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Theses Doctoral

Bodies of Wisdom: Philosophy as Medicine in Montaigne and Pascal

Magin, Johanna Catherine

In “Bodies of Wisdom,” I reassert the primacy of the body in the philosophical practices of two early modern French authors, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), whose writings have been associated with the ancient tradition of “philosophy as a way of life.” Harkening back to the Classical understanding of philosophy as a form of medicine, these authors’ works rely a good deal on somatic and/or medical terminology to describe states of the soul and philosophical practices more generally. While there exists a wide body of literature that addresses the medical analogy in Hellenistic philosophers, few commentators have ventured to read the analogy literally, and none thus far have done so for authors of the early modern period. In this dissertation, I reclaim the literal relationship between medicine and philosophy by examining instances in both authors where descriptions of health and illness can be read both metaphorically (“spiritually”) and literally (“somatically”). Philosophy is not just like medicine in that it seeks to bring about individual well-being; it is medicine in the fullest sense, because the exercises intended to bring about well-being must pass through the body in order to give lasting shape to the life of the practitioner.
Many scholars have acknowledged Pascal’s inheritance of Montaigne’s moderate skepticism, and as one of history’s most astute – and sometimes acerbic – readers of Montaigne, Pascal was uniquely poised to highlight those aspects of Montaigne’s philosophy that attenuated the reader’s belief in the power of human reason. This meant that for both authors, there had to be some more reliable alternative to the reasoning mind to arrive at an understanding of truth. The body, it turns out, served just such a purpose. Although Montaigne and Pascal had very different purposes in writing the Essais and the Pensées, respectively, I show how a mutual concern for empirical certainty amidst the tenuousness of philosophical and religious opinion precipitated a return to bodily experience, as the most viable means of knowing the self and the world.
Despite the widespread conception of the early modern period as one of “thoroughgoing” – and one might say, Cartesian – dualism between body and mind, I argue that Montaigne and Pascal are evidence of a countertrend: their writings suggest that we cannot think our way to philosophical virtue; we must enact that virtue through our bodies, using them as tools for interpretation and modification of our internal states. I thereby call into question a distinction that is commonly made between somatic techniques, on the one hand, and spiritual exercises, on the other, in much of the literature on philosophy as a way of life. The implications of this are far-reaching: if the suffering that philosophy purports to treat is at once spiritual and somatic, then the “spiritual” exercises designed to address this suffering also borrow a great deal from the soma, and should be advertised as such. Further, if spiritual health is indeed contingent on our relationship to the soma, then the classic definition of philosophy as a “spiritual” practice (namely, one associated with the logos) needs to be expanded to include the material and/or somatic dimensions of the discipline.
Although I try to provide a clear roadmap for how these authors go about spiritual healing, I recognize that the trajectory to spiritual health is seldom very direct. Surely, we can find examples of somatic exercises that appear to have a predictable effect on the mind and, inversely, spiritual exercises that yield positive physical results. However, the process of effecting change and training for virtue is almost never unidirectional. The constant trafficking between body and mind, evidenced most abundantly by the passions, belies a much less tidy relationship between the two faculties. To describe this relationship, I rely both on early modern medical therapeutics and on Pierre Bourdieu’s twentieth-century conception of habitus. Viewed through the lens of habitus, the practice of philosophy can be conceived as a process of embodiment, wherein the practitioner appropriates and accommodates in a bodily way the virtues traditionally aligned with the good life—before realizing that, as habitus, he or she is always, already well-adapted to the good and thus endowed with a certain form of health from the beginning.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Force, Pierre
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 7, 2015