Uncivil Modernity

What Happened To Civility? The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project Ann Hartle ( 2022, University of Notre Dame Press), 190 pp.

Five centuries after Michel de Montaigne’s death, civility in our postmodern, post-Christian age has been ravaged by the deepening cultural divides. What happened to civility? Ann Hartle, Emory professor and emeritus of philosophy, examines the creation of civility through the writings of the French Renaissance essayist. Hartle demonstrates how this new social link was meant to keep societies in peace and promote mutual respect and how it failed.


Montaigne is most well-known for his essays, a collection of three volumes (over 850 pages in Donald Frame’s standard English translation) that contains pieces of different lengths and covers a variety of topics from a very personal perspective. Only once does he call himself a philosopher in his book, and that was an “accidental” one. Hartle, one the most respected Montaigne scholars has claimed that Hartle is creating modern philosophy while he writes his book. Hartle’s most remarkable sentence is “I study myself more than any subject.” This is my metaphysics, this is my physics,” is key to understanding his new approach.

Hartle says Montaigne engages in a “sleight of hand of philosophical reflection, invention” and his Essays should be viewed against the backdrop of the premodern tradition’s understanding of philosophy as a life devoted to theoretical contemplation. Montaigne is targeting Thomistic Aristotelianism which was challenged across Protestant Europe during the Reformation. This tradition is based on the idea that humans need to be oriented towards the divine. It also implies that people must be free to pursue “higher things.” This pursuit will eventually concern philosophy and politics. They, in turn depend on leisure.

Hartle explained that, if Hartle’s central claim regarding leisure being the most important thing in the world is accepted, preservation of the common goods requires the presence gentlemen who rule and philosophers to teach them. These human types are essentially subject to slavery, which is what the Classical-Christian tradition called the “Achilles heel”. Montaigne, on the other hand, sees a chance in this weakness. Montaigne envisions a philosophy that is equal and free, which will replace the old tradition’s foundations in inequality and hierarchy. This requires that philosophy be rebuilt first.

Philosophy will no longer be a love of theoretical wisdom, but will instead take the form “sociable wisdom”. This redefinition allows for the avoidance or minimization of political conflict. Hartle shows, with this in mind how Montaigne denigrates the sacred tradition’s divine source by reducing it down to mere human custom. The sacred tradition is only an arbitrary, contingent inheritance from the past without spiritual support. This is the process of mastering human nature, which is what is at the core of the modern project. Montaigne’s new “New Adam” is radically different from the old. He is not a created being, who contemplates the Creator and the world. He is instead a judge who rules everything.

Hartle seeks to examine the transition from the contemplative Adam into the Adam of human judgement. This transformation involves a fundamental change in the meaning and refocusing on man’s self at the expense the divine. The transition from the good “in its own right” and “for it’s sake” to the good that is about man as a person is a return of the Protagorean maxim “man is the measure for all things.” This conception will make it clear that the defining standards for the natural, godlike, and traditional are no longer the ne + ultra of human concern.


Hartle’s Montaigne insists that it is possible to have the dominance of the strong over those who are weak, but this will not produce the meaningful common benefit. The best option in this situation is a society that sees the individual as being free to follow his desires and needs. This society allows everyone to pursue the good in their own ways. Montaigne’s socio-political goal is to end the conflict between the powerful and weak, the masters and slaves. Montaigne’s civil society is thus free from the political agony. It is necessary to end the unbridled pursuit of mastery and honor. Engaging in politics will depend on one’s moral conviction, not one’s ability to adapt to the demands of political life.

The new moral order requires that the strong voluntarily accept “the moralizationof pride” (a term borrowed from Montaigne’s admirer Michael Oakeshott, a conservative English political philosopher), which means they must give up their desire to be recognized and honored. This reformation will allow society’s members to share in the new moral order and political order on equal terms. Montaigne views his Essays HTML as the “Exhibit A” in this process. Hartle’s Montaigne is seen as the very first modern liberal in a sense and certainly the first liberal of whom we have such a thorough personal record.

Montaigne is the pioneer of the modern political form, embodied by the distinction between State & Society. Montaigne may have had an influence on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes in this regard, particularly in his massive treatise Leviathan. With all the security afforded by law and representative government, the new modern world will allow each person to live the life he sees.

Hartle wants us to see how Montaignian moral character develops once the new liberal order has been established. Montaigne is seen by Hartle as a defender for the notion of authenticity, even though Montaigne has never used this term. Hartle is not concerned about whether Montaignian authenticity could be adequately compared with the Heideggerian version. Her use of the term brings to mind the possibility that there is a Montaigne/Heidegger connection. Hartle reveals that Montaigne believed that the greatest thing in the universe was to be able to belong to oneself. This authentic form fulfills the roles played by the Aristotelian moral virtues and the Christian moral virtues in earlier traditions.

