Virtue as the Masking of Vice: How to Live and Die According to Montaigne
Updated: Feb 7
For the French nobleman and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, the question of how to live and die were paramount and fundamental to the human experience. Central to this great task of living and dying well (which is the proper function of man) is virtue. Montaigne’s view of virtue is a bit convoluted, paradoxical, and extremely nuanced. A common thread seems to be that Montaigne eschews notions about the perfectibility of man through virtue. Unlike other thinkers, such as Aristotle--who believed that virtue could be habituated by training and bending one’s moral disposition towards virtue and away from vice through the deliberation of means--Montaigne is inherently skeptical about the agency of individuals to alter their innate moral disposition. Montaigne is however, quick to uphold Western notions about the fallen and sinful nature of man but does not accept a general and overarching view of human nature: like his view on virtue itself, Montaigne seems to recognize that each of us is uniquely flawed in different ways and to different degrees. Consequently, Montaigne’s view of virtue seems to be a covering of one’s true and (almost) unchangeable nature with beneficent actions. And yet, his view is also more complex as he asserts that virtue implies great struggle and mere right action is not necessarily synonymous with virtue. By exploring and explicating seemingly contradictory statements about the nature of virtue according to Montaigne, this essay will attempt to answer what virtue is—or at least what it consists of or looks like—for Montaigne.
Nature or Nurture: The Path to Virtue
Before one is able to explicate the nature of virtue and how (if at all) it may be attained for Montaigne, his view of the natural state of man must be explored. Throughout his Essays, Montaigne conveys and illuminates that man has a paradoxical and confusing nature. At times, human beings are capable of great feats and noble deeds and yet are also prone to great depravity, cowardice, and weakness:
The virtue assigned to the affairs of the world is a virtue with many bends, angles, and elbows, so as to join and adapt itself to human weakness; mixed and artificial, not straight, clean, constant, or purely innocent . . . Whoever boasts, in a sick age like this, that he employs a pure and sincere virtue in the service of the world, either does not know what virtue is . . . instead of portraying virtue, they portray injustice pure and simple, and vice, and present it thus falsified for the education of princes . . . The most honorable mark of goodness in such a predicament is to acknowledge freely our fault and that of others, to resist and hold back with all our power the inclination toward evil, to go down that slope unwillingly, to hope for the better and desire the better.
A nobleman at heart and by fortune, Montaigne was keenly aware to the reality that there is no monolithic hegemony that may be dubbed as “human nature,” but rather upheld that each human being was endowed with a unique nature with different predispositions, capacities, and propensities towards all things, including specific virtues and vices. As a result of this fundamental premise, it seems for Montaigne, no matter how well an individual suppresses his or her true nature, that nature itself remains unchanged: “Natural inclinations gain assistance and strength from education; but they are scarcely to be changed and overcome. A thousand natures, in my time, have escaped toward virtue or toward vice through the lines of a contrary training . . . We do not root out these original qualities, we cover them up, we conceal them.” This notion that we are sentenced to bear the burden of our innately endowed nature is a break from Aristotle’s conception of virtue as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics, where one’s nature (i.e. moral disposition) may be refined (and ultimately reformed) through the process of deliberation and habituation:
The exercise of moral virtue is related to means. Therefore virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act, and where we can refuse we can also comply. So if it is in our power to do a thing when it is right, it will also be in our power not to do it when it is wrong; and if it is in our power not to do it when it is right, it will also be in our power to do it when it is wrong.
For Montaigne however, virtuous action becomes something akin to the act of outwardly masking one’s internal vice; it is not by the genuine reforming of one’s moral disposition that an individual is able to act in accordance with virtue thereby refraining from vice, but rather the degree in which an individual seems to act virtuously will depend on the docility of the nature with which they have been endowed:
I have sometimes seen my friends call prudence (what Aristotle deems the embodiment of moral virtue) in me what was merely fortune and consider as an advantage of courage and patience what was an advantage of judgment and opinion and attribute to me one title for another . . . I am so far from having arrived at that first and most excellent degree of excellence where virtue becomes a habit . . . My virtue is a virtue, or I should say an innocence, that is accidental and fortuitous. If I had been born with a more unruly disposition, I fear it would have gone pitifully with me. For I have not experienced much firmness in my soul to withstand passions, if they are even the least bit vehement . . . Thus I cannot give myself any great thanks because I find myself free of many vices.
