The Necessity of Judgment

In First Things Dalrymple reviews Montaigne: A Life by Phillipe Desan, which he finds useful and “the product of immense and admirable erudition” but inelegantly written and incorrectly portrays the man as more a product of his times than as representative of universal truth:

When the author says, however, that “we have to demystify the conventional image of the essayist isolated in his tower, far from the agitations of his time, playing with his cat and inquiring into the human condition,” I think he sets up a false dichotomy between the particular and the universal. No human being lives in a world of complete abstraction (or abstractions), as if free from all circumstance whatever. To say that a man is affected by his surroundings and the times in which he lives is to say nothing more than that he is a man—for a man without any particular circumstances could not exist and is literally unimaginable (this is one of the reasons why heaven is so difficult to imagine and hell so easy, because the latter at least has events). But not every man who takes part in public events and writes about them is read more than four hundred years after his death, even by people who have no special interest in the times in which he lived or in events that he witnessed. For every thousand readers of Montaigne, there is only one person who makes the French wars of religion his special subject. Montaigne is not principally of antiquarian interest, though he may be that as well.

H/t Bill L.

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