The Corruption of Morals in the Renaissance: A Medical Model

Monday, April 22, 2024 5:30 pm - 8:00 pm

The University of Chicago Center in Beijing
20th floor, Culture Plaza
No. 59A Zhong Guan Cun Street
Haidian District Beijing 100872


At a time when the separation of body and mind had not yet been established to create a philosophy that would soon retreat behind ontology, the essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne gave considerable importance to the physical and material body, a body in perpetual motion and often in crisis. Illness, contagion, decrepitude, corruption, deformity, abnormality are terms frequently used by Montaigne to refer to a book that is also tormented by all manner of convulsions. The Religious Wars in France serve as a model. Montaigne’s discourse on the illnesses of his time leads him to question the function of the State, well before Hobbes. The dependence of the individual on the social body enables Montaigne to conceive of a social prophylaxis to maintain the balance between extreme social and political agitations. Montaigne’s solution aims to combat social illnesses through a political hygiene based on rest, balance, stability, moderation and temperance. These qualities calm—or at least contain—social unrest. What conclusions can be drawn from this comparison between illness and civil war? For Montaigne, both represent a natural state: “We are never without disease” (II, 12, 569), just as we are never without conflict. By dint of living with illness, we learn to accept it. Wars express a dramatic reversal that not only leads to death, but also compromises the social “seam” that binds people together. Illness, like war, produces natural unrest that leads to the destruction of both individual and social bodies. As a pragmatist, and certainly not a reformer, Montaigne explains that we must learn to live with the disturbances that punctuate our lives. It is a question of regulation and adaptation. The medical model is logically superimposed on the political situation, however inadequately.