Κύρια Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton

Traditional approaches to understanding sublimity and skepticism have often asserted the primacy and importance of one concept over the other. However, in Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton, David L. Sedley argues that literary and philosophical notions of skepticism and sublimity simultaneously developed and influenced one another. By exposing the twin origins of skepticism and sublimity, Sedley contributes to ongoing discussions of the origins of modernity and genealogies of modern habits of criticism.Sedley uses the juxtaposition of Montaigne and Milton to argue that two seminal early modern phenomena, the rise of the sublime as an aesthetic category and the emergence of skepticism as a philosophical problem, are interrelated. The comparison of these two Renaissance writers highlights the traditions that have canonized them and also complicates the canonical views: Sedley's perspective reveals how Montaigne cultivated his famous skepticism in order to produce sublimity, while Milton forged his renowned sublimity through his encounter with skepticism. Sedley's first argument is that sublimity motivated skepticism: the sense that a force existed outside the aesthetic categories conventional in the Renaissance drove authors into a skeptical frame of mind. His second argument is that skepticism created sublimity: the skeptical mind-set offered alternative resources of aesthetic power and enabled authors to fashion a sublime style. These claims revise standard views of skepticism and sublimity, suggesting a mandate for an enriched aesthetics behind late-Renaissance loss of belief and exposing the Renaissance impulse behind modern notions of sublimity."Sedley's work takes seriously our ongoing engagement with doubt. It is a brisk and brilliant guide to the disparate pathways through which early modern skepticism made its way to the sublime."-Eileen Reeves, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Princeton University"Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton is a powerful piece of revisionist intellectual history. By demonstrating the close links between the rise of skepticism and the power of the sublime, Sedley offers a welcome antidote to the heavily ideological tenor of much recent cultural studies. With clarity and elegance Sedley shows that two of the greatest writers of the late Renaissance, Montaigne and Milton, are haunted by a crisis of authority, which is accompanied by the irruption of the sublime, by an inchoate sense of being overwhelmed by the phenomenal world. Through deft and intelligent readings Sedley shows how key moments in the works of these two great authors are structured by the intersection of the sublime and the skeptical. This book should be of great interest to literary scholars, aestheticians, and intellectual historians working in several languages. It is a very fine piece of work."-Tim Hampton, Professor of French, UC Berkeley"A refreshingly modern and elegant understanding of Montaigne and Milton as inaugurating the sublime possibilities of the fragmentary and incomprehensible. Sedley reinserts these writers into a history of the transformation of admiration into awe, and makes us revisit the beginnings and the justifications of our own esthetics of the sublime."-Ullrich Langer, Professor of French and Italian, University of Wisconsin
Χρόνος: 2005
Έκδοση: annotated edition
Εκδότης: University of Michigan Press
Γλώσσα: english
Σελίδες: 218
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Sublimity and Skepticism
in Montaigne and Milton

Sublimity and Skepticism
in Montaigne and Milton

DAVID L.

SEDLEY

THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS

Ann Arbor

For my family:
Mark, Jane, & Aaron Sedley

Copyright© by the University of Michigan 2005
All rights reserved
Published in the United States of America by
The University of Michigan Press
Manufactured in the United States of America
@ Printed on acid�free paper

2008

2007

2006

2005

4

3

2

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or otherwise,
without the written permission of the publisher.
Portions of the introduction and chapter I are reprinted by permission
of the copyright owner, The Modern Language Association of America.
A CIP

catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging�in� Publication Data
Sedley, David Louis, I968Sublimity and skepticism in Montaigne and Milton/ David L.
Sedley.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN�I3: 978�o�472�II528�o (cloth: alk. paper)
ISBN�Io: o�472�I I528�6 (cloth: alk. paper)
de, I533-I592-Criticism and interpretation.
I674-Criticism and interpretation.

I. Montaigne, Michel
2. Milton, John, I6o8-

3· Sublime, The, in literature.

4· Skepticism in literature. I. Title.
PQI643.S39
82I 1 .4-dc22

2005
20050I7929

Acknowledgments

THE FOLLOWING PAGES

were hard to write; they would have been a lot

harder without the help of the following people and institutions. The book
began as a dissertation in comparative literature at Princeton University
directed by Victoria Kahn and Fran<;ois Rigolot. I could not ask for a more
fortunate combination of mentors. Vicky taught me how to make argu-­
ments, while Fran<;ois taught me where to put them. Their lessons, moral
as well as intellectual, have permanent value to me. Other scholars whom
I met at Princeton told or wrote me things that resonate here: Sandra
Bermann, Robert Fagles, Alban Forcione, Lionel Gossman, Anthony
Grafton, the late Thomas Greene, Ronald Levao, Alexander Nehamas,
Volker Schroder, and Susan Wolfson. I am grateful for both their answers
to my questions and questions about my answers. Many of my best memo-­
ries of graduate school involve friends: Michael Cole, Gretchen Dietrich,
Naomi Kroll, Peg Laird, Melissa McCormick, Carol Szymanski, Brad
Verter, and Madeleine Viljoen. These people made my life of the mind at
Princeton livable. Howard Huang gets a sentence of his own for getting me
to relax in New Jersey and New York.
When I got to Haverford College I found tremendous support for
myself and my work. Deborah Roberts chaired the committee that hired
me and since then has been a source of intelligence, virtue, and inspira-­
tion. Israel Burshatin has counseled me wisely on more matters than I can
remember; to me, he puts the "liberal" in this liberal arts college. William

VI

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Galperin's reckless enthusiasm buoyed this project and helped me navi-­
gate it into press. The provosts of the college, Elaine Hansen and David
Dawson, provided the time and money necessary for the extension and
revision of the manuscript. The library, under the direction of Robert
Kieft, provided the right books at the right times. The professional and
personal support of many other members of the Haverford community and
of nearby institutions eased the challenge of pursuing research while learn-­
ing to teach: Koffi Anyinefa, Carol Bernstein, Lance Donaldson Evans,
Ignacio Gallup--Diaz, Marcel Gutwirth, Laurie Hart, the late Brad High,
Sean Keilen, Aryeh Kosman, Catherine Lafarge, Brigitte Mahuzier, Raji
Mohan, Bethel Saler, Ullrich Schoenherr, Paul Smith, Gus Stadler, and
Tina Zwarg.
The final round of revisions to the manuscript, particularly chapter 3,
happened under the influence of acute suggestions by Stephen Orgel,
Eileen Reeves, and two anonymous readers for the University of Michigan
Press. Throughout the review process at Michigan, I relied on the integrity
and expertise of Chris Collins. Ullrich Langer and Larry Rhu deserve spe-­
cial mention for their perennial support of my work.
As I write, official relations between France and the United States are
rather cool. From my standpoint, however, they are as warm as could be.
The French government awarded me a Chateaubriand fellowship, and the
Ecole Normale Superieure has provided me with housing, food, and per-­
petual access to its libraries. Emmanuel Bury, Jean--Charles Darmon, and
Gerard Ferreyrolles have welcomed me into their seminars and thus intro-­
duced me to the

fleur

of French scholarship. Most important, French

friends have given me a French life: Frank and Marie Accart, Quentin,
Emma, and Lucien Bajac, Amelie Blanckaert, Jean De Guardia, Camille
Esmein, Fran<;oise Mark, Lise Michel, Isabelle Olivero, Marie Parmentier,
Allan Patofsky, Yehiel Rabinowitz, Jean--Luc Remaud, Gonzalo Sanchez,
Michel Tissier, and Christine Van Geen. These people have done me such
favors of language, cuisine, and culture that it is hard to imagine myself
without them. I can only hope for the chance to return their generosity.
Last and most, Lisa Jane Graham has improved this book through her
uncanny knack for making my head spin while keeping it attached to my
body. For that I cannot thank her enough.

Contents

Introduction

I

CHAPTER ONE

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage
CHAPTER TWO

The Grandeur of Ruin in the Essais

43

CHAPTER THREE

Comus and the Invention of Milton's Grand Style
CHAPTER FOUR

Paradise Lost and How (Not) to Be Sublime
Conclusion
Notes

155

Bibliography
Index

134

201

185

108

82

18

Introduction

MUCH CONTEMPORARY DEBATE

about the sublime revolves around two

positions: the sublime provides either a way out of skepticism or a way into
it. Some theorists interpret human appreciation of the transcendence of
understanding implicit in sublimity as indicating something beyond mere
cognition and thus as anchoring epistemology and ethics. Others find in
the sublime not the removal but the institution of skepticism; they take
the defeat of understanding by the sublime as a sign of human incapacity
for knowledge or morality. For partisans on both sides of the debate, sub-­
limity serves as an aesthetic laboratory for deciding the human capacity to
know what is and what ought to be.
This controversy frequently appears as a rivalry between opposed ver-­
sions of the story of sublimity. Samuel Monk's seminal book, The Sublime:
A

Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth---Century England, which helped

spawn the twentieth--century industry of criticism about the sublime, pre-­
sents a teleological history of sublimity in eighteenth--century England.

1

Monk's history is teleological in that he portrays the Kantian sublime as
the "unconscious goal toward which Edmund Burke and other Enlighten-­
ment theorists groped" (6). Monk ascribes the shift occasioned by Kant's
account, whereby the experience of sublimity depends less on the object
perceived than on the mind of the perceiver, to Kant's overall project of
"rescuing thought from the slough of scepticism into which he saw that
the empiricism of Hume was bound to lead" (4). Positioning Kant as the

2

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

champion of eighteenth--century theory of the sublime, Monk's story ends
with the triumph of sublimity over skepticism, the evolution from the con-­
tingent truths of empiricism to the absolute truths of transcendental phi-­
losophy.
More recent treatments of the sublime, however, especially those by
psychoanalytic, deconstructive, feminist, and postmodern critics, tend to
identify the sublime as a further manifestation of skepticism.2 Such critics
contend that any transcendence of impotence and indeterminacy the sub-­
lime may seem to offer results from trickery or bad faith. Rather than her-­
ald sublimity as the transcendence of skepticism, they regard it as only the
disguised repetition of skepticism.
In these accounts Kant loses the privileged status Monk accords to
him. In "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," Paul de Man charac-­
terizes the argument in Kant's Critique of Judgment concerning the sublime
as a series of inconsistencies in which each attempt to resolve a problem
instead produces another: "The exchange from part to whole generates
wholes that turn out to be only parts" (95). De Man ruins Kantian sub-­
limity, rendering it one more case of skeptical fragmentation. According
to de Man, the robustness of this incoherence, the failure of the sublime
to secure an exit from skepticism through philosophical argument, indi-­
cates that Kant's analysis relies on rhetorical sleight of hand. De Man uses
this assertion to make a favorite deconstructive point, that what seems to
be philosophical argument "is in fact determined by linguistic structures
that are not within the author's control" (Ios). For de Man, the sublime
demonstrates that no argument can transcend its own indeterminate
foundations.3
Jean--Fran<;ois Lyotard, in "The Sublime and the Avant--Garde," goes so
far as to upend Monk's plot: instead of narrating a progression from Burke
to Kant, Lyotard moves achronologically from Kant to Burke. Lyotard's
story shares the teleological quality of Monk's, only it culminates not in
skepticism extinguished but in skepticism expressed. According to Lyo-­
tard, the evolution of the sublime, from Peri hypsous (On the Sublime), the
first--century treatise traditionally attributed to Longinus, to the twentieth-­
century avant--garde, involves a gradual dissociation from techne, the rules
an artist uses in determining the formation of the aesthetic object. With
these superficial aspects of the sublime discarded, only its essential func-­
tion remains, the attestation of indeterminacy: "With the advent of the
aesthetics of the sublime, the stake of art in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries was to be the witness to the fact that there is indeterminacy"

