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CPLT 324 MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE QUESTIONS
Assigned: Essays: "To the Reader," "Of the Power of the Imagination," "Of Cannibals," and "Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions" (2632-58).
"To the Reader" and "Of the Power of the Imagination"
1. Read Montaigne's introductory announcement on 2636 carefully -- what exactly is he promising to do, and what does he say he does not mean to do? Although his opening remarks seem fairly straightforward, in what sense do they also suggest the complexity of Montaigne's task as an essayist?
2. On 2636-38, Montaigne begins with various observations and anecdotes. What initial perspective does he offer on his subject "the power of the imagination"? How much credence, if any, does he put in the stories he recounts, the scholarly remarks he cites, and so forth?
3. On 2639-41, Montaigne shifts his observations to a humorous take on sex from a man's perspective. Why is this subject appropriate to his essay as a whole? How does the theme of sexual difficulties address something broader than the physical act of love?
4. On 2641-44, Montaigne (after some dilatory remarks) offers some reflections on his method as an essayist and his way of handling knowledge of all sorts. How does he say he handles "fabulous testimonies" (2643) -- why are they just as good as clear facts? Why does he write about the past instead of the present? What is his problem with "extended narration"?
5. On 2646-47, Montaigne explores the commonly held opposition between civilized and barbarous people. What alternative to this overly simple opposition does he propose -- what is his general view of the Brazilian natives about whom he writes?
6. On 2648-50, Montaigne discusses his subject proper -- the alleged cannibalism of the Brazilians and their war-practices. What does he suggest (by way of comparison) about European beliefs and practices? Modern cultural anthropologists often strive to adopt a "values-free" stance when they report on other cultures -- is that what Montaigne is doing here, or does he seem to have another purpose? Explain.
7. On 2652-53, Montaigne recounts how he met three Brazilians who bravely returned with Europeans to the Old World. What does he indirectly suggest about the possibility of genuine communication between cultures? And how do you interpret the manner in which Montaigne choose to end his essay on cannibalism? (He concludes with, "All this is not too bad -- but what's the use? They don't wear breeches.")
"Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions"
8. On 2653-58, what evidence does Montaigne offer to support his proposition that human beings are supremely inconsistent? What, according to him, makes a man courageous one day and a coward the next, or a woman virtuous one day and not so virtuous the next?
9. On 2653-58, Montaigne rejects the idea that we can really tell much about a person by "external" behavior. In conclusion, he writes "we must probe the inside and discover what springs set men in motion." But to what extent does his essay suggest this is possible -- how, that is, would you sum up Montaigne's central argument about human character and the possibilities of setting it down on paper?
10. A general question pertaining to all of our selections: the C19 philosopher Kierkegaard says insightfully about the way authors who write about "the self" (and similarly complicated subjects) go out of their way not to suggest that transparent communication or facile agreement is achievable. To what extent do you think Montaigne would agree? Explain with particular regard to his style as an essayist. (This might make an interesting topic for a full paper.)
Edition: Lawall, Sarah, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd edition. Volumes 1ABC. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN A = 0-393-97755-2, B = 0-393-97756-0, C = 0-393-97757-9.