Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne II: Marie de Gournay (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Marie Le Jars de Gournay (1565-1646) was a minor aristocrat from Sancerre in central France who became a leading scholar and writer of her time, and an important advocate of women’s liberty through her scholarly career against the dismissive attitude of powerful men of the time, and through her writing in favour of equality between men and women. She was a friend of Michel de Montaigne, one of the great historical advocates of liberty if in a rather enigmatic manner, and he even treated her as an adoptive daughter. After the death of Montaigne, she lived on the Montaigne estate as a guest of the family, while preparing the third edition of Montaigne’s Essays, a contribution to the history of thought and thinking about liberty in itself.

Gournay’s work in the transmission of Montaigne’s thought is though just one episode in a life of writing covering translations of the classics, literary compositions, and essays. Two essays in particular mark important moments in the case for liberty to apply equally between the two sexes: The Ladies’ Complaint and Equality of Men and Women. In these brief, but rich texts, Gournay argues that there can be no liberty, where goods are denied, so since women have been deprived of the goods of equal esteem, there is no liberty.

She points to the frequency and intensity of denial of equal esteem to women and contests it through the examples in which women have been esteemed, or we can see that women have performed great deeds on a level with great men. The argument is very much that of a Renaissance Humanist, that is someone educated in the languages, history, and literature of antiquity, as great expressions of human spirit and with the assumption that these are the greatest expressions of human spirit. Greatness of literary, intellectual, and statecraft in modern languages, modern thought, and modern states, is possible where  continuing from the classical tradition. Since the emphasis is on pagan classical antiquity, the Humanists to some degree placed humanity above Christian theological tradition, though some Christians were also Humanists and secular Humanist achievements to some degree interacted with scholarship of the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible, along with the Greek and Latin used by church thinkers.

Gourany’s concerns are largely secular but she does deal with the place of women in the Bible. For the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) She points out that if the Queen of Sheba (often thought to refer to an ancient queen of Yemen, or possibly Sudan) visited King Solomon, because she knew of his great wisdom then she too must have had an interest in wisdom, and had some high level of scholarship, learning, and intellectual work herself.

With regard to the New Testament, she comments on St Paul’s injunction in his Epistles that women be silent in church and not take the role of priest. Gournay argues that Paul was not writing out of contempt for women, but fear that men would be distracted and tempted by women speaking out in church serves whereto as part of the congregation or as priests. The limitation on the role of women is not therefore based on beliefs about the supposed inferiority of women, but control of male desire.

On the role of women in the Bible, Gournay argues that in general we should not argue that it supports an inferior role for women, given that God created both men and women in the beginning, and given that men are commanded to leave their parents in order to find a wife. The connection between man and woman, and the idea that a man’s life is completed by association with a woman, is the main message of Christian scripture for Gournay.

Looking at the more secular aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity, Gournay deals with philosophical and with historical concerns. On the philosophical side she notes the importance that Plato gives to the priestess Diotima (unknown outside Plato’s writings) in his dialogue The Symposium, which appears to recount conversations about love in a dinner and drinking party in Athens attended by some of the leading people of the time.

Plato shows Socrates presenting the views of Diotima as the correct ones on love, and Socrates, the teacher of Plato, always appears in Plato’s dialogues as a representative of truth. So Gournay points out, it must be conceded that Plato claims that his ideas, and those of Socrates, are in some degree dependent on the thought of women of their time. In that case, Aristotle made himself absurd when  he claimed that women were defective and inferior, since he was the student of Plato and therefore was in some way formed by ideas that Plato said came from Diotima.

Plato’s student Aristotle may have claimed women were inferior by nature to men, but Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates regarded women and men as equal in virtue. Gournay also refers to the tradition according to which Aspasia, female companion of the Athenian democratic leader Pericles (admired by Plato and Aristotle though they did not share his democratic principles) was a scholar and thinker of the time. There is a lack of contemporary sources confirming this view, but this applies to much about the antique world, so Gournay’s suggestions about Aspasia are just as strongly founded as many claims about antiquity, and the investigation of tradition is itself an important part of any kind of intellectual history.

Moving onto Roman historiography, Gournay points out the role take by women in the tribes of Germany and Gaul, according to Tacitus. Women serve as judges of dispute and as battlefield participants inciting male warriors to fight fiercely. So she can point to a revered classic source, which suggests that women had roles in ancient France and Germany denied to them in those countries in early modern times. In general, as she points out, the antiques often referred to a tribe of female warriors, known  as Amazons, which may have some historical origin in Scythian tribes from north of the Black Sea.

Gournay uses her formidable Humanist learning to demonstrate the ways in which equality between men and women had been recognised in the ancient past, on some occasions in some places at least. Showing that women have been recognised as equal to men in some contexts is evidence that the lower status of women in many societies is a result of socially embedded prejudices rather than any difference in abilities. As Gournay notes, rectifying denial of rights to women is part of the basis for real enduring liberty.