(IoI). The sublime of the avant--garde insists on a skeptical absence of

Introduction

3

determination, an absence remarked peripherally in Longinus and increas-­
ingly central in the progression from Boileau, whose influential translation
and analysis of Peri hypsous first appeared in r674, to Kant and then to
Burke, the forefather of the avant--garde.
In Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Lyotard appears to supersede
this demotion of Kant for insufficient skepticism by interpreting the Cri--­

tique of Judgment as a deeply skeptical document. Like a "meteor" ( 159),
Kant's discussion of sublimity pulverizes the bridge between mind and
nature he intended it to buttress: "The relation of thinking to the object
breaks down. In sublime feeling, nature no longer 'speaks' to thought
through the 'coded writing' of its forms" (52). Lyotard's skeptical reading of
the Kantian sublime, like de Man's, complements a larger critical project.
By arguing that sublimity spins beyond Kant's control, Lyotard undermines
a stronghold of Enlightenment thought and its tendency to construct
"grand narratives" as opposed to the "little narratives" necessitated by the
postmodern condition:4 "The beautiful contributed to the Enlightenment,
which was a departure from childhood, as Kant says. But the sublime is a
sudden blazing, and without future. Thus it is that it acquired a future and
addresses us still, we who hardly hope in the Kantian sense" (ss).s
Opposition to the skeptical school of sublimity has arisen. Frances Fer-­
guson, sensing that preferring Burke to Kant determines the deconstruc-­
tive diagnosis of the sublime, argues that the deconstructionists have mis-­
understood Kant.6 She considers moot de Man's accusation that the
Kantian sublime founders on inconsistencies, because inconsistency was
precisely Kant's point. Kant sought not to use the sublime to solve the
empiricist dilemma of mind and object but, rather, to use that dilemma,
the inconsistency of objective qualities and subjective affects, as a way to
recognize an a priori structure in ourselves. Christopher Norris, noting the
importance of a critique of Kant for postmodern critics, charges Lyotard's
treatment of Kant with disregarding Kant's intentions.? According to Nor-­
ris, Lyotard takes literally what Kant meant as metaphor, ignoring Kant's
caveats that one must discuss indirectly ineffable matters such as sublim-­
ity. Furthermore, Kant's aesthetic argument is not the keystone that
Lyotard takes it to be, so Lyotard's attacks, even if effective, would not
imperil the rest of Kant's critical edifice. 8
While far from exhaustive, this survey of interpretations indicates that
the sublime maintains a close but unstable cohabitation with skepticism.9
Although sublimity and skepticism occupy the same theoretical space,
their coordinates within that space change constantly. Theorists consis-­
tently propose a relation between the two but cannot agree on how they

4

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

relate. This disagreement results in an oscillation between two sets of pos-­
sibilities. Does sublimity resolve or perpetuate skepticism? Is the associa-­
tion between sublimity and skepticism antagonistic or symbiotic?
This oscillation is not limited to theories of the sublime, nor to those of
skepticism.

ro

One could argue, in fact, that it culminates a trend in twen-­

tieth--century theories of literature. Surveying chronologically the histori-­
cal criticism in the earlier years of the century, the New Criticism of the
1940s and 1950S, the deconstruction of the 1970s and 198os, and the New
Historicism of more recent years, one observes an increasingly profound
skepticism, first about the availability of meaning outside of the literary
text, then about the availability of meaning within the text, and finally
about any approach that is preponderantly either contextual or textual.
This advancing skepticism accompanies a progression into sublimity:
skepticism sustains an ever--widening vision of aesthetic objects and sub-­
jects and thus the mode of attention required to do them justice.
The case of New Historicism clarifies how the interaction of skepticism
and sublimity has swayed critical currents. New Historicism is a pertinent
example here for several reasons. It has had a powerful impact on early
modern studies. It remains among the most recently recognized critical
approaches to literature. Most important, its chief practitioner distin-­
guishes it from previous approaches in terms of the relationship between
sublimity and skepticism.
Stephen Greenblatt takes the occasion of introducing a collection of
his essays (Learning to Curse) to state new historical principles of reading.
He describes his criticism as a "trajectory" that began with his early doubts
about the persona and ideas of one of his teachers in graduate school,
William K. Wimsatt:
Wimsatt seemed to be eight feet tall and to be the possessor of a set
of absolute convictions, but I was anything but certain. The best I
could manage was a seminar paper that celebrated Sir Philip Sid-­
ney's narrative staging of his own confusions: "there is nothing so
certain," Sidney wrote, "as our continual uncertainty." I briefly
entertained a notion of going on to write a dissertation on uncer-­
tainty-to make a virtue of my own inner necessity-but the proj-­
ect seemed to me a capitulation, in thin disguise, to the hierophan-­
tic service to the mystery cult that I precisely wished to resist. For
the radical uncertainty (what would now be called aporia) with
which I was concerned was not, in the end, very different from the

Introduction

5

"mysterious and special" status of the concrete universal. Besides, I
had another idea. ( I ) I I
Greenblatt gives the impression that he abandoned his primitive skepti-­
cism for the kind of work that came to be known as New Historicism.
In fact, skepticism never loses its fundamental place in Greenblatt's
criticism but continues to shape it. I2 This skeptical form reveals itself at
defining moments, when Greenblatt approaches the limit of his "trajec-­
tory" and the pressure to pinpoint the new historicist perspective mounts.
Such moments challenge Greenblatt to take a stand without backsliding
into the dogmatism embodied by Wimsatt.
Greenblatt's efforts to remain true to his skepticism produce the promi-­
nent features of his method. The various expositions of New Historicism
throughout Learning

to

Curse consist of a series of maneuvers to outflank

settled positions. One such maneuver is to define New Historicism
indefinitely. "I am reluctant," says Greenblatt in the introduction, "to con-­
fer upon any of these rubrics the air of doctrine or to claim that each marks
out a quite distinct and well--bounded territory" (3). In "Towards a Poetics
of Culture," he distinguishes other schools of criticism from his own by the
"openness" of its practitioners to controversy while refusing to "enrol
themselves in one or the other of the dominant theoretical camps"
(146-47). In "Resonance and Wonder," the final essay in the collection,
Greenblatt once again expounds New Historicism, this time by offering
three dictionary definitions of "historicism" and then claiming that New
Historicism does not adhere to any but rather violates all of them
(164-68).
The famous use of anecdote is another strategy to avoid the "air of doc-­
trine." Whenever the introduction verges on a straightforward assertion,
Greenblatt tells a story. At one point, he says explicitly that anecdotes
provide an "insistence on contingency, the sense if not of a break then at
least of a swerve in the ordinary and well--understood succession of events"

(s). Anecdotes infuse arguments with a salutary uncertainty, purging from
them the causal explanations that infect sure opinions. Greenblatt reverts
to a story whenever his ideology threatens to stagnate into a firm convic-­
tion. Indeed, as if this statement about the effect of anecdotes itself risked
dogmatism, Greenblatt supplements it anecdotally by telling the story of
his father's storytelling (6-9). I3
Most important to my argument here, Greenblatt's efforts to define his
enterprise while honoring his skepticism result in the formation of an aes--

6

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

thetic category. The "trajectory" described in the introduction to Learning
to

Curse proceeds from the naked uncertainty of Greenblatt's doctoral days

to an aesthetics of uncertainty. New Historicism "describes less a set of
beliefs than the trajectory I have begun to sketch, a trajectory that led
from American literary formalism through the political and theoretical
ferment of the

I 970s

to a fascination with what one of the best new his-­

toricist critics calls 'the historicity of texts and the textuality of history' "

(3). New Historicism tends toward a "fascination," toward an act of ener-­
gized attention to the porousness of the boundary that divides texts and
history. Greenblatt characteristically adds to this description an anecdote
that elaborates both the ambiguity that concerns New Historicism and a
class of aesthetic experience to which such ambiguity belongs. He portrays
the political ferment that enveloped the Berkeley campus in the late six-­
ties, a fertnent that interrupted the various distinctions conventional to
the operation of a university. Having sketched the ferment, Greenblatt
then classifies it as "sublime" (4).
The elevated degree of attention implied by "fascination" and "sub-­
lime" develops throughout Learning

to

Curse. In the introduction, Green-­

blatt focuses increasingly on the aesthetic experience that literature
involves, such as the sensation of delight. He traces the source of literary
sensation to an indeterminate zone that is both textual and contextual and
therefore identifiable as neither. Greenblatt names this hybrid response
"wonder" ( I 3). Although in the introduction Greenblatt only mentions
wonder, the final essay in the collection is devoted entirely to it. The tra-­
jectories of both the introduction and Learning

to

Curse as a whole lead to

wonder.14
The structure of wonder, as a category of attention, bears the impres-­
sion of Greenblatt's basic skepticism. In "Resonance and Wonder," Green-­
blatt introduces wonder as the new historicist alternative to the old his-­
toricist veneration of the past. Furthermore, unlike the formalist attention
paid to texts by New Criticism, wonder leads to its own disintegration, as
wonderful attention to a text transforms itself into attention to context,
which Greenblatt calls "resonance." Resonance, in turn, reactivates won-­
der, so that the new historicist mode of attention oscillates between text
and context. The critic achieves wonder, then, together with resonance,
by skeptically refusing to adhere to either historicism or formalism in favor
of balancing both. Greenblatt suspends his belief in other perspectives in
order to arrive at his own. His New Historicism thus advocates an aesthetic
category whose structure conforms to the skeptical procedure of discover-­
ing one's own view in the process of doubting those of others. rs

Introduction

7

Greenblatt fashions out of skepticism the form of attention employed
by New Historicism. This wonder owes its porous structure to a deep
uncertainty about what merits the critic's attention. Carefully reading
Greenblatt's work, moreover, one senses that the converse is also true: not
only does his skepticism inform his aesthetics, but his aesthetics demands
his skepticism. Consider again how Greenblatt expresses his uncertainty
about the New Criticism of Wimsatt: "His theory . . . seemed almost irre-­
sistibly true, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a cel-­
ebrant of the mystery" (I). Greenblatt sounds dissatisfied with formalism
as with a false form of worship; a few sentences later, he refers to his rejec-­
tion of Wimsatt's "mystery cult." Greenblatt's reservations about New
Criticism do not take the form of simple doubt. After all, Wimsatt's theo-­
ries appear to Greenblatt "almost irresistibly true." Rather, he sees formal-­
ism as a "cult" of "hierophants" practicing an inadequate form of rever-­
ence. Greenblatt resists Wimsatt's theories not just because he doubts
them, but because he believes in a better way than Wimsatt's of attending
to the "mystery" of literature. This richer form of attention would do more
than pin aesthetic experience down to the formal features of a text. 16
Wonder, derived from both text and context, testifies to a grandeur of
aesthetic experience that Greenblatt will not shoehorn. Greenblatt is thus
an aesthete, insofar as he exalts the aesthetic above any one, text-- or con-­
text--bound explanation favored by more restrictive or less sensitive critics.
Greenblatt uses skepticism to create a realm where the origin of literary
sensation may remain unlocated and thereby inviolate. Even the relation
of this realm to historical context is indeterminate. Contrary to popular
perception, Greenblatt does not advocate a return from text to context so
much as he recommends an oscillation between text and context, because
the grandeur of aesthetic experience overwhehns the boundaries between
them and so belongs to both.
Greenblatt's brand of New Historicism manifests, most clearly in its
efforts to define itself, a double tendency toward skepticism and sublimity.
He declares the uncertainty fundamental to his intellectual development
and scrupulously avoids stating his critical precepts in absolute terms. He
relies on a sense of wonder to liberate the aesthetic force of literature from
any one fixed residence and thus to expand its territory ad infinitum.
These concerns, moreover, symmetrically lend depth to each other:
Greenblatt both develops losses of belief into an enriched aesthetics and
cultivates in an enriched aesthetics losses of belief.
The preceding discussion of New Historicism shows that the relation
between sublimity and skepticism extends beyond the direct treatments of

