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Dr. Paul Rahe On The Hillsdale Dialogues Discussing The Works Of Montaigne

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HH: It is the last radio hour of the week, and that means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues of the great works and men and women of Western Civilization are available at, and you can also find all of the Hillsdale free courses at You can sign up for the free speech digest, Imprimus, there. And once a week, I sit down with Dr. Larry Arnn or one of his fine colleagues on the Hillsdale faculty to talk about one of those works or people. And this week, we don’t have Dr. Arnn, but we have Dr. Pau. Rahe returning. Paul Rahe is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution, extraordinarily prolific. And I’m kind of happy, because we’ve got to make up some, we’ve got to make up for an error here, and that’s this. Paul Rahe, welcome back, it’s good to talk to you, Professor.
PR: Hi, it’s good to be with you. By the way, I’m no longer at Hoover. I was a national fellow last year. It’s a one year thing.
HH: And so you’ve returned to Michigan? Is it cold there?
PR: It’s lovely.
HH: Is it bleak?
PR: It’s 71 degrees. Michigan in this season can be absolutely stunning. And it is right now.
HH: Are you back in the classroom? Are you refreshed and reenergized after a year in California?
PR: Yes, I’m always happy to be back in the classroom after leave. You know, writing is a lonely task. And I like getting to it, but I get antsy after a while, so it’s nice seeing students again.
HH: So you know how our dialogues work. What you may not know is we spent the last five weeks on Shakespeare with Professor Smith and Dr. Arnn for most of those…
PR: Why did you ever give up Shakespeare?
HH: Well, we had to, we only had five weeks, and we do have to finish by the end of this year. But then I put a halt to the schedule and said we skipped over the man that I began my life as a senior in serious writing, Montaigne, because I had to spend my senior essay on Essay 26: Friendship. Let’s stop and go find someone who can write about him, and I don’t know if you’re one of the Montaigne pronouncers or one of the Montaigne pronouncers. There’s a division in the world. But they said Paul Rahe will do it. And then they send me this essay you wrote, Don Corleone: Multiculturalist, which is in fact about Essay 26. I find this remarkable and wonderful.
PR: Yeah, I wrote that some years ago for a conference, and some day, I may do a collection of essays. And the title will be Don Corleone: Multiculturalist and other essays.
HH: Well, it’s a beautiful piece on friendship, but let’s start by telling people why it would be wrong to proceed for the next 500 years from Shakespeare without pausing to talk about the Frenchman.
PR: Well, part of the story is Shakespeare read the Frenchman. You know, it was translated into English right away. And Shakespeare draws on him, especially in the Tempest. But the other reason is Montaigne, everyone reads him in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. He’s a dominant figure. He invents what we call the essay, which in French, it means an attempt. And we still have that meaning in English as well. And he writes a massive book of charming essays, attempts. And he insinuates a new worldview. So it’s extraordinarily important.
HH: It is the only book that has been on my bedside stand for 40 years, and I have the Donald Frame edition. Is that the one you use?
PR: I have it in my lap.

HH: All right, so you and I have the same book in our lap, so we can go to the same page. Donald Frame did an amazing thing, and we often don’t speak much of translators, but no one’s really going to beat this, are they?

PR: No, look, I have the Screech as well, and Screech was a very great Montaigne scholar. He actually found Montaigne’s copy of Lucretius with Montaigne’s notes in it when he was having dinner with someone. He found it in his library. And I know Screech. He was at All Souls College Oxford when I was there as a visiting fellow. But Screech’s, it’s not very literal. And Donald Frame is extremely careful. So if you sit down with the French on one side and the Frame on the other hand, you’ll discover that very rarely does he go wrong.

HH: Now the first major introduction I want to give to people is Montaigne wrote, and we’ll use Montaigne as opposed to Montaigne. My tutor, John Gibbons, made me say Montaigne for an entire year, so pardon me if I go backwards. Book One of the essays has got 57 essays. Book Two of the essays has got 37 essays. And Book Three has 13. My tutor paid a lot of attention to numbers and ordering. Do you, Paul. Rahe, when you approach Montaigne?

PR: I do exactly the same thing. So for example, I have in front of me the table of contents. And if you go through Book One, the central essay, you know, all three books have, are odd numbered. And the central essay in Book One is Chapter 29, which is 29 Sonnets of Etienne de La Boetie, who was his closest friend. So he honors him by giving him the central space, you know, just as you would put a throne of the great king in the center, and you would put his wife on one side, and on the other side you might put his heir and his son.

