To be here at this convocation at Memorial
University today, to share with students from such a wide
range of disciplines the delight of a degree, to witness the
retirement of three distinguished professors from their years
of teaching at Memorial University – all of this is
a signal honour for me, one for which I am very grateful.
I have long been an admiring reader of the writings of colleagues
at Memorial University, especially in history and anthropology;
two of them were even students of mine years ago at the University
of Toronto. But I have never been to Newfoundland before,
and born in Detroit, I have the mid-westerner’s awe
for the stark northern splendour of this province. I also
have the historian’s appreciation for the role of Newfoundland
and of Memorial University as a bridge between the cultures
and peoples of the British Isles, western Europe and Canada,
and among the peoples of Canada itself, from its oldest inhabitants
to its most recent arrivals.
Historians are wary about drawing direct lessons from the
past. Even when we recognize common patterns in different
periods, we know that the distinctive features of a society
and chance events can lead to surprising outcomes. But history
can make us aware of possibilities – possible ways of
living, thinking, and organizing things – which can
suggest new ideas for interpreting the present and imagining
the future. I want to tell you about two people from the past
– an elderly man and a young woman, who lived in 16th-century
France, and who can suggest to us the paths of courage, truth-telling,
innovation, and peacemaking in terrible times.
France was riven by holy war in the last half of the 16th
century. Protestants had destroyed Catholic statues and mocked
and killed the wicked priests. Catholics had massacred the
heretical Protestant worshippers, forcing the living to convert
or go into exile. Over 20 years and more, the two religious
parties killed each other on the battlefield and assassinated
each other’s leaders, each proclaiming that only one
true religion must be allowed in France. Meanwhile the peasants
wept over their lands and crops destroyed by fruitless battles,
and a small band of judges, lawyers, scholars, and city folk
exhorted the warring enemies to find some grounds for agreement,
stop the fratricide, and live in peace.
One of the most important spokespersons for peace was Michel
de Montaigne. He was somewhat unusual from the start. His
father was a Gascon landowner, recently ennobled, and a Catholic,
but on his mother’s side Montaigne had Jewish ancestors,
a mixed origin that aroused his curiosity about people different
from himself. After his university studies he was named judge
in the High Court of Bordeaux, a post that involved him in
the royal world of favour and advancement, but from which
he tried to keep some internal detachment. After 13 years
he resigned his judgeship – he referred to it as his
"servitude" – because he wanted to spend the
rest of his life writing in independence. He also had found
it unsettling to impose the death sentence when evidence was
so uncertain, as in the Martin Guerre impostor case. It would
be better to tell the parties to come back in 100 years.
In the next years, he did not abandon public service entirely,
using his good offices to try to create alliance between Protestant
prince and Catholic prince. Especially he wrote his Essays
and took his message to French readers through the printing
press. He would write about himself and his world with as
much honesty and truthfulness as he could muster. It wasn’t
easy, but truth was the "translator of our soul,"
essential for our human connection; lying "betrayed public
life." So he spoke not only of his own tastes and faults,
but of the habits, achievements, misdeeds, and crimes of his
contemporaries. His essay on the "cannibals," that
is, the Tupinamba of Brazil, was an effort at anthropological
description of people who had been called "savage"
and "barbaric" by other writers of his day. "I
find nothing barbarous or savage among these people,"
Montaigne said. "Everyone calls ‘barbarous’
the things they are not accustomed to." He, Montaigne,
found the Tupinamba’s practice of eating the flesh of
slain captives of war much less "barbarous" than
that of his French contempories, who eat their enemies alive,
torturing them in trials, burning them in judgement, and slaughtering
them in religious massacre.
Montaigne’s criticism went as high as the king and the
pope, although sometimes expressed obliquely and always without
arrogance. He knew his truth telling was limited by the uncertainty
of his own knowledge and the imperfection of human reason.