8

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

them. This book attempts to explain this relation. Local pressures-taste
or distaste for critical movements such as New Criticism, deconstruction,
or postmodernism, the culture of Yale in the sixties or Berkeley in the sev-­
enties, Anglo--American or Continental habits of doing philosophy, agree-­
ment with Kant or with Burke-certainly inform it. The following pages,
however, explore the possibility that the insecure intimacy between skep-­
ticism and the sublime also registers the influence of relatively remote fac-­
tors. While the roots of the current discussion obviously descend to the
Enlightenment arguments of Burke and Kant, they also reach a shift in
intellectual and cultural history that occurred toward the end of the
Renaissance, or in other words, toward the beginning of the modern
period. The cohabitation of skepticism and the sublime observable in
recent criticism derives not only from critics' ideas, inclinations, and expe-­
riences but also from the situation of sublimity and skepticism in a post-­
Renaissance, modern culture, where epistemological difficulty and aes-­
thetic force energize each other.
I argue that two early modern phenomena, the rise of the sublime as an
aesthetic category and the emergence of skepticism as a philosophical
problem, are interrelated. This argument, developed through studies of
Montaigne and Milton, takes on complementary forms. The first is that
sublimity motivated skepticism: the sense that a force existed outside the
aesthetic categories conventional in the Renaissance drove authors into a
skeptical frame of mind. The second is that skepticism created sublimity:
the skeptical mind--set offered alternative resources of aesthetic power and
enabled authors to fashion a sublime style. These claims revise standard
views of skepticism and the sublime, suggesting a mandate for an enriched
aesthetics behind late--Renaissance loss of belief and exposing the Renais-­
sance impulse behind the modern career of sublimity.
I pursue these concerns in chapters on Montaigne's Journal de voyage
and Essais and on Milton's Comus and Paradise Lost. While these individ-­
ual episodes address Renaissance scholars, the narrative as a whole appeals
to intellectual historians and critical theorists, who have been indepen-­
dently telling stories of skepticism and the sublime. Historians of ideas
examine the impact of skepticism on early modern culture to see how its
intellectual enterprises assume their modern forms. Meanwhile, successive
schools of literary theory have appropriated the sublime in order to articu-­
late and justify their methodologies. By exposing the twin origins of skep-­
ticism and sublimity, I hope to contribute to ongoing discussion of the ori-­
gins of modernity and genealogies of modern habits of criticism.
The contemporary prominence of sublimity is the inheritance of what

Introduction

9

I have just called "the rise of the sublime." To say that the sublime rose is
not to say that sublimity at one point did not exist, but rather that during
the seventeenth century sublimity moved from the periphery to the center
of discussions of what constitutes the experience of art and why art mat-­
ters. Before its rise, sublimity was just one among a cluster of similar con-­
cepts, as a vein of interest in aesthetic extremes, especially admiratio (won-­
der), cut across several domains of Renaissance culture. 17 Over the last
fifteen or so years, scholars have freshly defined the early modern period as
an age of the marvelous, whose key activities revolved around the produc-­
tion of wonderful sensations. Wonder was perceived to confer value on the
activities of physics, biology, anthropology, exploration, the collection of
oddities, the study of monsters, the visual arts, and especially literature. In
the Renaissance, it was given that an author (particularly of tragedy and
epic) should relate an incident as marvelously as possible. rS But whereas
during the Renaissance admiratio presided over literary creation and recep-­
tion, subsequently wonder ceded prestige to sublimity as the way that one
was supposed to move and be moved.
Explanations of this shift have traditionally revolved around the trans-­
mission of the Longinian treatise Peri hypsous (On the Sublime), which con-­
cerns a distinctively explosive and sensational notion of grandeur. The
sublimity of Longinus involves less a well--defined species of expression
than an ephemeral and elusive quality that inheres in and emanates from
great writing regardless of its style. The treatise elaborates particularly the
sensational aspects of grandeur, depicting it as a form or state of attention
that great literature compels its audience to enter. Longinus emphasizes
the aesthetic experience of sublimity to such an extent that it becomes an
essential ingredient: while a variety of formal features may provoke the
effect of sublimity (such as asyndeton, change of case, word order, and
rhythm), the effect itself remains consistent. On the Sublime abounds with
aesthetic responses, all of which share the characteristic of intensity, the
result of a powerful impact. The very extremism that unites these sensa-­
tions into the category of sublimity resists categorization. The sublime
transports readers out of themselves: r9 the state of attention created by sub-­
limity is not just grand in comparison to other states but superlatively so to
the point where it does not really comprise a state at all. Sublimity is a
state of ecstasy, a state that transcends statehood. Consider one of Longi-­
nus's comments on Homer: "He uses a cosmic interval to measure their
[i.e., the divine horses' at Iliad 5· 770-72] stride. So supreme is the grandeur
of this, one might well say that if the horses of heaven take two consecu-­
tive strides there will then be no place found for them in the world"

IO

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

(9·5.187). What fascinates Longinus is not so much movement between
places as tnovement out of place per se. He focuses on an aesthetic anti-­
category, a category that paradoxically contains a force that overwhelms
all containment.
The special contents of the Longinian text inspire Monk to begin with
Boileau as its first major modern transmitter, and this chronology still
serves most theoretical accounts of sublimity, whose references rarely go
earlier than the eighteenth century.20 This timeline is out of date, how-­
ever, as literary historians have illuminated a pre--Boileauvian tradition
that reaches into the Renaissance. Philological research has demonstrated
that Longinus had a wider distribution and appreciation subsequent to and
even before Francesco Robortello's editio princeps (1554) than previously
realized. 21 The exposure of this earlier phase to modern sublimity rein-­
forces the notion of the Renaissance as an age of the marvelous where
interest in aesthetic extremes flourished. Awareness of the availability of

On the Sublime long before its vogue also suggests, however, that interest in
Longinus did not cause interest in sublimity so much as the other way
around: it was the search for something more than admiration that led to
the rediscovery of Longinus.
A new question, then, arises: what would drive such a search? Freed
from the strictly Longinian tradition and thus open to the concerns that
promoted the popularity of On the Sublime as well as those that were gen-­
erated by it, historians of the pre-- Boileauvian sublime have proposed some
answers: the desire to bolster a monarchy threatened by civil war or a papal
authority threatened by theological schism, the loss of familiarity with
conventional techniques of persuasion due to pedagogical negligence, or
the perpetuation of the ancient trend toward a rhetoric that appeals to
volition as well as cognition.22
The answer that I would like to propose is skepticism; in order to
explain why, it is necessary to say something about the Renaissance in
general. The wild complexity of Renaissance culture makes any general-­
ization about it at least somewhat mistaken. Nevertheless, a deep streak of
concern with the revival of antiquity runs from Petrarch to Peiresc. This
preoccupation was far from being a unique or exclusive feature; but it was
perhaps the most consistent one, and it is the one most consistently rec-­
ognized by scholars.23 Through such strategies as philology, archaeology,
and imitation, Renaissance artists and thinkers in various fields were inter-­
ested in trying to recollect pieces of ancient culture-texts and temples,
ideas and styles of expression-that had been scattered or lost after the fall

Introduction

I I

of the Roman Empire. A certain optimism subsidized this economy of
recovery, an optimism about the capacity of the early modern mind to per-­
ceive and reconstitute the grandeur of antiquity. The idea was that the
Renaissance mind could, despite obstacles, apprehend and represent
ancient civilization as a model for early modern thought, art, and con-­
duct.24 The Renaissance preeminence of such notions as admiratio
reflected the investment of Renaissance culture per se in strategies of recu-­
peration. Admiratio and its relatives fed off and into the Renaissance econ-­
omy of recovery. They also, of course, structured its discourse of discovery
in encounters with the New World. In various ways, wonder supported
and depended on the potential of the mind to recover what is lost, to illu-­
minate what is obscure, to know what is ignored.
Skepticism threatened this confidence and the projects it sustained.
Skepticism involves doubt; a skeptic resides in a state of ignorance, too
sensitive to the difficulties of knowing to claim knowledge about anything.
As skepticism emerged in the late sixteenth century as a prevalent intel-­
lectual orientation (I will say more about the rise of skepticism presently),
it interfered with the optimism about what the Renaissance mind could do
in the way of knowing and reviving ancient culture. Skepticism thus inter-­
rupted the Renaissance economy of recovery, and in doing so, drained the
notions sustained by that economy-such as wonder-of some of their
power. In the meantime, however, sublimity rose, because the absence of
knowledge both deprived wonder of its primary source of energy and sup-­
plied the source that fueled sublimity. Whereas the wonderful reaches the
frontier of understanding, the sublime plunges the mind into confusion.
Knowledge inspires wonder; sublimity thrives on ignorance, the only
inspiration available in the modern age of skepticism.25
Using skepticism to understand the rise of sublimity thus helps to dif ..
ferentiate it from its Renaissance rivals and to account for its subsequent
success. This pairing illuminates skepticism as well. Ancient skepticism
consisted of a series of philosophical schools concerned with the manufac-­
ture of eudaimonia, or well--being.26 Skeptics employed doubt as a means to

ataraxia, a tranquility undisturbed by the trauma of having to abandon
beliefs in a world where beliefs are constantly overturned. The skeptic
achieves this therapeutic end by suspending judgment so as to have no
beliefs to abandon. This suspension, accomplished through a series of
tropes or modes of argument, purges the mind of any dogmatic position
that would otherwise incite commitment and ultimately, in the deceptive
world of appearances, disquiet. The skeptic thus becomes an expert at rais--

12

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

ing doubt, at calling attention to a distance between the mind and the
objects of its cognition, at fragmenting one absolute truth of the matter
into multiple and equally possible truths. 27
The rise of skepticism during the early modern period has received
extensive treatment by scholars. During the medieval period, doubt as an
intellectual attitude obviously persisted, but the schools of thought called
"skeptical" in antiquity subsided. 28 Intellectual historians tend to describe
the early modern rise of skepticism as an epistemological accident trig-­
gered by two events: the recovery of ancient texts by humanism and the
theological controversy that arose as a result of the Reformation. 29 Renais-­
sance humanists recovered, diffused, and studied texts that contained the
ideas and arguments of ancient skepticism: the Lives of the Philosophers by
Diogenes Laertius, Cicero's Academica, and especially the works of Sextus
Empiricus, first published in

I 562

but previously circulated in manuscript.