HH: Now it’s interesting that you would read it that way. The conclusion that my colleague, Gibbons, came to is he left it empty, that he wouldn’t put his own stuff there, that there wasn’t something central to his life that he wanted to write about. And he read into that some thoughts on religion that were perhaps not orthodox for the time.

PR: Well, he certainly was not orthodox. But if you look at Book Two, the central chapter is “Of Freedom Of Conscience,”…

HH: Exactly.

PR: …a matter of great concern to this man, who’s writing in the midst of a wars of religion in France, in which he plays a very important role.

HH: And then Book Three, the central essay, “Of The Disadvantage Of Greatness,”…

PR: Yes.

HH: …which may be a little bit of a poker tell as to how he assumes himself to shine.

PR: Yes, and it’s also, look, he’s deeply worried about one thing, I think, that runs through the whole book, and that is the manner in which our aspirations and our spiritedness get out of hand. I have in front of my Essay number 3, where he says, “We are never at home. We are always beyond.” We live outside ourselves. And if you turn to Of Experience, which is one of the last essays, he says, “They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness. Instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts. Instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves. These transcendental humors frighten me like lofty and inaccessible places.”

HH: The whole book is full of this, and that’s, so the first question is someone listening, they go home and they order Donald Frame’s edition of Montaigne, and it shows up, and it’s a [doorstop] of a book. How would you counsel them to read it? I do not believe in reading front to back in this. But how would you counsel them?

PR: I would read initially. Eventually, I’d read front to back. But I would read one essay at a time. You have it by your bed stand. It’s a good thing to have by your bed stand. A lot of the essays are fairly short. And you can sort of read one, mull over it and fall asleep.

HH: Yup.

PR: And I would, Of Friendship, I think, is extremely important.

HH: Yup.

PR: There’s one called Of Cruelty.

HH: I don’t recall that one.

PR: And it’s very interesting, because it’s mostly about virtue.

HH: Okay.

PR: And its theme is that the aspiration to virtue, and he has Cato in mind, who commit suicide rather than submit to Caesar, the aspiration of virtue is rooted in a kind of cruelty. Of Experience, I think, is a wonderful essay. Let me read you another passage. “It is in absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully. We seek other conditions, because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside. Yet there’s no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts, we must still walk on our legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting only on our rump.” I mean, there’s a kind of deflation that he aims at. Come home, you know, it’s a book about coming home to one’s self.

HH: It is also a book that is earthy, and in that, all of the natural functions are often discussed.

PR: Yes.

HH: And it’s also a book that is stunning in how much he knew. I mean, he just had everything committed to that brain of his.

PR: Yes, and you know, he was reared speaking Latin, so his first language is Latin. And the consequence is he read all of the classical sources in Latin with the greatest possible ease. And he seems to have remembered everything that he wrote.

HH: And he suffered a great deal. We’ll come back to this. He had terrible, terrible kidney stones.

PR: Yes.

HH: And as a result, when he writes about this, I’ve always told friends of mine who have that affliction they ought to go grab Montaigne, and they’ll find out that it’s not new. The pain is intense, but at least it’s well chronicled.

PR: Amen.

— – – – – –

HH: A paragraph from the first book of his three books of essays, number 26. “For the rest,” Montaigne writes, “what we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience by means of which our souls are bound to each other. In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering because it was he, because it was I.” I love that paragraph more than any other paragraph in this book, Professor.

PR: I can understand. It’s high-minded. You know, elsewhere in that same essay, he says that it’s already something if fortune can achieve such a friendship once in three centuries.

HH: You see, but that gives, I was reading your essay, and Madison writes about friendship, Bacon wrote about friendship, Cicero wrote about friendship. Those three writers all thought it was much more important. And something that rare couldn’t be that important, right?

PR: Well, it could be that important, but not important to most people, because if it can only happen once in three centuries, it’s not part of our lives.

HH: And do you agree with that assessment? Because I don’t. I did not, I came to disagree with him on that.

