A Man is Conservative after Dinner: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michel de Montaigne and the Appetites of Moderation

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What does it mean to be radically moderate? Moderation can act as a check on excess while still proudly exhibiting the strength of its own advocacy. In this essay, I think through the counter-intuitive possibilities of a radical moderatism by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's chapter (published in Representative Men in 1850) on Michel de Montaigne. Emerson's moderate credentials, I suggest, are radical in their refusal to form exclusive alliances, a discursive hesitancy embodied in a style which constantly qualifies or undercuts itself in a resistance to settled thought. If one definition of moderatism is the desire to adjudicate between positions, to find common ground, to reach a settlement, Emerson's radicalism lies in his reluctance to choose, or at least in his desire to maintain an openness to the possibility of further consideration of a subject. ‘Montaigne’ is a complex meditation on the role of scepticism in the production of thought, and on the conditions that might be necessary for thinking to retain its validity in the face of the false comforts of extremism. Emerson maintains a sometimes precarious balance between scepticism and belief, keen to argue against our craving for easy certainty (the position we lazily slip into, he suggests, after a good meal) and yet also holding onto the notion that the abandonment of belief is a human impossibility. Emerson treads between and around these positions, at times reluctant to close a dialectic whose very existence speaks to his commitment to a moderatism that, in the words of Virginia Woolf (writing about Montaigne), follows the mind's ‘own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
JournalForum for Modern Language Studies
Issue number1
Early online date11 Dec 2011
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • moderatism
  • scepticism
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo
  • Montaigne, Michel de
  • Cavell, Stanley
  • knowledge
  • style
  • metaphysics
  • dialectic


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