Around the same time, the Reformation challenged the authority of the
church to establish what counted as religious truth. By rejecting what the
church used to determine truth (Roman tradition) in favor of another cri-­
terion (what one believed from reading the Bible), Luther created an
intellectual environment open to the influence of skeptical ways of
thought. In other words, skepticism became useful, and so was employed,
in a context where the criterion of truth, the sign or mark one pointed to
in order to distinguish true from false, was up for grabs. Having entered the
theological realm, skepticism then seeped by osmosis through the texts
supplied by Renaissance humanism into other domains where knowledge
was sought. Eventually, the incremental absorption of skepticism by Mon-­
taigne and other thinkers precipitated a crisis of knowledge, the recogni-­
tion that the difficulty of knowing was a problem that had to be addressed
for doing serious work in a number of fields-especially philosophy, where
skepticism became the major preoccupation of Descartes and Hume.
This account of the rise of skepticism was originally proposed by
Richard Popkin in a book first published in I 960. Accepted as standard for
decades, Popkin's thesis has only recently come under attack by a new
generation of scholars.3° These scholars question the link drawn by Pop-­
kin between skepticism and fideism, suggest that sixteenth--century skepti-­
cism differs from the skepticism of later centuries, and maintain that dur-­
ing even a single period there is less skepticism than there are
skepticisms.31 In an important respect, however, these criticisms follow
Popkin rather than break with him. They follow insofar as they still work
on the tradition of explicitly engaging problems of knowledge from Sextus
to Hume that Popkin outlined. Lately, however, critics writing in French

Introduction

I

3

and using literary materials have revealed that the history of skepticism
involves more than a series of explicit discussions.32 Terence Cave in par-­
ticular has demonstrated that during the early modern period epistemo-­
logical trouble often surfaced in mysterious ways. Uninvited, unannounced,
and even unwelcome, doubts slipped into literature and disturbed its official
procedures. Such stealthy intrusions suggest that more motivated the rise of
skepticism than the philological seepage of ancient ideas into philosophical
discussions.33
Making the connection between skepticism and sublimity specifies
what some of this extra motivation was. The overwhelming impact of
skepticism subsequent to its rise has inspired commentators to found on it
a theory of modernity. According to this theory, modernity happens when
skepticism becomes irresistible. Although many modes of doubt more or
less recognized as "skeptical" existed throughout the Renaissance, toward
its end skepticism acquired a contagious energy and a transformative
impact. A number of notions and areas of thought were obliged to con-­
front skepticism and adjust to its influence. The result of these adjust-­
ments, as their historians have shown, was a series of characteristically
modern structures.
Popkin himself explains the modernization of philosophy as the after-­
math of Descartes's doomed effort to overcome doubts about the possibil-­
ity of knowledge. Despite his "heroic" effort, Descartes left skepticism
"unsolved and insoluble at the base of all modern philosophy" (I 57). Pop-­
kin also traces the effect of doubt on scientific hopes of knowing the essen-­
tial natures of objects. In the face of the "full force of the sceptical attack,"
the science of essences pursued by Galileo gave way to the pursuit of
hypotheses about the way the world appears (I I2). This new approach,
formulated in France by Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi and adopted
in England by the Royal Society, eventually defined the aspirations of
Newtonian physics (I24).34 Whereas Galileo thought he could grasp the
reality of what he observed, Newton forwent that ambition and tried
instead to account for the apparent surfaces of his observations.
The model of modernity erected by Popkin for philosophy and science
has been extended to other fields. Richard Tuck, for example, studies the
increasing importance of skepticism about moral principles to early mod-­
ern theories of government, which veered away from the idea of an inher-­
ently rational state and toward new conceptions of Realpolitik, raison
d'etat, and social contract. Tuck's account culminates with Hobbes, whose

skepticism inspired him to abandon the search for the natural structure of
government in favor of artificial standards of civility. Once the ideal way

14

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

to organize society became unknown, a practical arrangement became
necessary to avoid chaos.Hobbes, claims Tuck, "saw deeper into the issues
of relativism than any philosopher of his time....For that reason he must
remain the foundational philosopher of our political institutions." 5
3 In his
study of the development of modern historiography, Zachary Schiffman
argues that the sensitivity to differences between various cultures inspired
by late--Renaissance skepticism provoked historians to focus "not on what
endured through change but on what was new and unique" ( 76).36 This
focus ultimately yielded Giambattista Vico's understanding of history as
an evolutionary process, an understanding that Schiffman identifies as
"the prototype of our own ...relativism" ( 136).37
The theory that underwrites these histories of intellectual enterprises
follows an equation in which skepticism makes the difference that consti-­
tutes modernity. The old form of a discipline plus skepticism equals the
new configuration.The absorption of doubt into the domains just surveyed
converted each one to its modern format: analytic epistemology, empirical
science, social contract theory, developmental historiography.
The differences made by skepticism, however, stemmed from its repeti-­
tion. The irresistibility of doubt meant that detours around it had closed
and that only thinking through doubt remained possible. As a conse-­
quence, once raised, uncertainty persisted as part of the solution to the
very problems it had created. The classic example of this double role of
skepticism is Descartes, who insisted on knowing the essential truth and
yet took skepticism seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he used doubt to
answer the very questions that doubt had raised.Descartes inspected what
the doubter says (i.e., "I doubt") for criteria of truth (i.e., clarity and dis-­
tinctness), which he then used to identify all further truths that interested
him.Descartes recycled the doubter's discourse as a picture of what know-­
ing looks like, which once in hand, functioned as an epistemological field
guide. The critics of this procedure claimed the result to be not less but
more skepticism, and indeed Descartes did not eradicate skepticism as
much as he registered its preeminence in modern philosophy.38
In the following pages I will argue that the phenomenon exemplified by
the case of Descartes-intellectual industries recycling skepticism and in
the process assuming their modern structures-also occurred in the field of
aesthetics.The result of the confrontation and absorption of skepticism on
these grounds was the rise of the sublime.39 The story of the rise of sublim-­
ity as a function of skepticism will add evidence to the skeptical model of
modernity. This story will also suggest why this paradigm is so powerful,
and thus why modern skepticism has such power.Crediting doubt with its

Introduction

I

5

part in the construction of sublimity does more than further document the
spread of epistemological trouble throughout early modern culture and
thus once more confirm the equation that what's old plus skepticism
equals what's modern. An account of the aesthetic use of ignorance tells a
different story, a story that enriches one's notion of what skepticism is.
Sublimity is not only the effect of skepticism but also its cause: exposing
what doubt motivates also exposes the spur to suspend belief. By seeing
that skepticism contributes power and style to literature, one sees that
ignorance contains a potent form of expression. And when one sees that
skepticism makes such a compelling contribution, one sees how forceful it
must be for modern thought and art.
Sublimity and skepticism belong together, therefore, because they are
incomplete apart. Since they developed not just collaterally but con-­
jointly, each answers questions about the career of the other. Skepticism
helps make sense of the rise of the sublime over wonder and its Renais-­
sance cognates. The sublime helps account for the irresistibility that char-­
acterizes the rise of skepticism. 4o
While the first juxtaposition proposed by the title of this book may be
anticipated, the second one, between Montaigne and Milton, is likely a
surprise. The faithful, Protestant, and Republican poet would apparently
have little to do with the skeptical, Catholic, and noble essayist. A com-­
monplace ofMilton criticism dictates that he cared far less for French than
(say) Italian writing. My selection of authors, however, primarily respects
the problem of skepticism and the sublime. Montaigne holds an important
place in histories of skepticism as the first Renaissance thinker to absorb
deeply the ideas of ancient doubters. Milton wrote the first postclassical
poetry consistently considered to be sublime. The juxtaposition of these
two authors thus coordinates the traditions that have canonized them and
reveals how interrelated those traditions are. This perspective also compli-­
cates the canonical views ofMontaigne andMilton. Montaigne cultivated
skepticism, I argue, in order to produce sublimity. Milton forged sublimity,
I contend, through his encounter with skepticism.
This study, furthermore, does not concern influence in the standard
sense. Whether or not Milton read Montaigne is less important than the
impact of skepticism on Milton. Such impact does not read as a series of
explicit references to skeptical themes. I have already mentioned that
early modern doubt flowed through unrecognized and unwarranted chan-­
nels. This characterization applies doubly to skepticism combined with
sublimity, which resembles not so much a concept proposed to the mind as
an explosion that blows it. Their relation thus generated disturbances that

16

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

overrode the conventional circuits of influence and whose detection
requires reading outside them. In this context, the absence of direct con-­
nections between Montaigne and Milton does not prevent but rather
encourages their conjunction.
The third reason for pairing Montaigne and Milton involves the mod-­
ern trajectory that I have treated earlier in this introduction as an impli-­
cation of my argument. While I take the term "early modern" seriously, I
do not accept modernity as a teleological or punctual process. The selec-­
tion of heterogeneous authors and the various genres they practice-travel
journal, essay, masque, epic-respects the notion that early modern cul-­
ture does not evolve into modernity at any one time or place, but rather
over a range of coordinates that define, however indefinitely, a threshold.
This study seeks to contribute to the enterprise of locating some points of
this threshold.41
Finally, in case it is not already obvious, I would like to point out that
this book is not a survey of the history of the relations between sublimity
and skepticism. Rather, it is an essay in comparative literature that pro-­
poses a model of reading. I have chosen to concentrate on Montaigne and
Milton because I am less interested in covering a range of material than in
opening a range of problems embedded in that material. The spectrum of
these problems-modernity, aesthetics, influence, New Historicism, and
interdisciplinarity (in addition to the ones in my title )-is generated by a
focus on a cluster of texts. I do not, moreover, mean to suggest that my
close--ups are qualitatively superior to a bird's--eye view of the Renaissance
favored by other studies.42 Both perspectives can enrich how we see early
modernity, and those who study early modernity will want to see both.
Chapter I studies the encounter between skepticism and archaeology
triggered by Montaigne's visit to Rome in 158o-8I. In his Journal de voy-­

age, Montaigne views as reductive the Renaissance efforts to admire the
ruins of the capital by reconstructing them. His meditation on the ruins
uses this doubt to develop an alternative discourse of grandeur paradoxi-­
cally through fragmentation. Montaigne's skepticism thus depends on a
dissatisfaction with the capacity of wonder to respect ancient eminence
and results in the form of respect to be known as the sublime.
Chapter

2

explores the hypothesis that the fragmentary discourse of

grandeur deployed in the Journal also defines the Essais. Montaigne's mas-­
terpiece presents a series of ruined structures: essays, citations, ellipses.
These textual ruins take shape in the epistemological vacuum created by
skepticism and in accordance with its procedures of mental detachment.
Skeptical undoings dismantle the conventional Renaissance claims to

Introduction

I7

grandeur (admiratio, furor, copia) only to discover in their ruins the articu-­
lation of the passions that animate the entire Essais project: Montaigne's
reverence for antiquity and his love for his departed friend Etienne de la
Boetie, bearer of the "ancient mark." Basic to the Essais, therefore, is a
sublimity that both requires and inspires their skepticism.
Chapter 3 shifts the focus to Milton and particularly to his formative
encounter with the extreme aesthetics of the English masque. Rather than
leading its heroine to the science of magnificence usual to the genre, the
plot of Comus insists on the Lady's failure to recognize the objectivity of
her perceptions. She finds in her confusion, however, an echoic pattern,
which generates the song to Echo that allows her to get the attention of
others and then pay attention herself. As a "Lady" himself, Milton repre-­
sents his own effort to find a way of writing that resonates with the skepti-­
cism troubling English culture in the early seventeenth century. Comus
thus portrays Milton in the process of inventing through skepticism the
sublime style for which he would eventually become famous.
Chapter 4 traces the source of the reputation of Paradise Lost for sub-­
limity. While Milton's masque represents the discovery of his grand style,
his epic offers lessons in elevation through the negative example of Satan.
Satan's downward mobility is the consequence of his bad taste founded on
his arrogant attitude toward knowledge. Andrew Marvell's introductory
poem to the twelve--book edition ( 1674) suggests how early readers could
access and assimilate the interplay of eminence and ignorance that Par--­

adise Lost promotes. Milton's epic, therefore, does not merely offer a pas-­
sive site for its readers to build their theories, but rather includes a blue-­
print for the skeptical construction of sublimity.
The individual chapters not only support the overall argument, but
also demonstrate the capacity of that argument to produce what I hope are
convincing and helpful readings of great and difficult works. The conclu-­
sion, more speculative than the preceding chapters, considers how the pre-­
history of the sublime and its relation to skepticism may enrich studies of
sublimity as an Enlightenment phenomenon. Burke not only uses Milton
as evidence for his theories, but theorizes according to Miltonic principles.
Kant's reading of sublimity exploits the value of fragmentation established
by Montaigne and cultivated by Pascal. These connections suggest a fresh
way to understand the collective indecision of the great theorists about
whether epistemological difficulty energizes or enervates aesthetic force.
They also bring us closer to the frame of mind that shaped the texts that
still animate our contemporary debates.

