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Montaigne's Politics:
Authority and Governance in the Essais
Biancamaria Fontana

Hardcover | 2008 | $52.50 | £44.95 | ISBN: 9780691131221
208 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4
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Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) is principally known today as a literary figure--the inventor of the modern essay and the pioneer of autobiographical self-exploration who retired from politics in midlife to write his private, philosophical, and apolitical Essais. But, as Biancamaria Fontana argues in Montaigne's Politics, a novel, vivid account of the political meaning of the Essais in the context of Montaigne's life and times, his retirement from the Bordeaux parliament in 1570 "could be said to have marked the beginning, rather than the end, of his public career." He later served as mayor of Bordeaux and advisor to King Henry of Navarre, and, as Fontana argues, Montaigne's Essais very much reflect his ongoing involvement and preoccupation with contemporary politics--particularly the politics of France's civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. Fontana shows that the Essais, although written as a record of Montaigne's personal experiences, do nothing less than set forth the first major critique of France's ancien régime, anticipating the main themes of Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire and Diderot. Challenging the views that Montaigne was politically aloof or evasive, or that he was a conservative skeptic and supporter of absolute monarchy, Fontana explores many of the central political issues in Montaigne's work--the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious toleration, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes.


"Drawing on the historical research of Geralde Nakam and others, [Fontana] illuminates the political dimension of the work by reading it against precise contexts. . . . A more historically grounded political understanding of the Essais, and essential orientation for those who engage in even closer styles of reading."--Neil Kenny, Times Literary Supplement

"Far from being politically detached, Montaigne served in his provincial parliament. His famed guardedness in writing derived from his practical and theoretical reflections upon the French civil wars of religion, unceasing throughout his mature life. The certainty of partisans and the confusion of authorities alike pointed him toward skepticism concerning all claims to rule. Fontana nonetheless defends Montaigne from suspicions of religious unbelief. Fontana equally defends Montaigne against charges of Machiavellianism, rightly considering him less openly audacious. Fontana prudently directs new readers of the Essais not to begin by thinking Montaigne Machiavellian."--W. Morrisey, Hillsdale College, for CHOICE

"By enriching our knowledge of the political and historical background of the Essais, Fontana has made it easier to link what Montaigne has to say about his own particular time and place to his political philosophy which transcends that time and place."--Ann Hartle, Review of Politics

"[Fontana's] reading of Montaigne, combined with the readability of her prose (a welcome thing in any scholarly work) and the brevity of her book (fewer than 150 pages, not counting notes) make this an effort one with only passing interest in the subject can read with both pleasure and profit."--Donald D. Wells, Sixteenth Century Journal

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
CHAPTER ONE: The Spirit of the Laws 26
CHAPTER TWO: In a Leaden Century: The Decline of Virtue 45
CHAPTER THREE: Freedom of Conscience: The Politics of Toleration 66
CHAPTER FOUR: Freedom of Conscience: Governing Opinion 85
CHAPTER FIVE: Turning the Tide: Trust and Legitimacy 104
CHAPTER SIX: Learning from Experience: Politics as Practice 122
CONCLUSION: Montaigne's Legacy 141
Notes 147
Bibliography 183
Index 203

This book has been translated into:

  • Chinese (Simplified)

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