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Uncivil Modernity

Hartle is hopeful we might re-establish the socio-political relevance of the natural law, moral virtue, and the concept of the common good.

Portrait Of Michel Montaigne C1578 (1939)
Portrait of Michel Montaigne, circa 1578, (1939). (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

What Happened to Civility: The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project by Ann Hartle (2022, University of Notre Dame Press), 190 pages.

Five centuries after the life of Michel de Montaigne, in our postmodern and post-Christian era, civility has deteriorated alarmingly through the deepening of cultural divisions. In What Happened to Civility? The Promise and Failure of Montaigne's Philosophy, Emory professor emeritus Ann Hartle investigates the invention of civility in the writings of the French Renaissance essayist. Hartle shows how this new social bond was intended to hold societies together in peace and encourage mutual respect, and how it failed.


Montaigne is famous for his Essays, a three-volume collection (over 850 pages in the standard English translation by Donald Frame) of pieces of various lengths that cover a multitude of subjects, all from a very personal point of view. He calls himself a philosopher only once in the book—an "accidental" one at that. Hartle, one of the most distinguished Montaigne scholars, has argued that the man is inventing modern philosophy as he writes his book. One of his most astonishing sentences—"I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics"—is key to understanding his new approach.

Montaigne commits a "sleight-of-hand of philosophical reflection and invention," according to Hartle, and his Essays must be seen against the background of the premodern tradition, with its understanding of philosophy as a life of theoretical contemplation. Montaigne's target is Thomistic Aristotelianism, challenged all across Protestant Europe at the time of the Reformation. This tradition rests on the assumption that human existence needs to be oriented to the divine, which means humans must be free to pursue the "higher things." Such a pursuit will ultimately concern the life of philosophy and politics, which, in turn, depend on the availability of leisure for their pursuit.

Hartle explains that if this central claim about the primacy of leisure is allowed, the preservation of the common good requires the presence of gentlemen who rule and philosophers who teach them. Furthermore, the presence of these human types involves nothing less than the institution of slavery for their upkeep, and this grave difficulty constituted the Classical-Christian tradition's "Achilles' heel." For his part, Montaigne perceives an opportunity in this weakness. He conceives of a philosophy of equality and freedom, which replaces the old tradition's foundation in inequality and hierarchy. To achieve this, the first order of business has to be the reconstruction of philosophy itself.

No longer will philosophy be the "love of theoretical wisdom" but will take the form of "sociable wisdom." Such a redefinition of philosophy allows for avoiding or at least minimizing political conflict. With this consideration in mind, Hartle shows how Montaigne denies the sacred tradition's divine origin by reducing it to the level of mere human custom. Without spiritual support, the sacred tradition is merely an arbitrary and contingent inheritance from the past. This process amounts to the mastery of human nature itself, which is the essence of the modern project when all is said and done. Montaigne's "New Adam" differs radically from the old. He is not the created being who stands in contemplative wonder about the world and its Creator. Instead, he is a presiding judge who orders everything according to his will.

Hartle aims to explore the great transition from the contemplative Adam to the Adam of human judgment. This transition entails a radical change in the meaning of the good and the refocusing of man on himself at the expense of the importance of the divine. This transition from the good "in itself" and "for its own sake" to the good about man as man is a return to the famous Protagorean maxim that "man is the measure of all things." With this conception in place, the defining standards of the natural, the godlike, and the traditional will no longer be the ne plus ultra of human concern. 


As Hartle's Montaigne insists, suppose it is true that the domination of the strong over the weak can never produce the meaningful common good. In that case, the most practical option appears to be a society that conceives of the individual as free to serve the demands of his drives and urges. Such a society frees everyone to seek the good in his own way. The socio-political good that Montaigne seeks in all this is the resolution of the conflict between the weak and the strong and the masters and the slaves. Montaigne's civil society then is devoid of the influence of the agon of politics. Unbridled striving for mastery and honor must be eliminated. Engagement in politics will be determined by one's moral conscience, rather than one's moral conscience adjusting to the stringent demands of political life.

Under the new moral order, the strong must voluntarily submit to "the moralization of pride" (a phrase from another Montaigne admirer, the conservative English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott), renouncing the desire for recognition and honor. With this reformation, society's members will all share in the new moral and political order on equal terms. In presenting himself as "Exhibit A" of this process, Montaigne sees his Essays as leading the way forward. And so Hartle's Montaigne comes to sight as the very first modern "liberal" in a sense, certainly the first "liberal" of which we have such a detailed personal record.

Montaigne ushers in the modern form of political life embodied in the distinction between State and Society. In this respect, Montaigne seems to have influenced the ideas of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, especially in his monumental treatise Leviathan. The new, modern world will be one where each individual will be left free to pursue the good life as he might see it, with all the security provided by representative government and the rule of law.

Hartle wishes for us to see how the Montaignian moral character will take shape once the new liberal order is in place. In her hands, Montaigne comes to sight as a defender of the idea of "authenticity," even though Montaigne never actually uses this precise term. Whether Montaignian authenticity can be adequately compared to the Heideggerian version of the same thing famously expounded in Being and Time is not Hartle's concern. But certainly, her adoption of this term puts us in mind the possibility of a Montaigne-Heidegger connection. But we learn from Hartle that Montaigne firmly asserted that "the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself." This form of authenticity fulfills the role played by the Aristotelian and Christian moral virtues in the earlier tradition. 

Likewise, in the absence of traditional moral virtue, civility must replace the weight of tradition as the social bond. It may do so by reordering fragments of the Classical-Christian tradition with a view to the human good. If magnanimity and charity are married in a chapel supplied by civility, then the problem of natural inequality might be solved. Such a reformation of mores will, in turn, make it possible to eliminate the gentlemen and liberate the slaves once and for all. Civility hinges on the most refined element of human character: the willing disposition to live as equals under the law.