CHAPTER ONE

Sublimity and Skepticism in
Montaigne's Journal de voyage

'
MONTAIGNE s MEDITATION

on the ruins of Rome in the Journal de voy-­

age, his major written work after the Essais, serves as my initial example to
elaborate the set of claims advanced in the introduction. I treat the Jour-­
nal first because it illustrates every aspect of my overall argument about
sublimity and skepticism: their association; the role of Renaissance skepti-­
cism in forming and promoting sublime style and sensation at the expense
of such notions as admiratio; the aesthetic mandate and nature of early
modern doubt; and the involvement of skepticism and the sublime in the
transition from Renaissance to modern culture.
Montaigne's meditation illustrates these arguments so well because it
epitomizes Montaigne's encounter with both Renaissance aesthetics and
the Renaissance per se. By meditating on Rome, Montaigne confronts
admiratio, the category of sensation traditionally used to articulate and
contain responses to the city. By meditating on Rome's ruins, Montaigne
performs an essential, recollective task of Renaissance thought. When
Montaigne applies himself to admiratio and to Renaissance thought, he
applies the pressure of his skepticism. The account ofMontaigne's medita-­
tion provided by the Journal thus records the impact that doubt had on the
form of wonder and on the culture that established and sustained that
form. In representing these incursions of doubt, the meditation reveals

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

19

skepticism in the process of transforming wonder into sublimity and help-­
ing to turn the Renaissance toward modernity.
Another reason to begin with the Journal de voyage involves the trajec-­
tory of what I say about Montaigne over this and the next chapter. The
meditation on Rome, I will show, addresses the question of how to com-­
municate grandeur.Montaigne's answer is what he calls a "new and extra-­
ordinary testimony of grandeur,"1 by which he means the style that he
employs to convey the impression that Rome makes on him.The concern
and style of the meditation are also the concern and style of the Essais, the
subject of chapter 2.My analysis of the Journal, therefore, prepares a model
for understanding Montaigne's masterpiece.
Skepticism contributed to the demise of the Renaissance and to the
birth of post--Renaissance culture.One may understand this transition as a
shift in the appreciation of ancient authors.Whereas early in the Renais-­
sance the classics tended to preside as authorities for knowing the early
modern world and living the early modern life, later their epistemological
and moral authority attenuated. The very notion of the Renaissance
depends on an economy of recovery, an economy subsidized by the possi-­
bility that the Renaissance mind could, despite intellectual and physical
obstacles, apprehend and represent ancient civilization as an exemplar
applicable for early modernity.This economy, however, eventually inter-­
rupted itself: the effort to repair the fragmented grandeur of antiquity, an
effort advocated especially by Renaissance humanists from Petrarch for-­
ward, assumed and emphasized the fragmentation of the grandeur that
required repair in the first place.Recollection lives by fragmentation.

2

Several scholars have remarked that as the Renaissance proceeded into
the sixteenth century, skepticism grew about the recollective efforts of
humanism and therefore about the possibility of referring to ancient
authors as models of knowledge and morality) In describing this shift,
these scholars have often turned to Montaigne to determine where and
how the intellectual enterprises of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
exhausted themselves.For example, in an essay about Joachim Du Bellay's
sonnet sequence Les antiquitez de Rome, Thomas Greene identifies Mon-­
taigne's meditation on the ruins of Rome in the Journal de voyage as the
point where skepticism precluded the possibility of recollecting antiquity.4
Greene remarks in the Antiquitez an unresolved tension between archaeo-­
logical and architectural motifs that epitomizes the tension evident across
Renaissance culture between the threat of fragmentation and the hope of
recollection.Du Bellay's poetry produces "paradoxically a ...truly coher-­
ent, if deeply skeptical, commentary on the humanist adventure" (220).

20

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

Skepticism denotes the threat that despite the recollective efforts of
Renaissance humanism, the fragments of antiquity will remain incoher-­
ent. Du Bellay's doubtful humanism "both produced and endured its own
skepticism" (228).
In discussing Du Bellay, Greene describes Renaissance culture as char-­
acterized by a tension ceaselessly eased and redrawn, by a cycle of doubt
and transcendence that underwent innumerable revolutions. The radical
skepticism of Montaigne's meditation on Rome, however, slackened this
tension and thus marked the end of the Renaissance:
With [Montaigne's] refusal to conjecture [about Rome's topogra-­
phy] we come to a turning point. With the visible ruins meaningless
and the substantial inheritance unreachable, incapable of disinter-­
ment, the humanist Renaissance on the Continent reached a con-­
clusion. (2 38)
According to Greene, the Continental Renaissance lasted until a skepti-­
cism too deep for humanist repair tipped the balance exemplified by Du
Bellay between doubt about and belief in the quintessentially humanist
project of recollecting ancient ruins.s
Historians of skepticism per se corroborate Greene's sense that Mon-­
taigne wielded a form of doubt incisive enough to dismantle the intellec-­
tual architecture of the Renaissance. Richard Popkin argues in his history
of early modern skepticism that Montaigne's absorption of the modes of
doubting in the works of Sextus Empiricus (first published in translation in
1562), combined with the uncertainty created by the Reformation chal-­
lenge of church criteria, produced the devastating skepticism of the
"Apologie de Raimond Sebond [Apology for Raymond Sebond]": "By
extending the implicit sceptical tendencies of the Reformation crisis, the
humanistic crisis, and the scientific crisis, into a total crise pyrrhonienne,
Montaigne's genial 'Apologie' became the coup de grace to an entire intel-­
lectual world" (s6).6 Since Montaigne left for Rome just after the publica-­
tion of the "Apologie" in the first edition of the Essais (158o), it makes
sense that in the Journal, which describes his Roman visit, Montaigne
would question the early tnodern mind's capacity to infer the originary
grandeur of antiquity from Renaissance ruins. Skepticism as Montaigne
practiced it renders all truth, let alone truth about the distant past, inac-­
cessible or at best duplicitous. As I show in this chapter, Montaigne's skep-­
tical refusal to conjecture about ancient Rome on the basis of its remains

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

21

implies a distance between ancient presence and modern representation
too great to be closed by conventional humanist methods.
But skepticism had a productive side that is ignored by discussions of its
preventive effects, and Montaigne's meditation on the ruins of Rome sig-­
nals not just a sterile renunciation but also a seminal moment in Western
consciousness. While Montaigne's skepticism may invalidate Renaissance
knowledge of antiquity and thus reduce the authority of antiquity as a col-­
lection of moral and epistemological exemplars, it also fashions for antiq-­
uity a new notion of aesthetic authority, an authority requiring a special
category-the sublime-to accommodate it.
This argument complements and expands some scholarly acknowledg-­
ment of sublimity as a notion available, primarily through Peri hypsous
(first published in 1554), to a select group of rhetoricians and literary the-­
orists in the second half of the sixteenth century, some of whom Mon-­
taigne may have encountered during his sojourn in Rome.7 My approach
differs, however, from the few direct treatments of the sublime in Mon-­
taigne, which focus mostly on verbal and thematic echoes of Peri hypsous
in the Essais. 8 Such analysis amounts to guesswork, because Montaigne
does not cite Longinus explicitly, nor does he employ a consistent, con-­
trolled vocabulary for the sublime. What appear to be paraphrases ofLong-­
inus, therefore, may actually stem from a variety of other cognate notions
such as admiratio ("admiration" or "wonder") mentioned by several
ancient, medieval, and Renaissance authors, or Ficinian furor poeticus
("poetic frenzy"). Montaignian sublimity, in my view, entails the skeptical
recognition of the inadequacy of any one notion of eminence, Longinian
or otherwise. My argument thus concerns less the influence of a particular
model than the abandonment of all models. I study how the ruins of Rome
appear under Montaigne's skeptical gaze and how that appearance invokes
and is inspired by an aesthetic category beyond those native to Renais-­
sance humanism.
The Journal de voyage records Montaigne's trip from his home near Bor-­
deaux in the southwest of France through what are now Switzerland, Ger-­
many, Austria, and Italy in I58o-81, just after the first edition of the Essais
appeared. Rome was the point of the whole trip. Everything about Mon-­
taigne drew him there, especially his training as a Renaissance humanist,
that is, as someone invested in the project of studying antiquity in order to
transfer its grandeur to a new age.9 As a humanist, Montaigne would get to
walk the ground walked by the Latin authors whose works he revered.
But Montaigne was no ordinary Renaissance man. Montaigne respected

22

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

antiquity with a special fervor that reflected the extreme education that he
had received as a child. In "De !'institution des enfans [On the Education
of Children]" (I .26), Montaigne describes this education:
[A] Feu mon pere, ayant fait toutes les recherches qu'homme peut
faire, parmy les gens s<;avans et d'entendement, d'une forme d'insti-­
tution exquise, fut advise de cet inconvenient qui estoit en usage; et
luy disoit--on que cette longueur que nous mettions a apprendre les
langues, [C] qui ne leur coustoient rien, [A] est la seule cause
pourquoy nous ne pouvions arriver a la grandeur d'ame et de cog-­
noissance des anciens Grecs et Romains. J e ne croy pas que ce en
soit la seule cause. Tant y a que l'expedient que mon pere y trouva,
ce fut que, en nourrice et avant le premier desnouement de rna
langue, il me donna en charge a un Alleman, qui depuis est mort
fameux medecin en France, du tout ignorant de nostre langue, et
tresbein verse en la Latine....Quant au reste de sa maison, c'estoit
une reigle inviolable que ny luy mesme, ny rna mere, ny valet, ny
chambriere, ne parloyent en rna compaignie qu'autant de mots de
Latin que chacun avoit apris pour jargonner avec moy. C'est mer-­
veille du fruict que chacun y fit....Quant a moy, j'avois plus de six
ans avant que j'entendisse non plus de Fran<;ois ou de Perigordin
que d'Arabesque. (I 73)