Another Liberty Canon: Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) might be the least controversial of the list of thinkers who have inspired me on liberty, but are not part of the standard list of thinkers on liberty. He even appears in the extensive collection of the Online Library of LibertyNevertheless there is a need to develop more the nature of his thoughts on liberty, and related subjects, and not just leave his ideas in the hands of commentators who are not liberty oriented, who may be over optimistic about collectivist and state schemes to rectify various forms of dissatisfaction.

Amongst other things, Montaigne offers an ethic of individuality, which is not too tied to some very specific moral theory, and which is neither narrowly egotistical nor a demand for self-denial. He explores his own strengths and weaknesses with sometimes unsettling frankness to establish a form of individuality that is both affirmative and self-questioning.

Montaigne’s life work was his Essays, which are in large part concerned with a life lived through writing and through the reading of books, which inspire Montaigne’s own writing. This came fairly late in life though, after a career as a local judge, and a period of melancholy which may have been connected with the death of his friend Etienne de La Boétie, himself the author of a classic of liberty minded political thought, ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’.

Montaigne spent much of  his time in a tower on the family estate, writing in a book lined study. He did not write a big continuous integrated book, rather he wrote a series of essays of very variable length, which became the large cumulative classic, Essays. The individual essays range in length from about a page to more than two hundred pages in the case of ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’.

The title and themes of the essay just mentioned can be taken as an illustration of Montaigne’s way of writing. Sebond was minor Medieval philosopher, who seems to have been a follower of Thomas Aquinas, translated by Montaigne’s father, and accordingly the essay has an element of filial piety in its origin. However, the essay has little to say about Sebond’s philosophy as it ranges through the link with his father, the context of writing, numerous philosophical themes largely established in discussion of ancient thinkers, including animal nature, knowledge, doubt, and being.

Montaigne’s explorations in his essays, longer and shorter, are on his own account rambling and contradictory, though they are also written with great literary style and at a high level of reasoning with regard to the difficulties of arriving at consistent positions. Part of this is that his writing is about himself, what is going in his mind at the time of writing, and therefore what reflects his passing moods and ideas.

The result is not a mess of unconnected thoughts, but a simultaneous exploration of how the mind works and the workings of the world in which the mind exists. The emphasis on the self is a confirmation of the moral importance of the individual and Montaigne is one of the major contributors to the idea that every individual perspective and every inner world matters.

The importance of every unique consciousness is expressed in a revulsion at cruelty, in the use of state power, or in any other kind of context, which is both horror cruelty at others and despair at futile forms of self-sacrifice. Our regard for the world created by someone else exists together with our own determination to prudently preserve  our own world of experience.

There is self-criticism in Montaigne’s account since he had been a judge and was very aware that a perfectly just judgement was not always possible. The judge has duties to follow the letter of the law and the history of interpretations of that law, which do not always harmonise, so undermining the idea of perfect justice. Furthermore, both these requirements may often prevent a judge from acting according to inner conviction about the relevant facts of a case and the moral evaluation of them.

He was painfully aware that the poor tended to come off worse from such constraints. In general he took some pride in an understanding of the condition of the lower classes that his father had encouraged. Though he made no claims to great generosity towards the poor, he does provide an example of thought about how state acts, and other actions, change the lives of weakest and most marginal in unintended ways.

Montaigne does not have a clear suggestion to offer on how to avoid such problems. He does entertain some utopian scenarios in which humans live spontaneously,  according to perfect justice in small self-sufficient communities without a state, and without judges, or ‘expert professionals’  of any kind. Montaigne was sceptical about medicine as well as lawyers, and was an early critic of the idea of imposing ‘rational knowledge’ on communities.

We must also be aware that Montaigne offers a utopia here, and one in which property accumulation  and communication, commercial or otherwise, between communities does not exist. He did not think that would be desirable, so does not offer a consistent non-state vision or vision of pure custom replacing law and imposed expertise. He does offer a powerful sense of how these things can go wrong and the need to temper and contain them, in a way of thinking in which every individual counts, just as nature can create anything, and even the most ‘monstrous’ creations are to be valued as part of the abundant possibilities of nature. 

In some respects, Montaigne is an enigma, and not just because of the shifting point of view he offers. He is evasive on the difficult questions of the time: Was he a republican  or a monarchist? Was he a Christian? Was he a Catholic? He adopts the pose of a moderate monarchist and moderate Catholic Christian, but there are plenty of hints of doubts and leanings towards other perspectives.

I am inclined to think he was a religious sceptic, with strong materialist leanings, and a republican at heart, but there is no certainty about this. Though his prudence on these issues partly reflects the dangers appearing to oppose the state authority and state church of monarchist Catholic France , his capacity for such elaborate and complex prudence shows a capacity for tolerance, understanding, and inclusion, that is its own message.