The Meaning of Language

The search for reality and meaning of language in Michel de Montaigne’s Essais.

Michel de Montaigne frequently touches upon the concepts of reality and linguistic meaning in his free-form, philosophical writings. In his essay II:16 “On Glory” (702-717) Montaigne states that a name is merely a label, and has no meaning beyond linguistic convenience; that a word itself is inherently empty and foreign to the thing it serves to represent. This emptiness he relates to humanity, who is imperfect and inherently seduced by unreachable, God-like glory through false virtue. He delves further into this argument with I:40 “Reflections Upon Cicero” (279-284) in which he offers that words themselves can, in fact, inhibit true meaning. It is therefore possible for one’s sense of reality to become skewed through a misuse of language. These essays illustrate that true meaning exists outside of the confines of language and that ultimately translates to the meaninglessness of social-constructs in general.

“shame on all eloquence which leaves us with a taste for itself,
not for its substance” ー Montaigne

Montaigne writes of his own essays as “bear[ing] the seeds of a richer, bolder subject-matter” (Montaigne, 281) and seems to prefer writing that continuously follows a fluid mental path which rarely delves too deep into a subject, and never presumes to offer an answer or to draw a conclusion. First and foremost, this allows the reader to draw his own conclusions from the “seeds” that are set before him. It also serves to imbue the work with a sense of humility, a quality in writing that he finds absolutely necessary. The underlying issue with which Montaigne struggled throughout the process of writing, however, was that his words were unable to convey a fixed intended meaning. Thus, he argues against the spoken letters and edicts of haughty men who tend toward verbosity—”shame on all eloquence which leaves us with a taste for itself not for its substance”—and instead lauds hand-written work of heart and wisdom (Montaigne, 282).

The primary question at hand then, is how does Montaigne define meaning? Moreover, how is meaning attached to a word? Nicholas Pope Shangler, a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, offers that Montaigne and his philosophical peers in France commonly struggle to comprehend the connection between words and language, and examines Montaigne’s ruminations on language and its ability to carry meaning. “Words are an ephemeral and fluid medium,” he writes, “consequently, language is unstable, never fixed” (Shangler, 109). Hence, Montaigne strives in his writing to convey wisdom and thoughtfulness. He aims not to draw concrete conclusions, but to allow the reader to think critically of his own inner being because language and its ability to produce meaning is inextricably tied to the reader’s individual life experience (Shangler, 110).

The gathering of information
does not necessarily constitute meaning
or, one might further add, value.

Professor Hope H Glidden, Ph.D. similarly writes on Montaigne’s concerns over the divide between language and meaning in her essay “Recouping the Text: The Theory and Practice of Reading.” Specifically, she writes that Montaigne is interested in exploring “the message conveyed in words and the reception of those words by the reader” (Glidden, 147). Of particular interest here is Glidden’s assertion that the gathering of information does not necessarily constitute meaning or, one might further add, value. For example, if a set of facts is presented as universally true, it must certainly hold that there can be only one resultant meaning when these facts are compiled. The reader, given definite truths and conclusions, then becomes unable to think critically, to question his individual truths, or to free himself through learned tolerance.

Thus, one finds that there are no inflexible or universal truths. What one knows as a tree can be called a “tree” in any language. Yet this given label cannot help one to better understand the true meaning of the tree. In a sense, the word is merely empty and foreign to the object itself—it is essentially devoid of meaning. Montaigne writes that man uses his vocabulary to label and categorize things habitually, for the sole purpose of convenience, yet stresses that “the name is not a part of that thing nor part of its substance” (Montaigne, 702). He further relates this emptiness to the nature of man, who is imperfect beneath the glory of God. Due to his inherent imperfection, man is slave to habit, which is both dangerous and powerfully corruptive. So how does one find true meaning and deepen their knowledge of self? How does one know what’s real? How can habit be overcome if language is inseparable from thought and the experience of “Being?”

Through introspective questioning
and resultant acquisition of knowledge,
one gains an acute awareness of difference in the world
and is thus empowered to practice tolerance.

Shrangler notes that “…however faithfully [Montaigne] reproduces himself in his writing, readers encountering the text alter it through the act of reading and decide individually upon a meaning to the exclusion of other possibilities” (Shangler, 109). In order to combat this issue, Montaigne’s philosophy ultimately begs that one be mindful of his habits of language because a careless use of words can greatly inhibit one’s ability to seek truth. Because reality can become skewed through a misuse of language, he offers up his own experiences and learned wisdom in an open, questioning format. It is through these thoughtful, inquisitive attitudes that man can explore his inner being, and subsequently both cultivate knowledge and free his heart and mind. Through this introspective questioning and resultant acquisition of knowledge, one gains an acute awareness of difference in the world and is thus empowered to practice tolerance.