[My late father, having made all the inquiries a man can make, among
men of learning and understanding, about a superlative system of educa--­
tion, became aware of the drawbacks that were prevalent; and he was
told that the long time we put into learning languages which cost the
ancient Greeks and Romans nothing was the only reason we could not
attain their grandeur in soul and in knowledge. I do not think that that is
the only reason.At all events, the expedient my father hit upon was this,
that while I was nursing and before the first loosening of my tongue, he
put me in the care of a German, who has since died a famous doctor in
France, wholly ignorant of our language and very well versed in Latin.
...As for the rest of my father's household, it was an inviolable rule that
neither my father himself, nor my mother, nor any valet or housemaid,
should speak anything in my presence but such Latin words as each had
learned in order to jabber with me. It was wonderful how everyone
profited from this....As for me, I was over six before I understood any
more French (or Perigordian) than Arabic.] ( 128) 10

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

23

This pedagogical measure was extraordinary even at the height of the
Latin vogue in France during the 1530S.11 (Montaigne was born in 1533.)
Montaigne's introduction to Latin as an infant and among women pre-­
vents the division between the worlds of home and school.12 It is in the
school where humanists supposed that a Latinate connection to ancient
wisdom would strengthen a boy's courage. r3 Montaigne's contact with the
means to antique "grandeur d'ame et de cognoissance" before the scholas-­
tic hardening of his passions helped make him particularly sensitive to
such grandeur. By raising Montaigne to speak Latin as his mother tongue,
Montaigne's father engineered his son to realize the dream of detecting
and reviving ancient "grandeur." Its communication is exactly the subject
of Montaigne's meditation, and no wonder, since he was destined to treat
this subject by his special formation.
Not surprisingly, then, after five months of travel Montaigne was
excited to get to Rome: on the morning of their arrival, Montaigne awak-­
ens his entourage so that they may start three hours before dawn, "tant il
avoit envy de voir le pave de Rome [so eager was he to see the pavement
of Rome]" (90/71 ) . r4 And yet, despite his apparent readiness to throw
himself at Rome's physical surfaces, Montaigne does not commit his med-­
itation to the Journal until almost two months after he gets there, during
the last week of January 1581 (he had arrived at the end of November). In
the meantime, Montaigne keeps busy: among other things, he complains
about Roman hotels, passes a kidney stone, attends mass at Saint Peter's,
has an audience with the pope and remarks the inelegance of his Italian,
goes out to dinner, and sees a convicted thief hung, drawn, and quartered.
Montaigne's hesitation to say something has to do with what others
have already said. Understanding the import of Montaigne's meditation
on the ruins of Rome requires reconstructing the horizon of expectation
established for such meditations by humanist antiquarianism. By the time
of Montaigne's visit, Rome had for well over two centuries embodied
humanism's highest hopes and deepest doubts about the possibility of ren-­

ovatio Romae, the transfer of ancient culture to a new age. This project
received its Renaissance impulse from Petrarch, who repeatedly and in
various poetic and political contexts urged the return of modern Rome to
its ancient grandeur. rs Petrarch's glorification of the ruins as reminders of
former eminence inspired an industry of Roman antiquarianism. This
industry developed increasingly precise methods of extrapolating from
existing fragments a re--creation of the ancient city as a target for renovatio.
Works such as Flavia Biondo's Roma instaurata (Rome Restored, composed

24

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

1444-46), which undertook this archaeological reconstruction, presup-­
posed that careful study could close the distance between old and new
Rome and thus enable the transfer of ancient virtue to the modern city.
These works assumed that no matter how mutilated the ruin, one could
refer to its original status and make available to the modern world the
exemplar of antiquity and thus that the scientific recovery of the past
grandeur of Rome might contribute to the city's rebirth. Though the sci-­
ence of Rome underwent many refinements, this presupposition remained
largely intact into the sixteenth century. 16
Raphael Santi's letter of 1519 to Pope Leo X (possibly written in col-­
laboration with Baldassare Castiglione), reporting how Raphael executed
the pope's commission to reconstruct ancient Rome pictorially, reflects
the assumptions that underwrote the prevailing humanist science of
Rome. Raphael asserts that despite centuries of ongoing ruin, through
meticulous research he has "conseguito qualche notitia di quell'antiqua
architectura [I have acquired at least some knowledge of the ancient archi-­
tecture]" (301/290). r7 Raphael proceeds to describe his methods in service
of the pope's determination to preserve "vivo el paragone de li antichi [the
example of the ancient world still alive]," so that the pope may
"agguagliari et superarli [equal and surpass the men of ancient days]"
(302/292). In describing the pope's charge Raphael reveals the kind of
thinking that such a project required and inspired:
Havendomi Vostra Santita comandato che 'io ponessi in disegno
Roma anticha, quanta conoscier si puo, per quello, che oggidl si
vede, con gli edificii che di se dimostrano tal reliquie, che per vero
argumento si possono infallibilmente ridurre nel termine proprio
come stavano, facendo quelli membri che sono in tutto ruinati, ne
si veggono punto, corrispondenti a quelli che restano in piedi e che
si veggono. (302)

[Your Holiness has commanded me to make a drawing of ancient
Rome-as much as may be known from what can be seen today-with
those buildings showing so much of what remains that, with careful study,
you may know exactly what they were. Those that are completely ruined
and no longer visible may be understood by the study of those that still
stand and can be seen.] (292)
The science of antiquity presumes to provide an understanding of how
things in Rome once stood. rS

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

25

The antiquarian recollection of ancient Rome concretized and epito-­
mized the various recollective endeavors of the Renaissance. The success
or failure of Roman antiquarianism signaled the success or failure of an
entire culture. Because Montaigne's meditation addresses the foundations
of a culture, it may record a tectonic shift in cultural history. The first and
most memorable pronouncement of Montaigne's meditation therefore
seems to authorize casting him as the disenchanter of the Renaissance:
"[O]n ne voyoit rien de Rome que le ciel sous lequel elle avoit este assise et
le plan de son giste [One saw nothing of Rome but the sky under which it
had stood and the plan of its site]" ( Ioo/79). This statement is skeptical
and counter--Renaissance: skeptical in that it implies an irreducible rift
between the originary presence of Rome and the representation of Rome
accessible through the senses, counter--Renaissance in that it consequently
rejects the humanist revival of Rome that would require transmissions
from the far side of that rift. "Rien de Rome," or merely its "ciel" or its
"plan," erodes any basis for references from ruin to grandeur. Montaigne
interrupts the economy of recovery on which Renaissance humanism,
especially Renaissance humanist antiquarianism, and above all Renais-­
sance humanist Roman antiquarianism, depended.
As I have proposed, Montaigne's "rien de Rome" does more than
declare the death of the Renaissance by skepticism. The possibility that
Montaigne preserves the grand dream of humanism (if not the methodol-­
ogy for realizing it) arises from a slightly wider cross section of the text,
which, as usual in Montaigne, reveals very different attitudes and ideas.
Immediately before Montaigne's meditation, the Journal describes Mon-­
taigne's avidly joining the humanist industry of Roman antiquarianism.
Having first arrived in Rome on 30 November 158o, Montaigne has by
late January of the following year dedicated himself to acquiring the "sci-­
ence" of the city:

Tous ces jours la, il ne s'amusa qu'a estudier Rome. Au commence-­
ment, il avoit prins un guide Fran<;ois; mais celuy la, par quelque
humeur fantastique, s'estant rebute, il se piqua, par son propre
estude, de venir a bout de cette science, aide de diverses cartes et
livres qu'il se faisoit lire le soir, et le jour alloit sur les lieux mettre
en pratique son apprentissage; si que, en peu de jours, il eust ayse-­
ment reguide son guide. (99-Ioo)

[All these days he spent his time only in studying Rome. At the beginning
he had taken a French guide; but when this man quit because of some

26

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

fancy or other, he made it a point of pride to learn all about Rome by his
own study, aided by various maps and books that he had read to him in
the evening; and in the daytime he would go on the spot to put his appren--­
ticeship into practice; so that in a few days he could easily have guided his
guide.] ( 79)
As an aid to study, Montaigne hires a French guide, presumably someone
who not only knows more about Rome than Montaigne does but also will
translate that knowledge into the language in which Montaigne can most
easily grasp it. The act of engaging the guide expresses the characteristi-­
cally humanist faith that with the proper equipment, one can transfer the
pattern of the past to the present.
When the guide leaves, he takes his knowledge with him and thus
removes the access to a French Renaissance science of Rome that Mon-­
taigne has sought from him. Montaigne's stubborn pursuit of such access
despite the guide's departure indicates the strength of his commitment to
rendering ancient Rome an object of humanist science. To this end, Mon-­
taigne almost certainly used Lucio Mauro's Antichita della Citta di Roma

(Roman Antiquities, 1558), a handy, compendious descendant of Biondo's
Roma instaurata. An extant copy of this work bears Montaigne's signature
on the title page. r9 Montaigne's determination, with the help of such
works as Mauro's, "de venir a bout de cette science" embraces the project
of renovatio Romae inherited from Petrarch. And apparently Montaigne
succeeds: practicing by day the "apprentissage" absorbed by night, soon
Montaigne could have "reguide son guide."
In fewer than eighty words, this little drama of Montaigne's antiquar-­
ian activities stages the fundamental drama of Renaissance humanism.
The presence, loss, and recovery of guidance to the ruins of Rome, the fad-­
ing in and out and in again of the signal from their archetypal configura-­
tion, realize the dream of transmitting over interference ancient grandeur
to the postancient world.
Expanding this inquiry to text adjacent to Montaigne's meditation
shows that his doubtful departure from humanism abuts his credulous prac-­
tice of it. Having demonstrated this proximity, I return to the meditation to
reveal a more intimate relation than one might suppose between skepticism
and the impulse to reclaim grandeur that drives Renaissance culture:
Il disoit "qu'on ne voyoit rien de Rome que le ciel sous lequel elle
avoit este assise et le plan de son giste; que cette science qu'il en
avoit estoit une science abstraite et contemplative, de laquelle il n'y

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

27

avoit rien qui tombast sous les sens; que ceux qui disoient qu'on y
voyoit au mains les ruines de Rome en disoient trop; car les ruines
d'une si espouvantable machine rapporteroient plus d'honneur et de
reverence a sa memoire; ce n'estoit rien que son sepulchre." ( Ioo )

[He said that one saw nothing of Rome but the sky under which it had
stood and the plan of its site; that this knowledge that he had of it was an
abstract and contemplative knowledge of which there was nothing percep--­
tible to the senses; that those who said that one at least saw the ruins of
Rome said too much, for the ruins of so awesome a machine would bring
more honor and reverence to its memory: this was nothing but its sepul--­
cher.] (79)

