Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait with Disheveled Hair

Montaigne and Pascal: Inventing the Self

Instructor: Heather Ohaneson
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The origins of modernity were marked by a new concern: the self. The turn inward impelled not only a rethinking of traditional political, social, and religious ideas, but also a new focus on the personal and the mundane: on objects, fears, customs, death, the body, solitude, and subjective experience. Among the first to explore this new understanding of the human condition were two Frenchman, the essayist Michel de Montaigne and the polymath Blaise Pascal. Utilizing new and intimate literary forms, Montaigne and Pascal undertook radical self-investigation in the pursuit of bedrock personal and philosophical knowledge. The questions they considered encompass human frailty, self-knowledge, the imagination, the personality, and meaning. How can we come to know ourselves? How can we know others? What’s to be gained in being alone? What does it mean to be free?

In this course, we will read from Montaigne’s Essays (including “Of Idleness,” “Of Solitude,” and “That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die”) and Pascal’s unfinished, fragmentary Pensées, as we chart the philosophical power, and limits, of self-exploration. We’ll pay close attention to questions of literary form and philosophical thought, particularly Montaigne’s utilization (indeed, invention) of the essay, and whether styles of writing—self-referential, aphoristic, paradoxical—are particularly suited to certain kinds of inquiry and drawing out certain kinds of truths. We’ll situate Montaigne and Pascal historically and intellectually, while wondering, as we read, what’s timely, modern, and resonant in their approaches and ideas. We’ll ask: can personal insight be grounds for universal truth? How do we reconcile the social with the self?

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 20 — December 11, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open