as if by birthright, for the simple reason that English was my native tongue. All that I needed to do was to immerse myself in it passionately.” And just as the literature of renaissance England was ours by virtue of our language, so the political heritage of the English revolution (especially its radical wing) was ours because of its influence on the American liberal tradition. In fact, I may have grown up with the shadow of an unspoken idea that Shakespeare and his age belonged most authentically to people like my father, because he had chosen to devote sophisticated critical attention to the texts. Someone with an English name and an English accent who operated an olde tea shoppe in Stratford-on-Avon was, by comparison, an interloper.

Although I recognize huge differences of context and circumstances, I would suggest a rough analogy to the special affection that many African-American Christians feel for the King James’ Version (KJV) of the Bible, which was the other great literary achievement of Shakespeare’s era. As Adelle Banks writes:

The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, an ordained minister and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, said the KJV’s soaring language can uplift listeners, especially those who have been oppressed.

“It’s a loftiness to the language that I believe appealed to people who are constantly being told, ‘You don’t count. You’re nobody. You’re at the bottom rung of the ladder,'” said Sanders, who has written about black Christians’ use of the KJV. “If I can memorize a verse of Scripture, it gives me a certain sense of dignity.” …

“Although I think young black people are using other translations and finding them useful, we’ll always have a sentimental attachment to King James,” said [Rev. Joseph] Lowery, a retired United Methodist minister who marched with the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

I would add that the KJV echoes throughout the great canon of African American writing, including, of course, the works of Dr. King: “Let justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Cf. Amos 5:24.)

Rev. Lowery notes a generational shift when he observes that “young black people are using other translations.” Greenblatt suggests two causes for the similar shift that he observes: a growing tendency to treat authors as alien if they are not demographically similar to the reader, and a shrinking sense of direct, affective awe in response to written poetry.

In assessing these changes, I would avoid polemic. Everyone can decide for herself whether to identify with–and claim–long-dead authors and how to respond to written words. Greenblatt’s students are responding to Shakespeare in creative ways that enrich the culture. I am not saying they are wrong. But I would offer two suggestions:

First, you can claim Shakespeare as yours if you speak English, whether it is a mother tongue or a second language. That is an authentic choice, even if your religion, gender, race, and national origin are very different from his. When presented with the Bard as a model, one political response is to say, “Shakespeare was an old white Christian man from the colonial power, and I am not.” A different political response is: “Shakespeare’s words are mine as much as yours, and if you deny my right to them, I will challenge you.” The latter is no less radical or potentially subversive. Which response to choose is a complex and personal matter, and I don’t object to either. I just want to suggest that the second option is available to anyone. And it may be the path less taken today.

Second, I worry that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear the power and resonances of very fine written language. Culture is increasingly visual and oral, which expands our capacities in some respects but possibly weakens our ability to absorb the special power of the written word.

We are living at a time of incessant communication. By one estimate, more words were recorded in 2002 alone than in all of human history up through 1999. The increase since then has been exponential. Even the older formats are exploding in scale. About half a million new book titles are published every year in English, whereas about 147 books were licensed annually in England in Shakespeare’s day: a 3,400-fold increase. When communications arrive in a ceaseless deluge, it may require crude and explosive language to capture attention.

One source of literary depth and power is allusion. But in order for an allusion to work, the writer and the reader must know the same referents. An excellent reason to study Shakespeare and the KJV is that they have echoed so pervasively through such diverse texts. There are still millions who can hear those echoes, as others can hear Quranic references in classical Arabic or the Shijing reverberating in modern East Asian verse. But when new text is piped around the world by the terabyte, the chances fall that an audience will recognize any given referent. The most widely shared references are from contemporary mass culture, which tends itself to have thin resonances.

I was pretty absorbed and awestruck when I saw live Shakespeare as a child and as a teenager. The words themselves could bedimm the noontide sun and call forth the mutinous winds. I think that response is less likely today, not because the language has evolved so much further from Elizabethan English, nor because there is anything wrong with today’s kids, but because a child is exposed to a much larger quantity of professionally produced, highly emotional drama: constantly streaming videos of all kinds. A play has much more to compete with.

We also live at a time of manic linguistic invention and expansion, when new words and phrases seem to enter the language daily, often duplicating existing choices and overriding traditional grammatical constraints. (Witness the constant turning of nouns into verbs in business English.) Shakespeare’s time offers certain parallels. The volume of public speech and printed communication was expanding rapidly then as well, and English vocabulary was growing. It is often claimed that Shakespeare personally added 1,500 or 2,000 words to English. Those numbers may be exaggerated because older sources have been lost, and scholars search Shakespeare’s works for alleged coinages without always consulting other surviving texts that might use the same words. But there is no doubt that Shakespeare and his contemporaries shared our predilection for inventing words, mixing sources, bending genres, and breaking all putative grammatical rules.

But they had to expand their language. English wasn’t very old, and it needed a much larger store of words, phrases, and tropes to rival Latin. You can often sense a writer of Shakespeare’s day struggling to convey an idea that now seems very straightforward, just because we have more resources. Today we don’t lack words and phrases, but we struggle to hear the resonances of the ones we have. We turn the noun “impact” into a verb without exploring the possibilities of verbs that have histories, like “affect,” “change,” “influence,” “modify,” “transform” (and many more).

I am not committed to linguistic conservatism as a principle; languages change as a result of wonderful human inventiveness. I agree with Greenblatt that multimedia adaptations and mashups of Shakespeare can be fantastic contributions. Yet we can perhaps profit more than usual by slowing down and hearing the depths of our linguistic inheritance.

[See also “signal” (a poem on this theme) and the political advantages of organized religion, in which I note the political power of “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones” and its roots in the KJV.]

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.