Montaigne's first two assertions, that one sees almost nothing of ancient
Rome and that therefore knowledge of it lacks any sensuous content,
retract the antiquarian behavior recorded in the preceding quotation.
There Montaigne pursued "science" as a way to attain an "apprentissage"
of Rome, to lay his mind on Rome directly. Here Montaigne says that such
science is not apprehensive but "abstraite." It does not grasp Rome; it
remains out of touch.
The recuperative urge that drives Montaigne to obtain "science," how-­
ever, also animates his skepticism. Beyond his general worry about the
abstractness of Roman science, Montaigne concerns himself particularly
with the accuracy of the words used to designate Rome. Those who say
''ruines" say too much. The word ''ruines" is excessive, because it denotes
more than what actually endures. This claim about the overstatement
committed by ''ruines" receives interesting argumentative support. Instead
of simply reverting to the opening charge ("qu'on ne voyoit rien de
Rome") and thus again denying that anything of Rome could be an object
of perception or knowledge, Montaigne asserts the exaggeration of
''ruines" on the basis of his speculation about the hypothetical effect actual
ruins-were they to exist-would have on viewers. The words of those
who say that they see ruins fall far from the mark, not only because of the
distance of the ruins from human cognition or because of cognitive cal-­
lousness but also because the ruins of Rome, if present, would evoke more
honor and reverence than Renaissance descriptions and tributes offer.
As much as Montaigne criticizes the errors of antiquarian nomencla-­
ture, he criticizes the aesthetic responses others have offered to the mem-­
ory of Rome before his own meditation, responses unworthy of the frag-­
mented remains, let alone of the "espouvantable machine" that was

28

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

ancient Rome. The phrase "espouvantable machine" represents the core of
Montaigne's argument, a point not argued but assumed, the foundation for
everything else that Montaigne says, including his skepticism. Mon-­
taigne's sense that early modern responses to Rome do not grant as much
glory as they should to its ruins provokes him to declare the absence of
those ruins. The assumption that any response to Rome must fit a certain
aesthetic category-here, the "espouvantable"-makes Montaigne a skep-­
tic about Rome as an object of knowledge.
This last point eludes the conventional wisdom about the history of
skepticism. Here, awareness of the difficulty of knowing does not corre-­
spond to the digestion of ancient texts or to the intellectual fallout of the
Reformation. Rather, Montaigne doubts the susceptibility of ancient
Rome to knowledge because Rome's grandeur exceeds all Renaissance
reports of it.
In addition to inspiring skepticism, sublimity is inspired by it: Mon-­
taigne uses his doubts to fashion an aesthetic category for the grandeur
that he feels. As the meditation continues, Montaigne waxes skeptical
about admiratio, a flagship category of Renaissance aesthetics, and as a
result an alternative category begins to emerge. Having questioned the
accuracy of ''ruines," Montaigne substitutes his own, presumably more pre-­
cise term for the remnants of old Rome: "ce n'estoit rien que son sepul-­
chre." Then Montaigne draws a genealogy of this sepulchre, telling the
story of the ruin of Rome and of the entombment of the city's ruins:

Le monde, ennemy de sa longue domination, avoit premierement
brise et fracasse toutes les pieces de ce corps admirable; et, parce
qu'encore tout mort, renverse et desfigure il luy faisoit horreur, il en
avoit enseveli la ruine mesme. (I oo )

[The world, hostile to its long domination, had first broken and shattered
all the parts of this wonderful body; and because, even though quite dead,
overthrown, and disfigured, it still terrified the world, the world had
buried its very ruin. 1 ( 7 9)
The rest of the world, as Montaigne tells it, sought to undermine the
dominion of Rome by shattering the parts of its marvelous body. But the
strategy failed, because the body, though mutilated, still horrified its ene-­
mies. Therefore, as a backup measure, the enemies also buried the ruins,
leaving only a sepulchre visible.
Like the rejection of ''ruines," the substitution of "sepulchre" answers a

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

29

sensation of surpassing grandeur. Montaigne represents the entombment
of the ruins, and consequently his early modern skepticism about them
(since their entombment justifies his original, skeptical claim that one sees
"rien de Rome"), as a consequence of the effort to shut down an effect that
ancient Rome, and then its ruins, had on the rest of the world. The failure
of this effort-even the ruins still horrified Rome's enemies, and even the
tomb provides the occasion for Montaigne's stirring meditation-implies
that Rome had more grandeur than the enemies thought. The enemies
failed to flatten Roman eminence because they based their efforts on a
flawed conception of how the city affected its spectators.
Montaigne specifies this conception when he says that the opponents
of Rome treated it as a "corps admirable" requiring dismemberment and
burial. As a "corps admirable," ancient Rome made its enemies wonder.
"Admirable" signals admiratio, the popular notion of aesthetic experience
with classical and medieval roots that by Montaigne's time was particu-­
larly associated with the way Rome moved its visitors. Admiratio under-­
writes the great meditations on Rome that precede Montaigne's. By imply-­
ing through the portrayal of Rome's hapless enemies the underestimation
perpetrated by admiratio, Montaigne offers a critique of the history of
attempts to recognize the grandeur of the city. His meditation thus medi-­
tates on Roman meditations and on the senses of grandeur that have fos-­
tered them. Understanding admiratio and its implications illuminates how
Montaigne's treatment of Rotne challenges previous treatments and calls
for an expanded aesthetics of eminence.20

Admiratio is an aesthetic response that includes and then excludes
skepticism. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle, the major authority on admiratio
for the Renaissance, associates the concept with both the perplexity
incited by obscure or enigmatic phenomena and the curiosity that
demands their coherent explanation:
It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and first began
to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties,
then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater
matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun
and the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who
is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the
lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed
of wonders); therefore since they philosophized in order to escape
from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to
know, and not for any utilitarian end. (982b12-22)21

30

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

Admiration drives the admirer to ascertain the cause of and thus put an
end to his wonder. For Aristotle and Aristotelian critics, therefore, the
aesthetic experience of admiratio orients its subject from confusion to
coherence, initiating a series of inferences that culminates in knowledge.22
The educational orientation of admiratio eventually made it a ready
conductor of the hopes that impelled renovatio Romae. Admiratio supplied
humanists with a response to ruins that did not leave them totally ruined.
Renaissance antiquarianism exploited admiratio's contacts with both inco-­
herence and coherence as a way to correlate fragmentation with recollec-­
tion and thus to argue that ancient ruins can form the foundation of early
modern comprehension. Admiratio facilitated the exchange between parts
and whole on which the Renaissance economy of recovery depended. It
became a favorite means of describing and justifying processes of recollect-­
ing for a new age the moral, architectural, and textual fragments of antiq-­
uity.
Since Rome posed a crucial test case for such processes, it is not sur-­
prising to find that Renaissance encounters with Rome's ruins provoked
expressions of admiration. One finds evidence of the Roman application of

admiratio in the twelfth--century guidebook Mirabilia urbis Romae (Marvels
of Rome) as well as in famous visitors' evocations of Rome, such as
Petrarch's in the fourteenth century and Du Bellay's in the sixteenth.
During what has been called the Renaissance of the twelfth century,
excitement about Rome's former grandeur and its possible revival inspired
the Mirabilia. 23 It permitted the traveler and pilgrim not only to retrace
the steps of early Christian figures but also (and more predominantly) to
refer himself to the remains and sites of ancient, pagan Rome. The third
part of the Mirabilia concludes with the closest thing in it to a method-­
ological statement:
Haec et alia multa templa et palatia [exempla et consulum] impera-­
torum, consulum, senatorum, praefectorumque tempore paganorum
in hac Romana urbe fuere, sicut in priscus annalibus legimus et
oculis nostris vidimus et ab antiquis audivimus. Quantae etiam
essent pulchritudinis auri et argenti, aeris et eboris pretiosorumque
lapidutn, scriptis ad posterum memoriam, quanta melius potuimus,
reducere curavimus. (3.65)

[These and more temples and palaces of emperors, consuls, senators, and
prefects were inside this Roman city in the time of the heathen, as we have
read in old chronicles, have seen with our own eyes, and have heard the

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

31

ancient men tell of.In writing we have tried as well as we could to bring
back to the human memory how great was their beauty in gold, silver,
brass, ivory and precious stones.] (46)24
The "marvels" of the Mirabilia are the ruins of late medieval Rome; they
become marvelous when their ancient grandeur is remembered through
the references of the guidebook. Before the Renaissance proper, the

Mirabilia signaled the establishment of admiratio as the premier aesthetic
category for articulating Roman grandeur.
Two centuries after the Mirabilia, Petrarch adopted admiratio as both
an expression of bewilderment verging on writer's block and a pretested
strategy that enabled the recollection of ancient greatness.In book 2, let-­
ter 14 of the Rerum familiarium (Letters on Familiar Matters), he uses the
concept to express his confoundment upon seeing the rubble of Rome for
the first time:
Ab urbe quid expectet, qui tam multa de montibus acceperit?
Putabas me grande aliquid scripturum, cum Romam pervenissem.
lngens michi forsan in posterum scribendi materia oblata est; in pre-­
sens nichil est quod inchoare ausim, miraculo rerum tantarum et
stuporis mole obrutus .... Illa vero, mirum dictu, nichil imminuit,
sed auxit omnia. Vere maior fuit Roma, maioresque sunt reliquie
quam rebar. lam non orbem ab hac urbe domitum, sed tam sero
domitum miror. (2.14.103)

[What news can one expect from the city of Rome when one has received
so much news from the mountains? You thought that I would be writing
something truly great once I had arrived in Rome.Perhaps what I shall be
writing later will be great.For the present I know not where to start, over ...
whelmed as I am by the wonder of so many things and by the greatness of
my astonishment....In truth Rome was greater, and greater are its
ruins than I imagined.I no longer wonder that the whole world was con--­
quered by this city but that I was conquered so late.] ( I 13)2s
Petrarch describes his response to Rome's ruins in terms of admiratio.
Although Petrarch's admiratio denotes confusion, one senses how wonder
already leads him to begin to draw correspondences between the modern
ruins he sees and the ancient grandeur the ruins represent.Petrarch is not
spontaneously struck with wonder but strategically adopts admiratio as a
contribution to renovatio Romae.

32

SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

One of the literary ways that Petrarch pursued renovatio was Africa, his
poem about the Second Punic War, which represents the Roman republic
in the epic form, itself one of ancient Rome's great institutions.26
Petrarch's opening lines describe this enterprise as the singing of wondrous
th.tngs ("mtran
.
da") :
Et michi conspicuum meritis belloqui tremendum,
Musa, virum referes, Italis cui fracta sub armis
Nobilis eternum prius attulit Africa nomen.
Hunc precor exhausto liceat michi sugere fontem
Ex Elicone sacrum, dulcis mea cura, Sorores,
Si vobis miranda cano.

