Conscience in the Essays of Montaigne and Johnson

Part of the Studies in Literature and Religion book series (SLR)


The classic practitioners of the essay as an exercise of conscience are Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. Johnson and Montaigne differ in their substantive concerns, their ways of proceeding in ethical reflection, and their understandings of the essay form. Montaigne’s essays were published together in ‘Books’ in several editions; Johnson’s Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler essays, shorter and more clearly focused on one topic than Montaigne’s, were published individually as periodical essays or as regularly appearing sections of a newspaper. The essay developed considerably between the 1580s and the 1750s, and the writing of essays played different roles in the personal and professional lives of Montaigne and Johnson. Although they are rather different in many ways, however, the essays of Montaigne and Johnson also share certain crucial ethical concerns, and they are generally recognized as classic examples of the moral essay. In whatever way the outer boundaries of this genre are defined, their writings are central paradigms which give the moral essay its identity and significance both as a literary form and as a mode of ethical reflection. Indeed, their work shapes our very conception of the nature of the essay. Why this is so deserves interpretation.


Human Nature Human Condition Moral Knowledge General Truth Moral Life 
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  1. 1.
    Virginia Woolf, ‘The Modern Essay’, in The Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1925) p. 216.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Concordance des Essais de Montaigne, ed. Roy Leake (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1981) vol. I, pp. 265–6 cites 124 usages of ‘conscience.’Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Jerome Schwartz, in ‘“La Conscience d’un homme”: Reflections on the Problem of Conscience in the Essais’, in O Un Amy! Essays on Montaigne in Honor of Donald M. Frame, ed. Raymond C. LaCharite (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1977) pp. 242–76, surveys Montaigne’s use of the term conscience, and sees his conflicting statements on the nature of conscience as characteristic of Montaigne’s eclecticism.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Quotations by Johnson are taken from Essays from the ‘Rambler’, ‘Adventurer’, and ‘Idler’, edited by W. J. Bate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968). This readily accessible and handy edition has been used rather than the complete Yale Edition, which collects all of Johnson’s essays in Volumes II to V.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    The subject of Montaigne’s religious views and their relationship with his ethical thought has received extensive treatment. I have been most helped by Donald Frame’s Montaigne’s Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955)Google Scholar
  6. and especially R. A. Sayce’s The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972) which has influenced much of my discussion of Montaigne.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    W. Jackson Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955) p. 208.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    On Montaigne’s skepticism, see Richard H. Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (New York: Harper, 1968).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975) p. 295. See also pp. 493–6 for further explanation of ‘satire manquée’, a term which unfortunately gives the misleading impression that Johnson tried to write in another genre but failed.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Georg Lukács, ‘On the Nature and Form of the Essay’, in Soul and Form, translated by Anna Bostock (first published 1911; Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1974) p. 9.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Among works on Montaigne as an autobiographer, I have been most helped by James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography, chapter two, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972);Google Scholar
  12. Karl Joachim Weintraub, The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography, chapter eight, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978);Google Scholar
  13. and Jean Starobinski, Montaigne in Motion, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Herbert Fingarette, Self-Deception (New York: Humanities Press, 1969) p. 143.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John D. Barbour 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St. Olaf CollegeNorthfieldUSA

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