PR: Yes, look, I prefer Aristotle on friendship to Montaigne on friendship. And Aristotle divides friendship into three kinds. Now practically, they often mix, but friendship’s a pleasure, the sort that children have based upon playing games. And they last as long as the play goes. Friendships of utility, the sort that businessmen have, or colleagues in departments have, and they’re ties you have to other people because you do business with them of one sort or another. And then friendships of virtue, which are friendships grounded in some sort of common project, husband and wife, that’s a common project, and it really, it binds them together. Or missionaries, they have a common project, or soldiers fighting alongside one another have a common project, or a people who simply enjoy reading and talking with one another have a common project that raises them up, that holds them together. Montaigne has a way of debunking all these friendships except for the perfect friendship, his with La Boetie. So he’ll say you really can’t be friends with your parents, because of the excessive inequality. He says it might interfere with their natural obligation for all the secret thoughts of the fathers cannot be shared with children for fear of begetting an unbecoming intimacy.

HH: He also, his friend is dead when he writes this.

PR: Yes.

HH: And he says since the day I lost him, I only drag on a weary life. And the very pleasures that come my way, instead of consoling me, redouble my grief for his loss. That’s kind of a dreary assessment. I’ve always thought that the values of friendship are much more permanent than that.

PR: Yes, and the memory, among other things…

HH: Right.

PR: …gives, would give one enormous pleasure. But you know, his, he doesn’t think brothers can be friends because of the battles over property. One of the things that I found most striking is that he’s, he doesn’t think there’s friendship in marriages, very likely.

HH: Right.

PR: He says apart from being a bargain where only the entrance is free, its duration being fettered and constrained depending on things outside our world, it’s a bargain struck for other purposes. Within it, you soon have to unsnarl hundreds of extraneous tangled ends which are enough to break the thread of a living passion and to trouble its course. Thank God that’s not my marriage.

HH: No, but it’s also a spur to people. If it’s that good and it provides that much, people ought to be on the lookout for it. I’ve got to ask you, Dr. Rahe, who have been your closest friends in your academic life? And you know, you’ve been at a few places, you’ve taught a number of places. Who comes closest to you to this ideal?

PR: Well, there’s a fellow up in the University of Alaska at Anchorage named James W. Muller. We taught together at Franklin and Marshall College back in the last millennium. And whenever we got to the APSA, we room together. And whenever we’re together, the conversation picks up as if we had been speaking with one another every day. And it’s a great joy. He introduced me to Montesquieu, about which I later wrote a book.

HH: Oh really? Yeah, in fact,

PR: And I’ve read anything that he’s written.

HH: Montesquieu And the Logic Of…

PR: And he’s read everything that I’ve written.

HH: Yeah, and so do you correspond when you’re not together?

PR: Some. Sometimes, we talk on the phone. Sometimes, we email. Or there’ll be periods of months when there’s no contact at all. And then when there is, it’s a joy.

HH: And are you the same age?

PR: Just about. I think he’s two or three years younger than I.

HH: And do you think that’s a requirement?

PR: No. No, no, no, no. there’s a young man on the faculty here at Hillsdale named Matt Gaetano, whom I had lunch with yesterday. And you know, he’s, I don’t know, thirty years younger than I am, but we’re interested in Sir Francis Bacon, on which he’s giving a lecture on campus Thursday. And it’s just a joy to speak with him. He knows so much. And he’s smart.

HH: Bacon also spent time worrying about friendship. Why are all these people worried about friendship?

PR: Well, you know, the ancient, Bacon’s also a debunker of friendship in something like the way that Montaigne is. These two figures, at least, are very much worried about excessive high-mindedness, and the troubles it gets you into, about idealism. I mean, Montaigne is a real debunker of idealism.

HH: He’s a diplomat. He’s seen a lot of war and a lot of intrigue.

PR: That’s right, and he’s seen civil war. And he’s seen high-minded religious convictions lead to cruelty on a scale that’s just breathtaking, something like what’s going on in Syria right now. So he wants us to tamp it down. And you know, he’s in a way a proto-liberal in the small l sense. A business culture, a commercial society is the sort of society that he believes would be least likely to produce civil wars. They produce deals in which we split the difference. They don’t produce conflicts of honor where we have to kill one another.

HH: Right.

PR: And so the attack on sort of high-minded friendship, he says he likes alliances that get hold of him only by one end. So he likes commercial relations. You know, in other words, you have a relation, there’s probably a restaurant in Los Angeles that you really like, and you go there a lot. And you may know the owner, and he comes out and chats with you every time you come. Well, you have an alliance with him, but it gets hold of you only by one end. He wants to keep you as someone who comes to his restaurant, and you want to eat there.

HH: And that makes it stable and uncomplicated. And if it multiplies enough, you end up with a thriving economy and general stability.