[Muse, you will tell me of the man renowned
for his great deeds, redoubtable in war,
on whom first noble Africa, subdued
by Roman arms, bestowed a lasting name.
Fair sisters, ye who are my dearest care,
if I propose to sing of wondrous things
may it be given me to quaff full deep
of the sweet sacred spring of Helicon.]
Accompanying both the initial experience of Rome's ruins and the occa-­
sion of its epic reconstruction, admiratio sets fragmentation and recollec-­
tion along a single continuum.28
While Petrarch confirmed admiratio as the conventional Renaissance
response to Roman ruins, Du Bellay, chronologically and culturally much
closer to Montaigne, questioned appeals to admiratio, as the recuperative
appreciation of the ruins inherited from the Mirabilia began to break down.
In the Deffence, et illustration de la langue franc;oyse, in the Latin elegy
"Romae descriptio," and in the sonnets of the Antiquitez de Rome, Du Bel-­
lay admires the ruins but then interrogates his own admiration, asking how
one can derive a sense of grandeur from dilapidation.
In the Deffence ( I 549), written in Paris as a manifesto of what would
become known as the Pleiade, the link between wonder and the repair of
Roman grandeur tacitly loosens. Du Bellay receives wonder as the stock
response to Latin literature. He describes, for example, how through imi-­
tation "les Romains on baty tous ces beaux Ecriz, que nous louons, et
admirons si fort [the Romans built up that store of fine writings which we
so praise and admire]" (91-92/51).29 Du Bellay's ambition for his vernacu--

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

33

lar, however, requires that this admiration by Frenchmen be oriented
toward themselves. He asks, "Pourquoy donques sommes nous si grands
admirateurs d'autruy [Why then are we such great admirers of others]?"
(I74l88).The expansion of wonder to France as well as Rome corresponds
to the realization that the French empire of literature and politics to which
he dedicates the Deffence cannot result from rebuilding what was once
built and ruined in Rome.3° The famous conclusion of the Deffence urges
not so much an archaeology as a pillaging of Rome: "Fran<;oys, marchez
couraigeusement vers cete superbe Cite Romaine: et des serves Depouilles
d'elles ...ornez voz Temples, et Autelz [Frenchmen, march bravely toward
that proud city of Rome. From its indentured remains . . . decorate your
temples and altars]" (I7919I). Instead of recommending a repair of the
fragments of Roman grandeur, Du Bellay urges their further ravagement.
The "Depouilles" are ruins torn from their original setting. Whether the

admiratio mentioned previously in the Deffence is now absent or only invis-­
ible, it clearly has not induced the desire for reconstruction that it did for
Petrarch and other purveyors of renovatio Romae.
The derailment of wonder from its reconstructive track preoccupies Du
Bellay in his treatments of the ruins of Rome written during his time there
from I553 to I557· "Romae descriptio," composed before the Antiquitez,
begins by surveying the universally admired Roman marvels, which upon
archaeological disinterment emerge from the earth revitalized: "Multaque
praeterea veteris miracula Romae, I Undique defosso nunc rediviva solo
[And many more marvels of ancient Rome, which now emerge revitalized
from the trodden ground]" (37-38).31 As the poem continues, however,
the wonder that inspires collective acknowledgment of Rome's great-­
ness-"Caesareos vultus quis non miretur et ora I Tam multis Romae con-­
spicienda locis [Who would not admire the countenances of the Caesars
and so many remarkable heads throughout Rome]?" (9I-92)-produces
less recollection and more fragmentation, as Rome's marvels overwhelm
the poet's powers of description. The marvels transform, as Du Bellay
doggedly persists in listing them, into ruins, mutilated signs of greatness
lost forever: "Ardua Pyramidum dicam, truncosque Colossos, I Maestaque
nunc vacuo muta theatra sinu [Shall I utter the height of the Pyramids, the
colossal statues maimed, the theaters now mournful and silent, their hol-­
lows empty]?" (Io9-Io). From this unredeemable ruin, underscored by a
retreat from the present to the past tense (Iosff.), Du Bellay draws the les-­
son of a chastened confidence in material things. The deterioration of
Rome's physical aspect ultimately manifests the eternal life of Latin
poetry, whose energy Du Bellay requests for a new, French context in a

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SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

plea that forms the conclusion of the elegy. Rome's physical elevation
brought low, Rome's poetry alone supplies eminence: "Sola virum virtus
caeli super ardua tollit, I Virtutem caelo solaque Musa beat [Only the
virtue of man uplifts him to the heights of the sky, and only the Muse
blesses virtue with heaven]" (I4 7-48).Given the final silence about admi--­

ratio in "Romae descriptio," Du Bellay leaves another mixed tnessage con-­
cerning the fate of wonder: has it mutated or just disappeared?
The Antiquitez reflect at length on wonder's fortune.In the second son-­
net, Du Bellay declares that while others may praise the seven wonders of
the ancient world, he finds their effect concentrated in the seven hills of
Rome: "[Q]uant a moy pour tous je veulx chanter I Les sept Costaux
Romains, sept miracles du monde [But I will will sing above all monu-­
ments I Seven Roman Hills, the world's seven wonderments]" (2.I3-I4).2
3
Such a declaration leads one to expect the Antiquitez to celebrate a rebirth
of the city's former greatness. The next sonnet, however, disappoints the
expectation of grandeur associated with wonder:
Nouveau venu qui cherches Rome en Rome,
Et rien de Rome en Rome n'appen;ois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcz que tu vois,
Et ces vieux murs, c'est ce que Rome on nomme.

[Thou stranger, which for Rome in Rome here seekest,
And nought of Rome in Rome perceiv'st at all,
These same old walls, old arches, which thou seest,
Old Palaces, is that which Rome men call.]
The repetition of the word "Rome" five times in these first four lines mul-­
tiplies its meaning."Rome" may signify ancient grandeur, modern ruin, or
both.Such ambivalence disintegrates the very object that renovatio Romae
seeks to reconstitute. Ruin has acquired a share of what "Rome" means.
This entrenchment of fragmentation would complicate any effort to
remove it.

Admiratio and grandeur nevertheless resurface together in sonnet I3.
No amount of destruction done to Rome has humbled it so much that "la
grandeur du rien ...I Ne face encor' esmerveiller le monde [But that this
nothing ...I Makes the world wonder]" (I3.I3-I4).The "rien de Rome"
of sonnet 3 that appeared to discount the wonder of sonnet 2 reconnects
in sonnet I3 to a "grandeur" and the wonder that it still generates. The

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal

de voyage

35

appearance of "esmerveiller" at the pointe of the poem registers the surprise
of finding wonder still there.The endurance of wonder fascinates Du Bel-­
lay, as he focuses on the problem of how despite its reconstructive heritage
wonder may express the unreconstructed grandeur of "rien."
In a cluster of three sonnets toward the end of the Antiquitez, the ques-­
tioning of how wonder and ruin relate reaches a climax.Sonnets 27, 28,
and 29 form a triptych bracketed by appearances of admiratio at the begin-­
ning of the first and at the end of the third.These appearances communi-­
cate a shift in what wonder is supposed to be about.Sonnet 27 addresses
someone who admires the ruins of Rome: "Toy qui de Rome emerveille
comtemples I L'antique orgueil [Thou that at Rome astonished dost behold
I The antique pride]" (27.1 2).The admirer is then asked to modify his
wonder in such a way as, Du Bellay predicts, to distract it from renovatio:
Juge, en voyant ces ruines si amples,
Ce qu'a ronge le temps injurieux,
Puis qu'aux ouvriers les plus industrieux
Ces vieux fragments encor servent d'exemples.
Regarde apres, comme de jour en jour
Rome fouillant son antique sejour,
Se rebatist de tant d'ceuvres divines:
Tu jugeras, que le demon Romain
S'efforce encore d'une fatale main
Ressusciter ces pouldreuses ruines.
[]udge by these ample ruins' view, the rest
The which injurious time hath quite outworn,
Since of all workmen held in reckoning best,
Yet these old fragments are for patterns born:
Then also mark, how Rome from day to day,
Repairing her decayed fashion,
Renews herself with buildings rich and gay;
That one would judge, that the Roman Daemon
Doth yet himself with fatal hand enforce,
Again on foot to rear her powdered corse.]

At first the ruins look "amples," forming a sufficient basis for the ongoing
reconstruction ("Rome ... Se rebastist") that the admirer observes.At

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SUBLIMITY AND SKEPTICISM IN MONTAIGNE AND MILTON

last, however, the ruins appear "pouldreuses," a bad omen for those trying
to renovate Rome. In the Deffence, ruins that are powdery are impossible
to recollect:

Et si vous esperez (comme fist Esculape des Membres d'Hippolyte)
que par ces fragments recuilliz, elles puyssent estre resuscitees, vous
vous abusez: ne pensant point qu'ala cheute de si superbes Edifices
conjointe ala ruyne fatale de ces deux puissantes Monarchies, une
partie devint poudre, et l'autre doit estre en beaucoup de pieces, les
queles vouloir reduire en un, seroit chose impossible. ( I I 2- I 3)

[If you hope that they can be resuscitated with these gathered fragments,
as Aesculapius did with Hippolytus' members, you are fooling your--­
selves. You neglect the fact that when these great structures fell, linked as
they were to the fatal collapse of two great world powers, one part was
pulverized and the other was reduced to small pieces. To try to fuse them
together again would be impossible.] ( 6o-6 1)
The last line of sonnet 27 echoes the words of this passage ("resusciter,"
"poudreux") and its claim that powder manifests more fragmentation than
any renovatio can fix.
Sonnet 29 presents the same verdict regarding renovatio. Whereas
Petrarch promoted Rome's present and future as well as past grandeur, Du
Bellay puts it entirely in the past:34
Tout ce qu'Egypte en poincte fa<;onna,
Tout ce que Grece ala Corinthienne,
A l'Ionique, Attique, ou Dorienne
Pour l'ornement des temples ma<;onna:
Tout ce que l'art de Lysippe donna,
La main d'Apelle, ou la main Phidienne,
Souloit orner ceste Ville ancienne,
Dont la grandeur le ciel mesme estonna.
Tout ce qu'Athene' eut onques de sagesse,
Tout ce qu'Asie eut onques de richesse,
Tout ce qu'Afrique eut onques de nouveau,
S'est vue icy.

Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne's Journal de voyage

37

[All that which Egypt whilome did devise,
All that which Greece their temples to embrave,
After th' Ionic, Attic, Doric guise,
Or Corinth skill' d in curious works to grave;
All that Lysippus practike art could form,
Apelles wit, or Phidias his skill,
Was wont this ancient City to adorn,
And the heaven itself with her wide wonders fill;
All that which Athens ever brought forth wise,
All that which Afrike ever brought forth strange,
All that which Asie ever had of prize,
Was here to see.]

Here the prospect of Roman grandeur arises repeatedly, as six of the first
eleven lines mention "everything" that went into it. For every "tout,"
however, awaits a verb in the past tense. These verbs-"fa<_;onna,"
"ma<_;onna," "estonna," and "s'est vue"-hammer the grandeur under-­
ground where it now lies. And yet it is precisely this entombment that pro-­
duces wonder in the last three lines: "0 merveille profondel I Rome vivant
fut l'ornement du monde, I Et morte elle est du monde le tumbeau [0 mar-­
velous great change: I Rome living, was the world's sole ornament, I And
dead, is now the world's sole monument]" (29.12-14). Whereas in sonnet
27, the fall of Rome terminated wonder, in sonnet 29 wonder figures in the
aftermath of Rome's demise. This resistant strain of wonder is "profonde"
(as Du Bellay says) in more ways than one. In a literal sense wonder
descends to a much lower level of the poem (line r2) than it did in sonnet
27 (line r). In going deeper on the page-sonnets 27 and 29 are printed on
the upper halves of facing leaves in the first edition of the Antiquitez
(rss8)-this wonder also expresses a more profound appreciation of ruin
than conventional admiratio.
The approfondissement of wonder occurs in sonnet 28, the pivotal poem
in the sequence that I am discussing. This sonnet does not refer explicitly
to wonder, but it helps make the transition from sonnet 27 to sonnet 29 in
that it articulates forcefully how ruin amounts to grandeur. It compares
Rome to an old and decaying oak tree:
Qui a veu quelquefois un grand chesne asseiche,
Qui pour son ornement quelque trophee porte,

38