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Montaigne

Master-Mind Lecture, delivered by Professor Terence Cave FBA, on 24 September 2004.

Montaigne is often said to be distinctively ‘early modern’ in the sense that his Essais appear to anticipate many of the features we would regard as belonging to the modern period: in particular, a relativistic or sceptical habit of thought and a deep and abiding preoccupation with what we would call ‘the self’. His book thus appears to mark a threshold, the point at which the ways of writing and thinking of another age begin to resemble our own. How should we interpret these signs of the ‘early modern’ in the Essais?

The question is in a sense anticipated by the Essais themselves. When Montaigne describes his painstaking attempt to track and record the activities of the mind, he gives us an uncannily powerful model of the difficulty of a history turned towards the inner world, the world of mental conceptions and feelings as they were experienced at a given moment and in a given context, in all their ephemerality.

This year’s Master-Mind Lecture will argue that Montaigne’s claim to be ranked as an early modern Master Mind rests primarily on his ability to imagine this world for us and give it linguistic substance. Using an approach which is at once literary and historical, it will analyse the syntactic and rhetorical fabric of a series of individual sentences in order to recover from them features of a mental landscape which looks familiar but which is not yet our own.

Speaker: Professor Terence Cave FBA, St John’s College, Oxford.

More about the Master-Mind Lectures

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