— – – —

HH: I had thrown at Kyle Murnen, the fellow who organizes these, my request that we spend one hour on Montaigne. That’s my interjection into the otherwise scheduled out things. And they gave me Paul Rahe, and sure enough, he’s an expert. Here’s my second favorite line from the essays, Dr. Rahe. “The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” That’s from the essay On The Education Of Children. He writes a lot not merely in that essay, but throughout the entire book on how to teach. And I wonder if it has influenced, A) I wonder if you agree with me, agree with him on the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.

PR: Yeah, I think so, because you know, you’ve got to get a perspective on things. Things don’t always go well. They’re up and they’re down. And you have to laugh it off. If you’re anxious all the time, and you know, that’s one of the enemies. In fact, that third essay right at the beginning where I quoted a little snatch, the next thing he says is about anxiety. And if you, you know, anxiety means that you’re living in the future, and you’re not enjoying the things that exist now.

HH: Yeah.

PR: You’ve got to stop and smell the flowers. I don’t mean people shouldn’t work hard. I don’t mean they shouldn’t save. I don’t mean they shouldn’t care about their welfare, their children, which points towards the future. But they need somehow to distance themselves from all of the anxieties of the world.

HH: And you’re right, in the second essay, he writes, “I am little subject to violent passions. My susceptibility is naturally tough, and I harden it and thicken it every day by force of reason.” I once interviewed the Dalai Lama who said he spends at least a portion of every day imagining his dying.

PR: Well, you know, death comes up an awful lot…

HH: Yes.

PR: …in Montaigne. Now he knows, you know, he knows that his health problems are going to get him in the end. But he’s reflected on death. And it seems to me he’s an epicurean, which is to say he thinks after death, there is nothing.

HH: Right. He’s not although formally a Catholic, he’s not a Catholic.

PR: No, no, no, no. He’s politically a Catholic, and he’s a very moderate Catholic for the France of his time. He’s very friendly with Henry of Navarre, who becomes Henry IV, and gives up Protestantism for the throne. He’s very friendly with Catherine de Medici, the Queen mother, on the other side. And they trust him, which is fascinating, that someone could, you know, in a civil war situation, that someone could be trusted by both sides and be an intermediary. Now he doesn’t bring the war to an end. He would love to do that. But it’s very striking. He lives with all of these anxieties and these fears, and you don’t see them much in the book.

HH: Now earlier this week, I had on Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served both Bush and Obama. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served in Syria and Lebanon and in Pakistan. He had nothing bad to say about anyone, wanted to go out of his way to say nice things about Kerry and Clinton and Panetta and Rumsfeld and Bush. I mean, it was, he’s a diplomat.

PR: Yes.

HH: Diplomats have to do that.

PR: Yes. No, that’s absolutely right. And you must think more in business terms. That is to say in negotiating terms, than in terms of high principle. It is not a profession for people who have too, whose principles are a little bit too high. They have to be personally honest, but they’ve got to be willing to do the deals. And the deals are not always pretty.

HH: Now do you consider him as necessarily a genius, because he put out so much, and each one of these is really amazing.

PR: Yes, each one of them is a gem. And you’ve got to read them multiple times before they begin to get through to you. They’re charming and entertaining the first time, and every time after that. But to sort of peel the onion, so to speak, and to get to the center of the thing, you’ve got to watch him play with you and see where he is taking you, because the beginning of the thing, the end may contradict the beginning. And the topic may not be clear from the title.

HH: Oh, amen to that.

— – – — –

HH: Montaigne, I did not tell you, was born in 1533. He died in 1592. So he is really a great humanist. He precedes Shakespeare. Shakespeare read him, becomes after Machiavelli, after the world has broken apart, and he’s got an interesting place on most bookshelves. But not a lot of people know when or how to teach him, Paul Rahe. When do you teach him, and to whom?

PR: Never. I’ve never had the occasion. I did organize at the University of Tulsa, where I used to teach, a book group. I did this every year. And we would pick one book to read. And one year, we did Montaigne. And we sort of each week chewed over an essay, which is a wonderful way to do it, by the way. It’s just perfect for that, because the thing is infinitely interesting, and the next essay you have no idea where he’s taking you.

HH: Where you’re going next…So let me then ask as we conclude, you wrote this essay, Don Corleone: Multiculturalist. An essay is not a book, and it’s not an article. It’s a meditation at some length on a particular subject that doesn’t fit well anywhere else. So as an example of what Montaigne invented, what are you doing in Don Corleone: Multiculturalist?