In the absence of traditional moral virtues, civility must replace tradition as the social link. It might do this by reordering fragments from the Classical-Christian traditions with a view towards the human good. The problem of natural inequalities might be solved if magnanimity is paired with charity in a church that is civil. This reformation will allow us to end the exploitation of the gentlemen and free the slaves forever. Civility is based on the most noble element of human character, the willingness to live as equals in the law.

The foundation of the new individual soul is authenticity and civility. Is civility enough to limit the power unleashed by elevating authenticity’s role? Sometimes civility is interpreted as merely good manners. But are there people who “belong to themselves”? Do they speak from the bottom of their being necessary decent? If the desire to mastery takes root, might the tradition of civility be a bit weak? Is the individual able to be authentic within the constraints of civility?

The authentic new person who seeks the best in his own particularity won’t be able to see himself as part of a shared human life that is based on a human nature. He will not see himself as part of a human species that shares a common set of “essentials”. Montaigne’s doctrine focuses on the incommensurability between all human beings. Each person will be able to assign value to the sequence of his preferences, which allows him to be what he wants to become. Because he is self-complete, the individual is complete.

The interiorization and privatizations of morality allow the self-completed individual to live a happy life without the need to interact with others. This self-created humanity is a clear sign that there has been no moral community or final standard to judge human behavior. If he so chooses, the individual can find total self-satisfaction in his private world. Morality has more to do now with deeply “subjectivistic”, states of mind than with community standards. This allows citizens to have moral parity regardless of any distinctions that nature might place in them.

A Montaignian society must judge its members’ performance on a “civility scale”. Hartle must ask Hartle how these hermetically sealed individuals can arrive at a modus virendi in a civil society. Montaigne answers this question by stressing that the new standard for judging the uniqueness of each individual will always be based on a spirit of charity, generosity, goodwill and goodwill. These generous judgments could be made through the keeping of promises, the ability to forgive “trespasses”, the tolerance of differences, the openness and willingness to share one’s feelings, as well as the making of promises. This way, social interaction within the community can be morally elevated above the superficial level social utility and rightly understood “self-interest.”

Hartle believes that the “New World,” Montaigne’s 16th-century project has failed. Hartle describes the collapse of civility in modern society to be nothing but a moral disaster. It was inevitable that it would end up like this, as its prerequisites were so destructive of civility’s moral balance. Hartle would like us to see how much our forgetfulness about the Classical-Christian tradition has cost civilization. This forgetfulness makes it impossible to access the proper nutrition and cuts off civility from its roots. The inevitable result is starvation and death. Modern man’s “metaphysical needs” remain unmet after the Montaignian failure.

Hartle, citing Edward Shils, explains that the “internal spine of civil society” must not be subject to the state’s coercive force. Institutions such as the family, church and university are responsible for the “internal spine” which must be free from any socio-political pressure. Unfortunately, ideology has now entered all aspects of community life due to society’s excessive politicalization. These conditions will make it impossible for civility to flourish without the freedom of expression.

Hartle claims that modern society has abandoned education by ignoring the need to develop character and the ability for judgment. The anarchic tendencies of human nature will be emancipated when honor and nobility no longer are necessary parts of the human personality to maintain civil peace. We see that civil disposition required suppression of honor and privatization of morality. It also required the draining the resources that gave it its strength.

Hartle claims that religion is the source of recognition of dignity of an individual, which recognition is the sine qua nonof civility. This claim shows that the problem in the modern world is the subordination of religion to the Modern State. In these circumstances, religion is reduced to an instrument without any connection to the divine dimension. Modernity and secularization cannot create a culture of faith and reason that is harmonious.

Hartle hopes that we can re-establish socio-political relevance to the natural law, moral virtue and concept of the common benefit by going back to Aristotle or Aquinas. Daniel Mahoney points out that the problem in this regard is that the traditional forms of Christianity are more or less disintegrated in the acid bath of Religion of Humanity. The paradoxical outcome of Christian charity being transformed into free-ranging compassion is an increase in cruelty in the community. Hartle draws inspiration from Flannery O’Connor’s statement that when compassion is taken from its source, the Classical-Christian tradition, terror and horror are the results.

Hartle finds Blaise Pascal a deeply appealing figure, even though he, like Montaigne rejected the premodern view on nature as a “cosmos”. Pascal understood that the modern project poses grave threats to humanity. Pascal was the one who believed that the old and the venerable could provide great wisdom and truth for modern men. Hartle sees Pascal as the Augustinian way back to the thoughts, sentiments and values of which modern man is most in need. This path can help us find a form Christianity that transcends the needs of our subjectivistic selves.

The rewards of spending time with this book are a greater awareness of the importance civility has on human happiness as well as a deeper appreciation for the art of Montaigne’s essays. Hartle’s book should be read by all who are interested in a deeper understanding about the crisis of modernity and Montaigne’s genius in particular.

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