You did your best, but you could always be wrong. His belief
in Catholic theology came from faith alone, he said; he was
loyal to the Holy Mother Church because one needed a frame
of agreement among people. But this did not prevent him from
asking, "What do I know?"
In 1584, a young woman of 19 read Montaigne’s essays
and was overwhelmed with admiration. "So excited was
I that my family wanted to give me medicine [to calm me down]."
Her name was Marie de Gournay, born into a noble family of
Picardy and self-taught in literature, Latin and even Greek.
She wrote Montaigne a fan letter, and a few years later the
famous man of letters in his mid-50s met the aspiring young
female author. There ensued a remarkable – and in the
16th century unheard of – literary friendship between
Montaigne and Gournay. He read and commented on her early
writing; she discussed with him editorial revisions for his
essays. When he died in 1592, Montaigne made Marie de Gournay
his literary executor – an extraordinary choice for
a men of letters and shocking to his learned male contemporaries.
Undeterred, Gournay published the definitive editions of Montaigne’s
Essays in the next years along with some explosive writing
of her own.
Montaigne himself had never believed such friendship was possible
with a woman until he met Gournay. In his youth, he had known
a "perfect friendship," "indivisible,"
with a judicial colleague and writer a few years older than
himself. After his friend’s early death, Montaigne had
written an essay "On Friendship," celebrating their
alliance and maintaining in classical fashion that high friendship
was possible only between men. With a woman, there could only
be passion or polite conversation.
Meeting Marie de Gournay, he changed his mind: "The judgment
she made of my first Essais, and she a woman, in this century
so young and so alone – an amazing occurrence."
He called her his "daughter by alliance" and spoke
of "the perfection of a very holy friendship" between
them. And he let the world know about it in the last collection
of his Essais. Marie de Gournay responded in kind, describing
him as a spiritual father, in whose footsteps she had followed.
She lived on until she was 80, publishing before she died
The Equality of Men and Women – a book of uncompromising
affirmation for the similarity of women and men in regard
to virtue, intelligence, and potentiality. Even God’s
decision to make Jesus Christ a male was historically contingent,
not a sign of male superiority.
I tell you about these people from the 16th and 17th century
partly to show what surprises the past holds for us. Perhaps
I can even entice some of you to make a film about Montaigne
and Gournay, though if you do, please don’t reduce it
to a love affair. Especially these stories give us hope about
the possibility of innovation and change for the better. Montaigne
died before peace was finally made in war-exhausted France,
but he was one of the people who shaped the compromises and
assumptions on which peace was based. Montaigne and Gournay
improvised a male-female literary friendship for which there
was no previous model. Their example widened the sense of
the possible in gender relations for those that came after
The values which their lives and writings expressed speak
to us, too, across the centuries. (Montaigne would be delighted
to know this, as he always speculated about how big his audience
would be.) They speak to the graduate of 55 years ago, like
me, who would still like to fulfill her student-activist hope
of keeping the world from blowing up. They speak even more
to the new graduates like you, with an excellent education
behind you and an exciting future opening before you. In a
world where some have made market fundamentalism their secular
religion and have abandoned altruism, Montaigne and Gournay
remind us that we can invest our work lives with ethical values
and generosity. In a world where some leaders falsify and
their lies are carried unchecked through mass media, Montaigne’s
questioning through the printing press reminds us that we
must struggle for truth and try to speak it through our wider
networks. In an age once again beset by calls to crusade and
jihad, with its self-righteous polarities, its would-be world
emperor, demagogic tyrants, and death-loving extremists, Montaigne
reminds us that we must bear witness for peace.
The paths to peace are many. May you find them and create
new ones – for the sake of all of us folk all over the
world who just want to live our lives, for the sake of the
students you will one day have, of your future clients, partners,
customers, patients, viewers or listeners, for the sake of
the children you will one day bring into the world. All good
wishes to your generation, and many thanks to the community
of Memorial University for letting me salute you on this very