PR: Well, I start off with the opening scene of Godfather I in the movie, but it also appears in the book, and I use the book primarily on this, where the wedding is taking place. And on the day that a Sicilian’s daughter gets married, he can deny a favor to no man. And you know, a man, a mortician comes to ask a favor of him, but he wants to pay him, because the mortician wants to keep him at arm’s length the way Montaigne wants to keep people at arm’s length. He wants to have a relationship with the guy who owns the restaurant that he goes to. He wants to know him, but he wants to pay him and not have obligations.

HH: Not have obligation being the key, yah.

PR: Yeah, and this, and Don Corleone is old school. You have to say be my friend, and then if he asks a favor back, you’ve got to do it. Now what interests me about that particular thing is I do teach Roman history. And I use that to throw light on patronage relations in ancient Rome. And they’re very elaborate. I mean, if you do a beneficium for someone, they owe you officium, obligations forever. And there is a tie of friendship. And if they come and ask another favor, basically, morally, you’ve got to do it. So it’s the opposite. It’s the very thing that Montaigne wants to avoid. And what I wanted to do in the essay is use the movie and the book, Don Corleone, to cast light on the difference between social relations in a commercial, such as our own, which is the sort of thing that Montaigne is pointing towards, and social relations in a feudal society or a pre-modern society. And much of the world still operates on the basis of the ethic that is laid out in Don Corleone.

HH: Oh, Sulla, the great dictator of Rome, and his tombstone’s been translated variously, but my favorite translation is no friend has ever done me a favor, nor enemy an injury that I have not repaid in full.

PR: Right.

HH: That is the essence of the transactional friendship, right?

PR: Right. Well, you can see it in Polemarchus, in Plato’s Republic, in the first book. He’s asked what is justice, and he says helping your friends. And then Socrates nudges him a bit, and he acknowledges, and harming your enemies. Okay, helping your friends and harming your enemies is a theme that runs through all of the plays of Sophocles. You’ll find it in Xenophon. It is a major theme in Greek life and in Roman life. Helping your friends and harming your enemies is what it means to be a good man, a helpful, a useful man. That’s exactly what Don Corleone is.

HH: And Montaigne says no, friendship is much higher than that.

PR: It’s much…

HH: There’s a seamlessness there. There is no giving and taking.

PR: Yes, it’s much higher than that, and the kind of friendship that is what we would call patronage, you’ve got to avoid, or you’re not free.

HH: Okay, so now I’ve got to ask you this, because you’re in a position to answer it. You are yourself an essayist as he was. What do you hope to accomplish by an essay?

PR: The first thing is you’ve got to charm. And the second thing is you have to carry your reader from the place where your reader happens to be, so that’s where the essay has to start somehow or another, to somewhere else, where you want to carry them.

HH: And…but why bother? Is it fame? What is it that Montaigne or Paul Rahe is looking for when they write an essay?

PR: Well look, Montaigne is a lot more ambitious than Paul Rahe. Montaigne was looking to change an entire culture. And I think arguably over about three centuries, slowly, gradually, he transformed the way people think about things.

HH: Wow. Oh, you make that claim for him?

PR: Yes, he’s a major figure. He’s up there, he works by indirection, so it’s not so obvious. It’s not, you know, Hobbes is very direct, Montaigne is very indirect.

HH: I don’t think I’ve ever, I agree with this, but I don’t think, for different reasons, I don’t think anyone has ever made that claim that I’ve heard them give him his due.

PR: I think he’s, look, everyone read him. And you can trace, and that’s part of what I do in the second volume of Republics Ancient Modern is trace the manner in which people, start with Montaigne’s position and then work out the political, the social and the economic consequences of the foundations he laid.

HH: How interesting. And I think he introduced self-absorption of the best sort.

PR: Yes.

HH: A sort of reflection on the morality of your actions so that you would be judged, and clarity, honesty. Rousseau’s a big fraud. Montaigne is telling you the real deal, though he may have some stuff hidden for political reasons. But he’s very honest with his readers.

PR: Yes, oh, yes, and wonderful to read, just a pleasure. And you’re absolutely right. The place to have him is next to your bed, and to sample him. Move in and out of it. And then when you get completely entranced, sit down and read the whole thing, preferably with your friends.

HH: Well, I think I’m going to prod you to do an online course for Hillsdale on Montaigne. Maybe you’ll lead to the Montaigne renaissance, Paul Rahe.

PR: Good Lord, okay.

HH: All right, be well. Thank you, my friend.

End of interview.


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