So, the new individual soul will be built on two fundamental pillars: authenticity and civility. But is civility sufficient to restrain the powers unleashed by the elevation of the role of authenticity? Civility is sometimes taken to mean simply good manners, but are individuals who truly "belong to themselves" and always speak from the very bottom of their being necessarily decent? Might not the tradition of civility prove to be somewhat of a weak reed if and when the desire for mastery decides to assert itself? Will the actual individual manifest his genuine authenticity within the confines of the demands of civility, which acts as the bond of human association? 

The new authentic individual who must seek the good in his unique particularity will not be in a position to see himself as sharing with other human beings in a common life premised on a given human nature. He will not understand himself as a member of the human species who share in a universal set of "essentials." Instead, Montaigne's doctrine is one of the incommensurability of all human beings. This means that each will confer value on that sequence of preferences, enabling him to become what he wishes to be. The individual is complete because he has produced a "self-ordered" soul out of his earnest striving for self-completeness.

Given the interiorization and privatization of morality, the newly self-complete individual can find the good life for himself without any need to deal with others. As we can readily see, the emergence of this self-created form of humanity implies the nullification of the idea of a moral community and the absence of any final moral standard by which to judge human beings. The individual can now find complete self-satisfaction entirely within the private sphere if he should so wish. Morality now has much more to do with deeply "subjectivistic" states of mind than it has to do with community standards. This enables the moral parity of all citizens to shine through whatever distinctions nature may otherwise have implanted in them. 

But a Montaignian society will perforce need to judge its members' performance on the "civility scale." Given that rendering judgments and "putting labels" on people can often lead to uncivil exchanges, Hartle's question has to be how such hermetically sealed individuals will arrive at a modus vivendi in anything like civil society. Montaigne's answer to this question stresses that the new standard of judgment by which the value of each person's uniqueness will be assessed will always be rendered in a spirit of goodwill, generosity, and charity. The actions about which such generous judgments might be rendered could involve the keeping of promises, the disposition to forgive "trespasses," the toleration of differences, the openness of one's heart, and the willingness to engage in self-revelation. In this way, social interaction in the community is morally elevated beyond the superficial level of social utility and "self-interest rightly understood."

For Hartle, the fact is that the "New World" of Montaigne's project launched in the 16th century has collapsed. Hartle characterizes the failure of civility in modern society as nothing less than a moral disaster. But it was doomed to such a fate from the outset, given that its prerequisites were corrosive of civility's moral ballast. In this regard, Hartle would have us appreciate how much our forgetfulness of the Classical-Christian tradition has cost our civilization. Such forgetfulness cuts the phenomenon of civility off from its roots and thus makes access to its appropriate nutrition impossible. Starvation and death then must inevitably ensue. The failure of the Montaignian adventure now means that modern man's "metaphysical" needs remain unmet. 

Citing the sociologist Edward Shils, Hartle explains that civil society's "internal spine" must remain unencumbered by pressure from the state's coercive power. The vertebrae of this "internal spine," which must remain free from all socio-political pressure, are constituted by such institutions as the family, the church, and the university. But unfortunately, ideological considerations now enter all aspects of community life with society's over-politicization. Under these conditions, the free expression of thought that sustains the culture of civility will be suppressed.

Hartle argues that modern society has abandoned the cause of education by abjuring the need to cultivate character and the capacity for judgment. When honor and nobility are no necessary part of the human personality, the anarchic propensities of human nature are inevitably emancipated to the detriment of the interests of civil peace. So, we see that insofar as the civil disposition itself required the suppression of honor and the privatization of morality, it also required the draining of the resources that gave it vigor. 

Hartle argues that the source of the recognition of the dignity of the individual—which recognition is the sine qua non of civility—is religion. In light of this claim, the problem with the modern world is that religion has been thoroughly subordinated to the Modern State. Under these conditions, religion becomes an entirely instrumental matter without any true "pipeline" to the dimension of the divine. The modernized and secularized society cannot produce a civilizational harmony between faith and reason in any way. 

In a return to Aristotle and Aquinas, Hartle is hopeful we might re-establish the socio-political relevance of the natural law, moral virtue, and the concept of the common good. But the challenge in this respect, as Daniel Mahoney indicates, is that traditional forms of Christianity have been more or less dissolved in the acid bath of the Religion of Humanity. Christian charity is transformed into free-ranging compassion, the paradoxical result of which is an increase in the level of cruelty in the community. Hartle takes her cue here from Flannery O'Connor, who says that terror and horror will be the outcome when compassion is detached from its proper source in the legacy of the Classical-Christian tradition.

Hartle is deeply attracted to the thought of Blaise Pascal as a figure uniquely relevant to our postmodern, post-Christian world, even though, like Montaigne, he ultimately rejected the premodern view of nature as a "cosmos." Pascal appreciated that the modern project poses incalculable threats to humanity. And it was Pascal who never lost faith that the old and the venerable could be a great source of wisdom and truth for modern man. For Hartle, Pascal represents the Augustinian path back to the thoughts and sentiments of which modern man stands in most need. Such a path can lead us to a form of Christianity that truly overcomes the demands of the subjectivistic self.

Time spent with this book will be rewarded, both with a heightened sense of the importance of civility to human happiness and wonder for the artistry of a great essayist like Montaigne. In the end, Hartle's book should be taken as required reading for those seeking a deeper understanding of the crisis of modernity in general and those attracted to the genius of Montaigne in particular.