Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Demystification of Authority in Michel de Montaigne’s Essays

Dimitra Koutla

Peter Paul Rubens, <em>The Fall of Phaeton</em> (1604-5), Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art

Peter Paul Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton. 1604/5. Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art

[1] Michel de Montaigne’s Essays are not an apology or a vindication of a particular theory or state order. Montaigne was a member of a wealthy French merchant family, whose title and land were actually bought, not inherited and he was always careful to maintain a distance from his king, drawing a line between allegiance and blind obedience. The Essays were written between 1571, when Montaigne retired from his position in the Parlement of Bordeaux which he had held for thirteen years, and 1592, the time of his death. The style is informal, Montaigne’s prose is smooth and personal, but the value of this great work goes far beyond that of a journal. Indeed, scattered throughout the Essays, often concealed behind Montaigne’s ironic style, is an innovative political theory.

[2] As I will argue, the heart of Montaigne’s political philosophy lies in one of the most striking statements in the Essays regarding authority, which was conventionally accepted as the divinely ordained royal power; but not by Montaigne: “laws remain in credit not because they are just, but because they are laws. That is the mystic foundation of their authority; they have no other” (‘Of Experience’, 821). [1] This “radical relativism”, as Jonathan Dollimore argues, infuses Montaigne’s theory not only of law, but of the nature of nobility as well (Dollimore 1989: 15).

[3] Let us begin by examining what Montaigne writes about the virtue of nobility. The most striking feature of his theory is, in my opinion, his separation of essence and external appearances. To put it in other words, Montaigne shows an insightful awareness of what a poststructuralist would term the constructedness and contingency of nobility. Indeed, Montaigne stresses that all external markers of royalty are “only coats of paint, which make no essential difference […] so the emperor whose pomp dazzles you in public […] see him behind the curtain, he is nothing but an ordinary man, and perhaps viler than the least of his subjects” (‘Of the Inequality that is Between Us’, 191). Furthermore, Montaigne claims that nobility is not synonymous with virtue, that nobility cannot alter the depraved nature of a man, and further argues that if a king “is ill-born, the empire of the universe could not dress him up” (‘Of the Inequality’, 192). [2]

[4] But what is it that makes people fail to see that “a peasant and a king, a nobleman and a plebeian […] they are different, so to speak, only in their breeches?” (‘Of the Inequality’, 191). Montaigne has elsewhere written that “habit stupefies the senses” and it “puts to sleep the eye of our judgment” (‘Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law’, 78). If this statement seems familiar, and out of place in the mouth of a sixteenth-century man, it is because it is eerily close to modern conceptions of the function of ideology. [3] In fact, Dollimore observes that Montaigne, among other writers of the period, seems to be “aware of what approximates to the notion of false-consciousness- that is, the powerful internalization of false belief which keeps individuals in ‘awe’ and unaware of the contradictions in their lives” (Dollimore 1989: 16). That is quite true of Montaigne, as his understanding of the function of ideology is remarkable: “the laws of conscience, which we say are born of nature, are born of custom. Each man, holding in inward veneration the opinions and the behaviour approved and accepted around him, cannot break loose from them without remorse, or apply himself to them without self-satisfaction” (‘Of Custom’, 83).

[5] The solution Montaigne proposes is rather implied, than explicitly stated. In order to demonstrate the essential equality among people, we should remove the external markers of nobility. In the essay “On sumptuary laws” Montaigne innocently argues that “the way in which our laws try to regulate vain and insane expenditures for the table and for clothes seems to be opposed to their purpose […] Let kings boldly abandon these marks of greatness; they have enough others; such excesses are more excusable in any other than a prince” (‘On Sumptuary Laws’, 196). But Montaigne’s main concern is not to stifle the desire of his fellow countrymen for expensive clothes and jewels, but to remove those superficial features that act as markers of royalty, and induce the awe of the lower classes and conceal the essential equality of all people. That is precisely the crux of his argument, as David Lewis Schaefer illustrates: “by recommending that kings avoid these distinguishing expenditures, Montaigne seems to aim at making their natural equality to their subjects more visible to all” (Schaefer 1981: 65).

[6] Having disputed the authority and intrinsic virtue of kings, Montaigne delivers the final blow by exposing the legal institutions as a faulty façade that attempts to conceal the total absence of the virtue of justice. Additionally, Montaigne points to the devastating effects of having an abundance of laws:

Who has seen children trying to divide a mass of quicksilver into a certain number of parts? The more they press it and knead it and try to constrain it to their will, the more they provoke the independence of the spirited metal […] this is the same; for by subdividing these subtleties they teach men to increase their doubts […] it is evident from experience that so many interpretations disperse the truth and shatter it (‘Of Experience’, 817).

As Dollimore explains: “[d]iversity for Montaigne simply refutes the belief ‘that there be some [laws] firme, perpetuall and immovable, which they call naturall, and by the condition of their proper essence, are imprinted in mankind’; it does this because there is not one of these so-called laws which is not ‘impugned or disallowed, not by one nation, but by many’” (Dollimore 1989: 15-16).

[7] Moreover, Montaigne argues that the virtue of justice is very far from its manifestations in the courts of law. Where his contemporaries abided by the Aristotelian criterion of evident goodness and accepted as just what was practiced by the state order, Montaigne is more skeptical: “there is nothing just in itself, [that] laws and customs shape justice” (‘Of Experience’, 821). Laws for Montaigne have no authority other than that which they make for themselves; laws are not a manifestation of God’s wisdom, or even the decrees of wise, learned men: “They are often made by fools, more often by people who, in their hatred of equality, are wanting in equity; but always by men, vain and irresolute authors. There is nothing so grossly and widely and ordinarily faulty as the laws” (‘Of Experience’, 821).

