Immanentism is a metaphysics, but also a theory of the subject and an ethical stance. In this post I present essayism as a philosophy of immanence, an intellectual posture, and a form of life. It was Robert Musil who retrieved the term “Essaysmus,” building on the original meaning of the French word essai (“attempt”). I will turn to Michel de Montaigne’s Essays to illuminate the distinctive features of essayism.
If one were to trace a history of immanent thought, Montaigne would have a place of prominence, not least since his thought resists explanation in terms of secularization. For Montaigne the universe is a flux in never-ceasing motion: “The world is a perennial see-saw. Everything in it–the land, the mountains of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt–all waver with a common motion and their own.” Human beings are no exception, as Montaigne realizes when he notes that: “I am unable to stabilize my subject: it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness.” Observing his own self waver along with the rest of nature, the essayist realizes that in a world (the only world we have) characterized by impermanence, it is vain to seek eternal forms lying behind transient objects. Then, the way the essayist takes is precisely that which Parmenides had barred as impracticable, and Plato discarded as illusory: the study of changing things.
Change is to be understood on its own terms. Breaking motion into a sequence of temporal intervals is misleading, for whenever we freeze motion to fix our eyes on a specific segment, we deform our object and deceive ourselves. No interval, Montaigne says, can be extracted from the flux–no epoch, no seven-year lapse, no day, no minute. A transformation cannot be reduced to a sum of successive states. In other words, motion is continuous, not discrete. This intuition inspires Montaigne to set himself a daring task: “I am not portraying being but becoming.”
The revolution Lucretius operated in the way we look at matter, Montaigne introduces in the way we see the human subject. Like matter described by Lucretius, Montaigne’s self is a permeable, swirling, and weaving flux. No opinions, no feelings exist “entirely simply and solidly without confusion or mixture.” We are voluble, inconstant, and discordant beings. The Delphic maxim commands: “Know thyself,” but what if there is no true self to be found, captured, or regained? Indeed, the self is a process, not an entity. But how is it possible to get to know a liquefied subject?
For Montaigne, the success of such an undertaking hangs on our capacity to pair, or rather merge, living and writing. Essayistic writing is not writing about the self, but rather, recording the transformations of the self. Oneself is not the object but rather the result of the essay:
This is a register of varied and changing occurrences, of ideas which are unresolved and, when needs be, contradictory, either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold on different attributes or aspects of my subjects. So I may happen to contradict myself but, as Demades said, I never contradict truth.
Thus the flow of writing becomes indistinguishable from the flow of the states of mind–in fact, it becomes the flow of the states of mind.
This form of self-knowledge admits no split between the observer and an observed self. Self-reflection occurs in real time before the eyes of the reader. It is not masked as spontaneity, but openly performed, and often mocked together with other inevitable contortions of the human mind. One sees Montaigne think, fold over and again upon himself, in the same way as one sees him digest. Everything, including reticence, is displayed. Thus the book becomes truly “consubstantial with the author.” For, as Montaigne puts it, “I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” Writing about oneself, then, becomes the same thing as consciously existing. Essayism, thus, emerges as an intellectual practice and form of life stemming from the experience of immanence. Like ancient philosophies, it is a lived philosophy, hence its intrinsic radicalism.
There is a fundamental difference between writing about oneself in the essay form and narrating oneself. Narration requires a beginning and an end, or at least, a sense of direction. None of these is to be found in the Essays. Comparing his present self to the one who started writing the Essays, Montaigne observes: “I have long since grown old but not an inch wiser. ‘I’ now and ‘I’ then are certainly twain, but which ‘I’ is better? I know nothing about that.” And continues: “If we were always progressing towards improvement, to be old would be a beautiful thing. But it is a drunkard’s progress, formless staggering, like reeds which the wind shakes as it fancies, haphazardly.” Thus, Montaigne rejects any teleology: Motion approaches no end, and living is not realizing a potential. Just like nature, human life is non-directional movement and non-instrumental action. There are no turning points, no decisive moments. As living is the purpose of life, writing is the purpose of writing: “We are born for action […]. I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.”
The plane of immanence is that of “the human condition” (la condition humaine). Montaigne is the first to speak of a “human condition,” and it is important to see how this new perspective breaks with the philosophical traditions dealing with abstract idea of “Man.” The latter Montaigne regards as both metaphysically illusory and ethically dangerous. “We confuse our thoughts with generalities, universal causes and processes which proceed quite well without us, and leave behind our own concerns for Michel, which touch us even more intimately than Man.” Indeed, the abstract idea of Man is a source of alienation, since it introduces a separation between the self and its own humanity.
Conversely, recognizing in oneself the marks of condition shared by all fellow human beings connects the individual with the species and, at a more general level, with nature. Any human being, writes Montaigne, “bears the whole Form of the human condition.” That is why from the study of any life, the most uneventful as well a spectacularly tragic one, it is possible to derive “the whole of moral philosophy.” What matters is not the quality of the life we consider, but the quantity of details we possess, the vivacity of our imagination, and the degree of precision of our observation.
Besides causing alienation, the abstract idea of “Man” risks to become the basis for a cruel moral code when it is used to impose a standard which does not suit the human condition. As Friedrich Nietzsche will do in his Genealogy of Morals, Montaigne brings attention to the guilt feelings arising from rigid morality: “Man commands himself to be necessarily at fault. It is not very clever of him to tailor his obligation to the standards of a different kind of being. He expects no one to do it, so who is he prescribing it for? Is it wrong of Man not to do what is impossible for him to do?” Nietzsche restated this point in his famous claim that “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”
Cruelty appears to Montaigne as an ordinary vice, all too frequent, yet most repulsive. But Montaigne’s horror for cruelty is not simply the reaction of a sensitive soul; it stems also from the appreciation of the human condition as morally ambivalent. Self-observation shows how, in each individual, virtue and vice coexist, at time in mixture and at time in a rapid, unpredictable intermittence: They are all but fix moral landmarks. Thus, it is as an essayist that Montaigne opposes any kind of fanaticism, including the fanaticism of virtue. Essayism rules out the possibility of acquiring moral certainty, and therefore consists in an attitude that opens the way to an ethics of constant experimentation. It also rules out cruel punishments. In Montaigne’s terms: “If my soul could only find a footing I would not be assaying myself but resolving myself. But my soul is ever in its apprenticeship and being tested.” Meekness is the virtue of those who cultivate doubt.
Of course, different readings of the Essays are also possible. One can, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, raise doubts about Montaigne’s professions of sincerity, or see the Essays as the desperate chase of an ever-fleeing self, irremediably severed from the author. Here I presented Montaigne as the first of a lineage of essayists, which includes, among others, Denis Diderot, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and Musil. They all revolted against all doctrine that subordinates the ephemeral to the eternal, the unstable to the stable, moral uncertainty to certainty; they all celebrated contingency, openness, intellectual and ethical experimentalism. Musil describes the essayists as “masters of the floating life within”: they are “saints with and without religion, and sometimes too they are simply men who have gone out on an adventure and lost their way.”
Essayism, to conclude, combines immanentism and utopia. As T. W. Adorno puts it, the essay is the form of immanent critique par excellence, for “whoever criticizes must necessarily experiment.” From the standpoint of immanence, utopia is possible in the form of experimental utopia.