Montaigne and Modernity

Montaigne’s essay, “On Vehicles,” contains, latent in it, a critique of fledgling modernity. In classic Montaignian rhythm, the work meanders hesitatingly between precepts for rulers, a recollection of the great Roman spectacles and a brief interlude into the frailty of human understanding, all culminating in an exposition of European conquest of the Americas. But with Montaigne, despite the eclecticism, there is always a thread; to find it, one simply needs to look for the frayed edge. While this essay hinges on an implicit comparison between the New World and the Old, one must interrogate the source of the tension  that leads Montaigne to say, “I very much fear that we shall have greatly hastened the decline and ruin of this other hemisphere by our contact, and that we shall have made it pay very dearly for our arts” (277). Montaigne sees a toxic seed that has taken root in the European world. This informs both his antiquarianism and his Rousseauvian views on the people, and notably the monarchs, of the New World. The titular theme — vehicles — become symbolic of modernity, an outward manifestation of the distinction between the old and new.

The essay begins with a brief exposition on causes and the difficulty of settling on a single “fundamental” explanation given the myriad of potential factors (264). Quoting Lucretius, he writes: “It is not sufficient to state a cause, We should state many one of which will prove to be true” (264). This provides us our starting thread. Montaigne is in search of a cause; he seeks an explanation for the decline of the the Old World through a comparison with the Americas. Nothing about his inquiry is methodical – perhaps why it’s so easy to overlook. However, Montaigne is genuinely perplexed the fallen state of West and this essay is his attempt to “pile up” causes to see if the reason can be found among them (264).

After a false start on Hungarian war vehicles, Montaigne transitions toward the concept of liberality, a willingness to to give or spend freely. While a virtue among private citizens, the liberality of monarch’s — despite convention — should not be considered a royal virtue. A monarch’s generosity with his subjects is false, for it comes at their expense. But the truly insidious nature of this type of royal largess can be seen when kings try to purchase loyalty through their beneficence. This transactional allegiance is entirely precarious. The monarch degrades his connection to his citizens; he “exhausts himself in giving” (271). The natural obligation of subjects to their sovereign is tempered into a purely commercial relationship: “do you want your subjects to look on you as their purse-bearer, not as their king?” (272).

Even half a millennia ago, Montaigne felt the tremors of the tremendous discontinuity to come. It is easy to compress history while reading Montaigne today. On the modern ear, his discussion of proper princely behavior is flattened; the chronology is muddied. Both the exemplary and the warning cases are shunted together from the modern perspective. The anecdote about Cyrus equated, at least subconsciously, with the rulers of Montaigne’s era. After all, both are history to us today. This flattening deemphasizes Montaigne’s antiquarianism. However, he is drawing on the great rulers of the past to provide advice for the princes of his era. He writes to serve his contemporaries, “the kings of today” (271). He sees something has been lost: the “inestimable treasure” of loyal subjects has been replaced by a false coin of “mercenary men” who do not hold the ruler in any special regard (272).

While a subtle point that can be lost in the Montaigne’s wondering prose, this conception of transactional commerce as a deracinating, brutalizing force appears again with respect to the European treatment of the New World. Indeed, if anything this motif is sharpened by the comparison: “So many towns razed to the ground, so many nations exterminated, so many millions put to the sword, and the richest fairest part of the world turned upside down for the benefit of the pearl and paper trades” (279). Here, Montaigne offers the first inchoate, yet simultaneously prototypical, indictment of modernity, and thus brings the concept into being — for the idea of modernity truly begins with its first critics. He observes the tremendous exertion of human energy and violence for such a mundane end. One cannot help but be struck by the sacrifices demanded in order to ensure “mere commercial victories” (271). Economic self-interest is substituted for natural obligation or loyalty: “nothing goes so naturally with greed as ingratitude” (271). And so, greed comes to replace virtue as the impetus for all human activity.

There is an implicit comparison between the European monarchs and those recently deposed rulers of the new world — and the latter come away looking much better. To Montaigne, the “last representatives of the two most powerful monarchies in that world” embody the virtuous, yet abandoned, precedent set by the occident’s early rules. The king of Peru is described by Montaigne as “a frank, generous, steadfast spirit, also of a clear and orderly mind” (280). And the story of the torture and execution of the Mexican king conveys a deep courage and nobility, when even after being humiliated and subjected to sadistic treatment at the hands of his captors, he maintains his composure. The royal virtue of these kings is always exemplary. “The use of the coin being entirely unknown to them,” the loyalty of their subjects is not of the cheap and counterfeit kind that Montaigne sees prevalent in Europe (283).

Their extraordinary wealth —  the motivation for the Spaniard’s brutality — was solely ornamental, not the wellspring of their power. It was only “an object for show and parade,” not a instrumental implement of commerce, “to be divide[d] and converte[d] into a thousand shapes,” as in Europe (283). These vast gold deposits were merely “piece[s] of furniture that had been preserved from father to son by many powerful kings” (284). This is a telling line because it recalls the earlier dictum offered by Isocrates: “be sumptuous on furniture …  but avoid all such magnificence as would drop out of use and memory” (268). In this parallelism, Montaigne suggests the New World realizes the ancient wisdom that fallen out of practice in the West. Yet this realization contains an element of tragedy: by excelling the West in its purported virtues, “they ruined, sold, and betrayed themselves” (277).

From this tension between old and new, the horse takes on a symbolic significance in the work. The idea of the vehicle is affixed to Montaigne’s conception of modernity. Horses, being unknown and alien in the “infant world” of the Americas, demarcate the European conquistadors from the natives (277). The horse, the vehicle, becomes the emblem of modernity. The mode of a man’s transportation becomes an outward sign of his ‘historical age.’  When the Spaniards received their ransom from the last king of Peru, they ensured “their horses were never shod with anything but solid gold.” (280). Here, quite literally, the instrumentality of a dominating modernity are venerated at the expense of the old ideals of virtue. The horse allowed the European, “these strangers mounted on great, unfamiliar monsters,” to impose himself on the New World (278).

And in the end, when the Peruvian king falls in battle, he is not brought down on equal terms. Sitting in his golden litter, he surveys the battle; his subjects willingly sacrificing their lives to keep their king abreast “by the sheer strength to their arms” (284). When the last great monarch, this exemplar of Montaignian virtue, is finally wrested from his litter, it is by a man on horseback. Locomotion becomes a manifestation of modern advantage, while simultaneously juxtaposing the old ideals against the new.

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