From the aforementioned passage and others like it sprinkled throughout the Essays, it is certain that Montaigne rejected another of Aristotle’s philosophical notions: that of happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue being able only to be identified posthumously by neutral arbiters. For Montaigne, the individual is the best arbiter and judge of one’s own moral disposition and therefore, the adage “know thyself” seems to apply. Because external parties are unable to recognize the internal state of another individual’s soul, they are incapable of judging and categorizing whether a given action or chain of behavior is indeed virtue, or rather docile and non-vicious action in accordance with a meek and tractable inner nature.
Virtue Implies Great Struggle and Is Contingent Upon the Individual’s Nature
In Areopagitica, John Milton famously argued that “cloistered virtue is not virtue at all”—in his Essays, Montaigne seems to present a modification of Milton’s poignant argument against censorship in the form: virtue necessarily implies great internal struggle and consternation. In simple terms, right action—if it comes to pass by a fortuitous nature—is not actually virtue for Montaigne, but rather something altogether different:
But virtue means something greater and more active than letting oneself, by a happy disposition, be led gently and peacefully in the footsteps of reason. He who through a natural mildness and easygoingness should despise injuries received would do a very fine and praiseworthy thing; but he who, outraged and stung to the quick by an injury, should arm himself with the arms of reason against this furious appetite for vengeance, and after a great conflict should finally master it, would without doubt do much more. The former would do well, and the other virtuously; one action might be called goodness, the other virtue. For virtue presupposes difficulty and contrast, and that it cannot be exercised without opposition. Perhaps this is why we call God good . . . but we do not call him virtuous: his operations are wholly natural and effortless.
Consequently it seems for Montaigne, something like restraint or repression is akin to virtue, rather than a God-like transformation or transcendence of the a higher part of the soul over the more base. For Montaigne, it seems no matter how virtuous an individual is, he or she never truly sheds all vestiges of our innately fallen nature: “What good I have in me I have, on the contrary, by the chance of my birth. I have gotten it neither from law, nor from precept, nor from any other apprenticeship. The innocence that is in me is a childish innocence: little vigor and no art.” On the same accord, those who have lost the vigor or aptitude to take part in vices they used to due to old age, are no more virtuous now than they were before, as virtue deals primarily with the will in so far as one has the potency to act.
And yet, another intricacy of Montaigne’s view of virtue and the human condition is the notion that there is no hegemonic monolith known as “human nature” that is perfectly homogeneous and common to all: for as he argues extensively in the Essays, there are varying degrees of human nature and some of us are much more prone to vices such as incontinence, licentiousness, and avarice, than others. Humble or otherwise, Montaigne attributes what his peers lauded as virtue as mere innocence and docility of nature: he even went as far to doubt his own agency to resist indecent desires—that is if he so possessed such desires. Montaigne’s recognition that he indeed had an indolent nature that would be largely incapable of resisting wicked desires is perhaps why he affirmed the notion that the individual was the best judge of his or her own character:
Those of us especially who live a private life that is on display only to ourselves must have a pattern established within us by which to test our actions, and, according to this pattern, now pat ourselves on the back, now punish ourselves. I have my own laws and court to judge me, and I address myself to them more than anywhere else. To be sure, I restrain my actions according to others, but I extend them only according to myself. There is no one but yourself who knows whether you are cowardly and cruel, or loyal and devout. Others do not see you, they guess at you by uncertain conjectures; they see not so much your nature as your art. Therefore do not cling to their judgment; cling to your own.
In this passage, Montaigne clearly breaks from Aristotle in two ways: namely he rejects the notion that an individual’s virtue may be measured by external arbiters and that moral virtue may be identified my magnanimity, or greatness of soul as demonstrated by external honors. Instead, virtue for Montaigne is something that is both internal and relative to a specific individual. Rather than an enumerated list of actions that are accessible and available to be performed for all, it seems that the accolade virtue is applicable in different ways—and to different degrees—for every individual who has their own unique nature. As a result, virtue for Montaigne becomes a sort-of ratio that is relative to the individual at hand.
An Earthy and Human Virtue
In the Essays, Montaigne eschewed the grandiose notions of virtue as being a quasi-divine state echoed first by Plato and later by Aristotle, and instead asserted stoical and Epicurean notions of virtue as a sort of tranquility of mind and soul that boldly faces the task of living and dying well and with a fully human dignity. Breaking with Platonic notions of the existential transcendence of the soul above the bodily prison, Montaigne invoked Seneca, “Who would not say that it is the essence of folly to do lazily and rebelliously what has to be done, to impel the body one way and the soul another, to be split between the most conflicting motions?” Proceeding further, Montaigne asserts,
Our mind likes to think it has not enough leisure hours to do its own business unless it dissociates itself from the body for the little time that the body really needs it. They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humors frighten me, like lofty and inaccessible places; and nothing is so hard for me to stomach in the life of Socrates as his ecstasies and possessions by his daemon, nothing is so human in Plato as the qualities for which they say he is called divine.
