This essay focuses on the manner in which Montaigne posits a fluid view of parity between humans and animals by disrupting, destabilising, and dislocating the supremacy of hegemonic human institutions of intelligence, reason as well as language via his skeptical engagement with antecedent texts. Initiating a reciprocity of gaze through his interrogative engagement with zoological testimonies, Montaigne’s writings rupture the dichotomy between the observer and observed, exposing the process of othering in attributing animals an innate brutishness and servility. Creating space for a shared parity between diverse creatures thus, Montaigne’s writings delineate a difference from the dominant discourse of human supremacy by transgressing the anthropocentric and dogmatic claims founded on human vanity and presumption.
Michel de Montaigne, in his essays, interrogates the “foolish pride and stubbornness” of human beings—which is substantiated by the presumptuous arrogance and the “dreams of human vanity”—in their dogmatic and anthropocentric views that positions them hierarchically over non-human animals (401-435). Reverberating his adherence to the tradition of Pyrrhonian skepticism, Montaigne initiates the question of what constitutes brutishness by highlighting the politics of gaze between the observer and the observed. Extinguishing what Jacques Derrida would term the “naïve assurance of man” (6), Montaigne posits a fluid view of parity between humans and animals by disrupting, destabilising, and dislocating the supremacy of hegemonic human institutions of intelligence, reason as well as language via his skeptical engagement with antecedent texts.
Montaigne enters his discourse in the segment, “Man is no better than the animals” by an intricate investment in the indiscernible defect that hinders a “full and complete communication” between humans and animals (402). The dogmatic attribution of the fault completely to animals that Montaigne questions then, exposes the hollow failures of human institutions of intelligence that are supposedly based on reasoning and logic. Language is further dislocated in the essay through the process of allegorising the inherent finitude of human intelligence and reason as Hassan Melehy states. Montaigne’s engagement with zoological writings from ancient literature substantiates, a “move away from fixed meaning, extend[ing the signs’] signifying capacities without discernible limit, and suggest[ing] that all human language might do likewise, whether we like it or not” (Melehy 279). There is a further literalisation of this permeability of language, one that traverses beyond human understanding, in Montaigne’s essay through the anecdote from philosopher Cleanthes regarding a negotiation by ants regarding the body of a deceased worm. Interrogating a capacity to respond and reason in non-human animals through their “mutual intercourse and communication” that exhibits the foolishness of human meddling, Montaigne’s text “mark[s] in advance a difference from the modern (Cartesian or post-Cartesian) form of a hegemonic tradition” of human supremacy (Derrida 163).
Further, an exposure of the false nature of judgement that characterises the anthropocentric worldview is substantiated in the essay through a discourse on the reciprocity of gaze when Montaigne asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (401). Invoking the notion of a shared parity between diverse species, the fixed binary between the seeing subject and the seen object is ruptured. The classifications of the human and the animal are, thus, fluidly transgressed through the Montaignian manner of inquisition. This manner of skeptical interrogation isn’t particularly invested in detailedly discerning animal aptitudes and attributes, as Hassan Melehy states, “but rather of certain phenomena presenting questions that may have to remain questions” (270). Montaigne’s employment of Pyrrhonian skepticism through his viewing of animals and humans thus destroys the idea of certain knowledge, proceeding towards the state of Ataraxia, where one is exempt from agitations caused by vain impressions of “the opinion and knowledge we think we have of things” (452).
Montaigne invokes this form of skepticism in his investigation of the dichotomy of nature and art as well. The essay highlights the ironic juxtaposition present in the derogatory attribution of a “natural and servile inclination” to the traits of other species that surpass human capabilities (Montaigne 404). Along with this, Montaigne’s discourse enquires the exclusivity of allocating the supposedly superior forms of reason and art only to human beings in a variety of ways. One of these include the substantiation of the “inward power of reason” that animals exhibit through detailed explanations (Montaigne 412). Diverse animal faculties, such as, the hedgehog’s ability to predict the flow of winds, colour changing skill sets of the octopus and the chameleon, among many other, posit non-human animals completely beyond the spectrum of human imitation, rupturing dogmatic and anthropocentric views. Thus, transgressing this hegemonic human pedestalization, Montaigne’s discourse can be seen debunking the centrality and power attributed to man in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man.
Montaigne’s skeptic scrutinisation of “human absurdity and vanity” is further implemented through the testimony of war—“the science of undoing and killing one another, of ruining and destroying our own species”—that is starkly different from the mannerisms of animals which are incessantly branded with inherent brutishness by human intelligence (422). This hollowness in the manner of classification echoes Montaigne’s inference in his essay, “Of cannibals”, where the label of barbarian is attributed to the cannibals based on the guidelines of reason. This supposedly logical reason, however, is utterly blind to the cruelty that is acted upon the body of an individual who is condemned. Montaigne thus problematises the attempt to rigidly define brutishness and barbarity. Foregrounding an extended incomprehensibility that exists between “a given man and a given man” over that between humans and beasts, the text dislocates these binaries (Montaigne 415).
Through these layered interrogations that mark the procedure of Montaigne’s essays, there is a distinct exposure and utter dissection of the hollow mechanisms of institutionalised power that posit humans “as masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes 142-143). Montaigne’s views on nature of human beings and animals can be seen therefore, contributing to the initiation of varied and diverse discourses, through the course of centuries, that offer a challenge to what Jacques Derrida would term as carnophallogocentrism. Montaigne invokes through his intricate skeptical inquiring, the permeability of language and its inability to merely silence animals. Positing a reciprocity of gaze through his interrogative engagement with zoological testimonies, Montaigne’s writings rupture the dichotomy between the observer and observed, exposing the process of othering in attributing animals an innate brutishness and servility. Creating space for a shared parity between diverse creatures thus, Montaigne’s writings delineate a difference from the dominant discourse of human supremacy by transgressing the anthropocentric and dogmatic claims founded on human vanity and presumption.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am, edited by Marie-Louise Mallet, Fordham University Press, 2008.
Descartes, René. “Discourse on the Method.” The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 1. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Melehy, Hassan. “Silencing the Animals: Montaigne, Descartes, and the Hyperbole of Reason.” Symplokē, vol. 13, no. 1/2, University of Nebraska Press, 2005, pp. 263–82, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40550630.
Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters. Translated by Donald Murdoch Frame, Everyman’s Library, 2003.