Front Page Titles (by Subject) Montaigne: the Virtues of Modernity. - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Montaigne: the Virtues of Modernity. - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Montaigne: the Virtues of Modernity.
“The Good, the Beautiful, and the Useful: Montaigne’s Transvaluation of Values. “The American Political Science Review 73(March 1979):139–154.
Scholars have failed to appreciate the Essays of Montaigne (1533–1592) as a major work in the political philosophy of modernity. They neglect the political dimension of the Essays in the erroneous belief that Montaigne’s thought is too unsystematic to expound a consistent political teaching. The popular interpretation of the Essays sees Montaigne’s evolution from respect for classical learning and stoic virtue, through a “skeptical crisis,” to an “Epicurean” attitude of tolerant hedonism.
Schaefer challenges the dominant interpretation of Montaigne by analyzing his subtle criticism of classical “heroic” moral virtue, especially concentrating on Montaigne’s essay “Of Cruelty” (Essays II, XI). The seeming disunity of that essay actually conceals a carefully worked out political thought. Montaigne’s political intention is to challenge the classical understanding of morality and virtue and to replace it with a less demanding and more humane view of humanity. Montaigne seeks to revolutionize our understanding of morality and its relationship to politics. He would replace the classical morality based on “beauty” (requiring man to strive for some rigorous “divine” nature) by one of “utility” (requiring man to see his needs as similar to those of natural animals). This “transvaluation of values” is part of the foundations of “bourgeois” morality which characterizes modern liberal regimes. Montaigne’s moral-political teaching has led to the “secularist, egalitarian politics of modernity.”
Montaigne’s “On Cruelty” is an extensive critique of classical morality in its questioning of the nobility of Cato’s masochistic love of painful virtue, its horror at the cruelty practiced by Roman tyrants, its objection to the practice of torture by church and state authorities, and its encouragement of gentleness to fellow humans and even towards other animals. Montaigne’s disparages the heroic classical virtue whose aim of surpassing God turns man’s heart into a cruel, callous sensibility. It is more salutary to recognize mankind’s kinship to the beasts and to practice kindly terrestrial virtues. People admire the cruel virtue of Cato because of its “beauty,” which leads humanity to elevate itself self-destructively above the animal to the godlike. But is this other-worldly “beauty” of the soul the proper criteria for judging human conduct? Judgments of heavenly beauty are less reliable than judgments of earthly, human utility.
The root of these irrational and unscientific deficiencies in political life stems from classical morality’s perverse identification of the good with the (trans-human) beautiful and its equally perverse disjunction between the good and the useful. By contrast: Montaigne approves the humanly useful as just, honorable, and good. He rejects the morality and political philosophy “that demands the entire subordination of the private interest to the alleged public good, and that in fact results in the sacrifices of other people’s interests to those of the wicked.” Man’s virtue should be useful to his earthly interests and enjoyment of the present pleasures of life. His transvaluation of values would approve of tolerance, moderation, honesty, compassion, the abhorrence of cruelty, and a disinclination to meddle in other persons’ affairs. He preaches “selfishness” and indulgence in the bodily pleasures that privatize human beings and prevent them from aspiring beyond our natural concerns and utility.