A large part of Montaigne’s seeming consternation with Platonism and other mystical and transcendental philosophies, may stem from Montaigne’s inaudible sentiment that human beings consist of both body and soul: two essential elements that coalesce together to form an imperfect whole. And thus, to embrace one while rebuking the other is antithetical to fulfilling the function of a human being: that is living and dying well, boldly and with dignity.
Humility is the First Step Towards Virtue
Thus far, I have attempted to show what virtue is for Montaigne for showing what it is not: an objective yet ethereal or God-like state of being that is attainable by all through habituation and right action, regardless of human frailty and weakness. And yet, there is a state of mind and being known as virtue that is both tangible and attainable that Montaigne seems to present—albeit in a convoluted and paradoxical manner—in the Essays. In his conception of the path to virtue, Montaigne’s Christianity is apparent, as it seems the first step on the sanctification process is the admitting of one’s fallen nature and propensity for vice: “The most honorable mark of goodness in such a predicament is to acknowledge freely our fault and that of others, to resist and hold back with all our power the inclination toward evil, to go down that slope unwillingly, to hope for the better and desire the better.” Montaigne takes his notion of skepticism towards one’s own nature even further, “I learn to mistrust my gait throughout, and I strive to regulate it. To learn that we have said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing; we must learn that we are nothing but fools, a far broader and more important lesson.” And thus it seems for Montaigne, a necessary contingency for virtue is the acknowledgment and acquiescence of our true and fallen nature, which fosters a sense of humility that is absolutely imperative for the attainment of virtue. For Montaigne, it seems man is neither wholly good nor bad, but is instead a ratio that is in constant flux and the recognition of this reality is paramount if virtue is to be embodied.
It what seems an apparent break from Christian teaching, Montaigne presents the reader of the Essays with a shockingly candid—albeit well-reasoned—approach to the concept of repentance, which introduces yet another nuance in his conception of virtue. Contrary to the established religious doctrines of his time, Montaigne saw no great need for repentance: “I rarely repent and that my conscience is content with itself—not as the conscience of an angel or a horse, but as the conscience of a man; always adding this refrain, not perfunctorily but in sincere and complete submission: that I speak as an ignorant inquirer, referring the decision purely and simply to the common and authorized beliefs. I do not teach, I tell.” Repentance seems to be superfluous for Montaigne, as he asserts that we judge souls by their mean and settled state, rather than by their ebbs and flows: “As vicious souls are often incited to do good by some extraneous impulse, so are virtuous souls to do evil. Thus we must judge them by their settled state, when they are at home, if ever they are; or at least when they are closest to repose and their natural position.” It seems that recourse and remediation in action is a better amelioration than merely admitting of fault without reforming one’s character. For Montaigne, repentance deals primarily with “sins of sudden passion,” as repentance for premeditated sins is not sincere or from a genuine humility of heart:
There are some impetuous, prompt, and sudden sins: let us leave them aside. But as for these other sins so many times repeated, planned, and premeditated . . . I cannot imagine that they can be implanted so long in one and the same heart, without the reason and conscience of their possessor constantly willing and intending it to be so. And the repentance which he claims comes to him at a certain prescribed moment is a little hard for me to imagine and conceive.
Hearkening back to Aristotle’s Ethics, it would seem that repentance deals with involuntary and non-voluntary sins of passion and incontinence, rather than deliberate and pre-ordained malice. As a result, repentance becomes largely superfluous in the sense that it is either not applicable because the one who must repent either lacks in self-control or is not sincere as their act of malice was done with a hateful and vindictive spirit.
What is Virtue and How to We Live Virtuously?