[8] Paradoxically, due to their faulty nature, Montaigne claims that laws can encourage lawlessness: “[t]heir commands are so confused and inconsistent that are some excuse for both disobedience and faulty interpretation, administration and observance” (‘Of Experience’, 821). Even the virtue of justice is not an objectively held ideal, but it becomes distorted when it is enmeshed in the corrupt legal institutions: “[j]ustice in itself, natural and universal, is regulated otherwise and more nobly than that other, special, national justice, constrained to the need of our governments. We have no solid and exact image of true law and genuine justice; we use the shadow and reflections of it [Cicero]” (‘Of the useful and the honorable’, 602). [4] Therefore, laws are more often than not unjust and even nonsensical, and kings are ordinary men, elevated only by convention. So, what does Montaigne suggest should be done to improve those gross injustices he observes in the world around him?

[9] Surprisingly, Montaigne expresses an extreme fear of change and innovation. “[i]t is very doubtful whether there can be such evident profit in changing an accepted law, of whatever sort it may be, as there is harm in disturbing it […] I am disgusted with innovation, in whatever guise, and with reason, for I have seen very harmful effects of it” (‘Of Custom’, 86). This attitude cannot be attributed to a potential conservatism of Montaigne’s theory; there must be a more convincing explanation. Dollimore likewise observes this disparity between Montaigne’s theory which “undermine[s] the ideological basis of law” and his constant warning against change (Dollimore 1989: 22). The direction that Dollimore points to is very illuminating; as he argues, “Montaigne’s warning against change may itself testify to the radical implications of his writing, implications which he may have been unwilling to allow politically but which others were not. We need to recognize then how a writer can be intellectually radical without necessarily being politically so” (Dollimore,1989: 22).

[10] So what is the context of Montaigne’s Essays? France in the sixteenth century was torn apart by wars of religion, between Catholics and the Huguenots, a strife that soon took the form of a civil war, as political differences combined with the bitter religious enmities. As Ulrich Langer explains: “the violent conflicts of the second half of the sixteenth century were motivated primarily by the differences in religious faith, but the military aspect of the conflict was often more complicated, as clientele arrangements and ‘friendships’ between noble families traversed confessional differences” (Langer, 2005, 11). Indeed, the cause of Montaigne’s pessimism in the prospect of change is not philosophical, but pragmatic. And his insistence on the adherence to the existing laws, however faulty or unjust these may be, is quite prominent in his theory: “[t]he Christian religion has all the marks of the utmost justice and utility, but none more apparent than the precise recommendation of obedience to the magistrate and maintenance of the government” (‘Of Custom’, 87-8).  Langer adds another dimension to Montaigne’s philosophical skepticism by stating that his “ ‘conservatism’ is also produced by the necessity of surviving in a dangerous period of conflict and of making choices among the options of which each was more unpleasant than the others” (Langer 2005: 22). To put it in simpler terms, Montaigne’s fear of change was not merely a philosophical inclination towards skepticism; more importantly, it was a matter of survival.

[11] In conclusion, Montaigne’s position in relation to authority is rather problematic. While he was a member of the Parlement of Bordeaux for 13 years, and also served as advisor to  King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre, his loyalty was limited only to himself. He refused to compromise his honour and his sense of justice for any grand cause, a point he mentions constantly in his Essays. For Montaigne, law was the corrupt product of vain and ignorant men, but obedience was nevertheless necessary. It is perhaps this ambivalence that led to his expression of such an innovative political theory, which sadly could not be applied to the turbulent milieu of sixteenth-century Europe, a dangerous era for unconventional thinkers.

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, April 2015


Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

de Montaigne, Michel.  The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne, trans by Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957).

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (New York: Harvester, 1989).

Langer, Ullrich. ‘Montaigne’s Political and Religious Context’, The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne, ed. By Ullrich Langer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 9-26.

Schaefer, David Lewis. ‘Of Cannibals and Kings: Montaigne’s Egalitarianism’, The Review of Politics 43.1 (1981), 43-74.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V, ed. by T.W. Craik (London: Routledge, 1995).


[1] All quotations of Montaigne’s essays are from de Montaigne, 1957. Future references are to individual essay titles within the collection, indicated by essay title and page.

[2] The influence of Montaigne in Early Modern England is out of this short essay’s scope, but one striking passage from William Shakespeare’s Henry V is worth mentioning. Here, we can observe how the King himself feels trapped and oppressed by the very markers of his royal authority, which he perceives as a deceitful façade that masks his human essence. To further emphasise this point, the speech is delivered while Henry is in disguise among his troops, the night before the battle at Agincourt:

                                                      O hard condition,
Twin born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more,
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents, what are they comings-in?
What is thy soul, O adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men,
Wherein art thou less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing?                                       (4.1.230-246)

[3] The term ‘ideology’ is here employed in the Althusserian sense. As explained in his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, ideology can be defined in two ways. Negatively, as the representation of “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” . And positively, as a set of “material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus”  (Althusser 1971: 162-169).

[4] Italics in original.

About the author

Dimitra Koutla is a doctoral student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. The topic of her thesis is a post-structuralist analysis of Early Modern English colonialist discourses, with an emphasis on ideologies of space (philosophy, literature and cartography). Her academic interests include Early Modern philosophy, Early Modern English colonialism, Early Modern English literature (in particular instances that can be analysed from a post-colonial perspective and the pastoral), theories of identity, the creation of nation-states in Europe, Marxism, Post-structuralism, Cultural Materialism, political geography and historiography.

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