Montaigne’s essay consistently enforce the ideal that there is no all-encompassing truth which guides our actions, but that reality is rather a complex and fluid nebula of infinite possibility and misunderstanding. Man is a creature who follows impulsive desires. Therefore, and his actions can only be judged on a case by case basis: “…every one of our actions requires to be judged on its own,” Montaigne writes, “the surest way, in my opinion, would be to refer each of them to its contest, without looking farther and without drawing any firm inference from it” (Montaigne, 375). It is thus that Montaigne argues against the institution of judgment altogether. Even if one were to look objectively at a single case, could he ever know the truth in its entirety? One couldn’t possibly gather all the information needed to make a completely accurate and “correct” judgment. The outcome of such an endeavor is, therefore, one constructed from the accumulation of generalized, pre-conceived notions, personal bias, and trivialities. On this basis, Montaigne also warns against jumping to conclusions because all of mankind is subject to the winds of chance.

Due to Man’s inconstancy, self-exploration is a vital endeavor. Montaigne writes of his own experience of self-exploration: “there is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture” (Montaigne, 377). When one is able to come to terms with his own ever-changing self, he will be better equipped to adapt and subsequently thrive. One’s nature is to contradict and question in a thousand ways in just a single moment. Hence, there should be no one belief held so strong as to be immovable and constant.

“…one courageous action must not be taken as proof that a man really is brave; a man who is truly brave will always be brave on all occasions”ー Montaigne

What we know of ourselves we learn by experiencing the world and facing challenge. Montaigne attests to this in the statement, “…one courageous action must not be taken as proof that a man really is brave; a man who is truly brave will always be brave on all occasions” (Montaigne, 378). Although this idea seems a bit too definite and constant, we see in this logic the importance Montaigne places on intention. He begs that we use self-exploration as a means by which understand our basic principles and motivations so that our judgments are not merely settled and drawn from surface level evidence.

Furthermore, Montaigne lauds introspection and practiced tolerance as means by which one can come to understand true meaning. Noted scholar Ian Maclean writes that the purpose of philosophy and the essay is to search for and harvest truth, knowledge, tolerance, and adaptability (Maclean, 142). In order to become tolerant, one must first be enlightened to fact that there is no one truth which rules all of humanity. In his essay I:31 “On the Cannibals” (228-241) Montaigne writes in defense of “savage barbarians” that men who are stuck in their habits will mistakenly call everything unfamiliar to him barbaric. The European man is quick to assert his unjust opinions against these foreign cultures who are, in actuality, purely more simple and tied harmoniously to nature. His meaning here is that there is no all-encompassing, objective moral truth, and that “if there is no objective moral truth, it makes little sense to criticize others for having failed to abide by it” (Edelman).

The power of the customary, or immoveable traditional laws,
can be seen as nearsighted, closed-minded, and potentially suffocating
to both intellect and one’s ability to reason.

Montaigne further rallies for tolerant attitudes in his essay I:23 “On habit: and on never easily changing a traditional law.” He tells a story of “a certain French nobleman” who, to his initial disgust, uses not a linen, but his fingers to blow his nose. The initial disgust, he reflects, was due purely to habit. Habit had essentially closed his mind to such an extent that he had become desensitized to the strangeness of his own nose-blowing customs. The power of the customary, or immoveable traditional laws, can, therefore, be seen as nearsighted, closed-minded, and potentially suffocating to both intellect and one’s ability to reason. If a man’s customs are dictated by his political environment but his natural inclinations to reason and believe stand apart from engrained social traditions, is he not enslaved? How can he come to understand the true meaning of anything if he is blinded by stubborn habit?

Montaigne further explores the relationship between habit, tolerance, and meaning: “our judgement’s power to see things is lulled to sleep once we grow accustomed to anything” (Montaigne, 126). In a run-on list of dizzying length provides examples of absurd behaviors that have become appropriate customs of various cultures in order to illustrate that everything is relative and anything is possible beneath the law. On top of that, he postulates that habit is addictive, likened to gripping claws from which there is no hope of escape. This idea certainly seems to beg for some sort of innovation, a brash overhaul of the current political atmosphere and points to an ultimate meaninglessness in societal practices.

One’s best and most virtuous self
is contented to do good deeds even in private,
hidden from the eyes of others,
and completely without
ulterior motive.