It has been implied that virtue for Montaigne is not a transcendental or esoteric state of being, but is rather something tangible, earthy, and simple. Montaigne’s notion of virtue is imbued with Epicurean and Stoic philosophy which tend to be materialistic in the sense that they celebrate the well-ordered enjoyment of human life in the flesh; this is unlike some strands of Platonism or even Christianity which tend to denounce the flesh in favor of the elevation of the soul in the pursuit of the Divine. Accordingly, it is living and dying with human fullness and unity between body and soul, that become the “greatest task of all” for Montaigne: “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” In a clear rejection of Aristotle’s magnanimous man, Montaigne asserts that the ordering of one’s own soul is the greatest task of all: “The value of the soul consists not in flying high, but in an orderly pace. Its greatness is exercised not in greatness, but in mediocrity. As those who judge and touch us inwardly make little account of the brilliance of our public acts, and see that these are only thin streams and jets of water spurting from a bottom otherwise muddy and thick.” And thus, Montaigne calls us to live as human beings, being kind and charitable and merciful to ourselves, others, and the natural world which is so incredibly beautiful. Montaigne presses upon us the fact that we are indeed human beings: both body and soul which are unified as one whole and therefore pleasures such as food, companionship, conversation, reading, sex, and so on are to be enjoyed temperately and moderately so as to neither deny nor relinquish our humanity:
Greatness of soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself. It regards as great whatever is adequate, and shows its elevation by liking moderate things better than eminent ones. There is nothing so beautiful as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbaries of our maladies is to despise our being. He who wants to detach his soul, let him do it boldly, if he can, when his body is ill, to free it from the contagion; at other times, on the contrary, let the soul assist and favor the body and not refuse to take part in natural pleasures and enjoy them conjugally . . . They (pleasure and pain) are two fountains: whoever draws the right amount from the right one at the right time . . . is very fortunate . . . Pain, pleasure, love, hatred, are the first things a child feels; if when reason comes they cling to her, that is virtue.
In this way, Montaigne’s conception of virtue as living within the bounds of natural reason and our dual nature (body and soul), is quite clearly a departure from the Christian monastic tradition of the Middle Ages (of which Aquinas was apart) that was derived—in large part—from the teachings of the neo-Platonists. Enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life—both those of the flesh and of the mind—has its roots in both stoicism and Epicurean philosophy: the latter of which Montaigne seems to be attempting to reinvigorate in some form in his Essays. It seems that for Montaigne, a recognition of the folly of our own affairs and the grapplings of the world are vital so as to not take ourselves to seriously and thus cease to be human. Still however, if we are to live virtuously, we must have a careful ear to listen for the voice of reason and conscience: the two pillars of the natural law that are essential if we are to walk the path of virtue: “I ignorantly and negligently let myself be guided by the general law of the world. I shall know it well enough when I feel it.” Living then for Montaigne, becomes a process of sanctification and purification in which we seek to continually refine and reform our soul: “It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully . . . The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.”
In Summary: What Virtue is For Montaigne
Virtue for Montaigne is an ideal to which all may aspire. Though it shares in goodness, virtue is something altogether different that implies great struggle. In this way, meekness, slothfulness, or docility of spirit are anathema to virtue, as virtue implies great internal struggle and conquest over one’s own base desires by the application of reason and conscience—which indicate in particular circumstances, right from wrong. Because we are never able to fully shed the vestiges of our innate nature, our task is to order our lives to the best of our ability if we are t to cover our internal vices with external virtuous actions. And yet, we must never cease to embrace our dual human nature that consists of both body and soul, as the two parts form one inseparable whole. As such, pleasures of the flesh like friendship are to be sought “temperately” and with moderation, always taking care to listen to our reason which allows us to be convicted by the general natural law that governs the world. Pain likewise, is to be avoided in so far as it does not compromise our character to do so. Montaigne’s notion of virtue is steeped in the doctrines of Epicurus, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, and many other brilliant thinkers. As a result, it is an extremely complex and nuanced view of virtue that is epicurean, Aristotelian, stoic, Christian, Renaissance Humanist, and even modern in origin. And yet, the central motif seems to be something along the lines of: strive for perfection in ordering oneself and one’s actions, but realize that to err is to be human and therefore to take things too seriously by any sort of self-flagellation is mere folly.
 Aristotle and J. A. K. Thomson, The Ethics Aristotle: the Nicomachean Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 122.
 Michel de Montaigne and Donald Murdoch Frame, 311.  Ibid., 306-307.  Ibid., 313.  Ibid., 619.  Ibid., 613.  Ibid., 856.  Ibid.  Ibid., 760.  Ibid., 822.  Ibid., 612.  Ibid., 615.  Ibid., 616-617.  Ibid., 850.  Ibid., 614.  Ibid., 852-853.  Ibid., 821.  Ibid., 857.