"C'est un philosophe qui nous apprend la vertu." Studies in Montaigne's Plutarch
Welch, Cara, Department of French, University of Virginia
McKinley, Mary, Department of French, University of Virginia
This dissertation explores the way Montaigne reads Plutarch's Vies des hommes illustres and Oeuvres morales et meslees, and how he borrows from them in writing his Essais. Thanks to Jacques Amyot's translations (1559 and 1572), the Greek historian and moral philosopher's works were familiar to many readers of different social and intellectual backgrounds. I show that Montaigne, who wrote the Essais largely in response to the French civil wars, appropriates certain Plutarchan ideas to elaborate an alternative ethos, one that forms the basis of Montaigne's civic-minded ethic. Plutarch also informs Montaigne's conception of moral education as a means of furthering individual and social reform. Montaigne's affinity for Plutarch's ideas is inseparable from his appreciation of Plutarch's maniere, or method, especially as practiced in the Vies, an explicitly didactic work and the work in which Plutarch most thoroughly articulates his own political ethic. In analyzing Montaigne's reading of the Vies, I argue that he exploits a Plutarchan form of indirection to engage his readers in an intellectually and morally formative learning experience. In particular, Montaigne exploits the relative value of history to lead his readers to recognize the similarly relative nature of virtue, and, in the process, to urge them to reconsider the moral and ethical ideals of later sixteenth-century France, above all the principled inflexibility of Stoic constancy. Montaigne's historical relativism is also manifest in the way he uses the late Roman republic and early Roman empire as a backdrop for discussing the social instability and ideological trends of his own times. The prevalence of Stoic ideas and the recurrence of civil wars during that period of Roman history make it especially pertinent to how Montaigne apprehends the analogous upheaval in contemporary France. The philosophical and historical values that Montaigne showcases in Plutarch's works provide a frame of reference for understanding Montaigne's frequent pairing of Seneca, pillar of French Neo-stoicism, with Plutarch.
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