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Montaigne, memory, rhetorical strategy


Among the many classical authorities to whom Montaigne refers either through direct reference or quotation, little attention has been paid to Lucan and to his contribution to the intellectual and rhetorical strategies of the Essais. Hugo Friedrich, for instance, in his chapter on Montaigne’s intellectual inheritance from the classical world, does not even mention Lucan’s name. Although Virgil, Lucretius, Plutarch, and several others clearly have influenced both the style and content of the Essais in seemingly more direct and overt ways, Montaigne, nevertheless, turns to Lucan consistently and with regularity. The essayist directly alludes to Lucan on three occasions and quotes from his work in thirty-five separate instances. These quotations are evenly distributed throughout the Essais and represent a cross section of the Pharsalia, Lucan’s unfinished epic poem depicting the war fought between Caesar and Pompey during the final years of the Roman Republic. Upon reflection, Montaigne’s interest in the Pharsalia should come as no surprise. Lucan vigorously portrays in his poem the horrific and grotesque consequences of interne- cine strife, a topic to which Montaigne frequently turns in the Essais. As Michael Regosin has put it, Montaigne condemns the “physical and moral hostility of the outside world, the dominance of wickedness, vice, self-interest...on the verge of self-destruction by those who claim to save her.” The following observation of the French civil wars from “De la phisionomie" substantiates Regosin’s claim: “Monstrueuse guerre: les autres agissent au dehors; cette-cy encore contre soy se ronge et se desfaict par son propre venin. Elle est de nature si maligne et ruineuse qu’elle se ruine...et se deschire et desmembre de rage” [What a monstrosity this war is! Other wars are external and this one gnaws at itself and destroys itself with its own poison. Its nature, so malign and so destructive that it destroys itself...tearing itself limb from limb in its frenzy]. Compare Montaigne’s outrage in tone and point of view with the opening invocation from the Pharsalia: “Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos, / Iusque datum sceleri canimus, populumque potentem / In sua victrici conversum viscera dextra” [Wars worse than civil, across Empathia’s plains we sing, justice given over to crime; a powerful people, its conquering hand turned to strike its own innards] (1.1–3). While Montaigne often draws upon other sources for the details of the Roman civil wars, it is Lucan who characterizes that conflict in ways which resonate with Montaigne’s own perception of the civil conflicts in France during the sixteenth century. More specifically, Montaigne is attracted to Lucan’s reworking of the Latin literary tradition, especially the conventions of Virgilian epic. In its most basic form epic poetry delineates cultural norms by focusing on a common enemy and a shared history. Lucan turns epic on its head by depicting a people’s self-destructive fury and thereby transforms the genre into a medium for cultural criticism not celebration. I have chosen for analysis three representative examples from the Essais in which Montaigne exploits this critical perspective for his own purposes. In each example, a passage from the Pharsalia provides the catalyst for creating greater complexities through its interaction with other quotations, syntax, and the voice of the essayist himself.