Although this idea of meaninglessness might be seen as a hallmark of Nihilist thought, Montaigne holds that man has the opportunity to become his ideal, tolerant self if he follows an introspective path. He ruminates on the vast distinction between one’s private, or intimate, self and one’s public self and finds that, even through questioning and searching for meaning, the greatest challenge is overcoming this difference. One’s best and most virtuous self is contented to do good deeds even in private, hidden from the eyes of others, and completely without ulterior motive. The self one shows in public, however, is liable to play the virtuous role in hopes of attaining praise, reputation, and glory (Montaigne, 706). Although these two natural sides of man are quite contrasting, real and meaningful virtue, Montaigne argues, is born of the private self rather than the public. However he feels about the relationship between virtue and glory, Montaigne is, as Edelman writes, “…a lover a freedom who is tolerant of difference and who wishes to maintain a rather robust distinction between the private and public spheres” (Edelman).

So how might one cultivate the ideal and tolerant self? Montaigne’s ruminations on child rearing not only offer proper goals toward which to strive, but also present guidelines for tutors and role models. He states the problem with education today: years are wasted stuffing children’s brain’s with meaningless facts for jobs at which they achieve nothing (Montaigne, 167). When facts are thrown at students, they are unable to consume and cultivate real mastery of a subject; they can merely recite other people’s opinions that have been memorized and gone unchallenged. Montaigne likens this corrupt educational style to that of “spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it,” which is, as he writes, “evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it” (Montaigne, 169). It would instead behove educators to help students cultivate a propensity for interior dialogue so that he can become “well-formed” and live an enriching life as opposed to “well-filled” yet emotionally empty.

If education is to focus on teaching moderation
and cultivating good, individual character,
man can become free of his habitual leanings.

Another aspect of good education is the promotion of moderate practice and good character. Montaigne connects moderation, virtue, and morality, offering that one “can both love virtue too much and behave with excess in an action which itself is just” (Montaigne, 222). If belief or practice is taken to the extreme, he argues, it is ultimately damaging to the soul. A one-sided, unbalanced man will essentially become enslaved by his obsessive closed mind, unable to live freely with what nature has so generously gifted him at birth. In succumbing to the extremes of philosophy, for example, man will become “contemptuous of religion and of the accepted laws, an enemy of social intercourse, an enemy of our human pleasures, useless at governing cities, at helping others or even at helping himself…” (Montaigne, 223). Yet if education is to focus on teaching moderation and cultivating good, individual character, man can become free of his habitual leanings. Moreover, by freeing oneself from fixed opinions and habits, one will naturally acquire an ability for tolerance and be closer to his ideal self.

This style of education can be attained, Montaigne suggests, through the methods of Socrates and Archesilaus, who allowed their students to think on a subject before judging their strengths and weaknesses. In doing this, they were able to adjust their style of language and argument in order to best fit the individual student and help him to properly digest the information at hand, to truly attain a solid and personal understanding; thus, he will grow exponentially. Hence, he offers, “book-learning should serve as an ornament not as a foundation…” (Montaigne, 171). It is the cultivation of character and interiority, achieved through the art of tolerant conversation, that is of utmost importance for education and understanding.

In order to attain true understanding,
one must personally experience it
and reflect for himself.

Through the act of conversation, one may offer a word or definition and receive a “hive-full” in return until one’s personal lexicon is sorrowfully depleted. But what is the meaning of these words? Are they not all the same, merely different labels to describe one’s personal experience of a case or thing? The battle of words is essentially meaningless, Montaigne argues, because one cannot grasp the truth of that specific thing simply by having it recounted to him. In order to attain a real understanding, then, one must personally experience it and reflect for himself. Furthermore, due to the fact that perceptions of reality are easily skewed by words which cannot convey true meaning one must search his individual self and find tolerance for others. In doing this, man can become his ideal self and attain true knowledge and subsequent freedom. Thus, one must look beyond linguistic meaning and explore the inner self, which is in a state of constant evolution.


works cited

Edelman, Christopher. “Michel de Montaigne.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 02 May 2017.

Glidden, Hope H. “Recouping the Text: The Theory and Practice of Reading.” Ed. Dikka Berven. Reading Montaigne. 2nd ed. Vol. XXI. Oakland U, 1995. 145-55. Print.

Maclean, Ian. “Montaigne and the truth of the schools.” In U. Langer (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, pp. 142-162). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Michel de Montaigne. The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics). Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 1993.

Shangler, Nicholas Pope. Language innovation and meaning in the French Renaissance: Des Périers, Estienne, and Montaigne. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2013. Print.

© 2017 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.

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