The Man Within
Why Montaigne is worth knowing.
May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By LIAM JULIAN
When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That
Saul Frampton opens his delightful book on the life of Michel de Montaigne with a depiction of the French nobleman reaching up to the wooden beams of his library ceiling, scratching out some words he had inscribed there years earlier. Undergoing erasure is a dictum uttered by Lucretius, Nec nova vivendo procuditur ulla voluptas—There is no new pleasure to be gained by living longer. Montaigne, in removing this line, was signaling to himself above all a recharged willingness to embrace life, appreciate it, and be attentive to it, and a desire to drink in as much of it as he could.
It is an apposite image, Montaigne stretched skyward revising his beliefs, for he was a man forever revisiting his assumptions and deductions, testing them, adding to them. This was the way in which his famous Essays, a book Frampton calls “perhaps, alongside the plays of Shakespeare and Don Quixote, one of the most important literary works of the Renaissance,” came to be.
Begun in 1572, the Essays is Montaigne’s 20-year examination of his own life, and not the product of that examination, either, but the examination itself. It contains more than a hundred essays and some half-million words, and discusses idleness, cruelty, experience, philosophy, smells, cannibalism, friendship, education, children, death, sex, happiness, and more through the author’s experiences and ruminations on them. Here Montaigne seeks truth: Que sçais-je?—What do I know?—was his adage. It is through this autobiographical quest for truth, undertaken in part by placing on trial his own actions and beliefs, that Montaigne begins to know himself—and we, his readers, begin to know him, too.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 in Aquitaine, in southwestern France, on the border between Catholic Bordeaux and Protestant Périgord (confrontation and violence between Catholics and Protestants would be a major part of his life). He was not close to his mother or siblings but did admire his father, Pierre, whom Frampton says Montaigne “clearly adored.” His utmost affection, however, was reserved for his best friend, Etienne de La Boétie.
Montaigne met La Boétie in 1558 in Bordeaux, where both were working as parliamentary lawyers. They bonded immediately. La Boétie was a potent influence on Montaigne and also, writes Frampton, on the Essays, for La Boétie’s death from plague in 1563 “created an absence that Montaigne attempted to fill with writing.” Frampton quotes Montaigne saying that he would have rather written letters than essays but had no one to send them to, lacking “a certain relationship to lead me on, to sustain me, and raise me up.” La Boétie’s death was the start of a difficult several years for Montaigne, in fact: His father died in the summer of 1568 and his younger brother, struck in the head with a tennis ball, died less than a year later. Shortly thereafter, Montaigne was pitched violently from his horse and himself almost perished.
By the summer of 1570, then, a reflective Montaigne was reconsidering his future. His career in Bordeaux had stalled after he was rejected for a position in the court’s high chamber, likely for reasons political and not performative. And so, after 13 years on the job, he relinquished his magistracy and retired to his estate, 30 miles east of the city, up the Dordogne River. A year later, on his 38th birthday, Montaigne commemorated retirement from what he called the wearying “servitude of the court and of public employments” by having a Latin inscription painted on the wall of his library—a place “consecrated,” the inscription read, “to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”
It was here, in his library, that Montaigne set about recording his thoughts. The room occupied the third floor, just below the attic, of a tower at the southeastern corner of his chateau. His books, many of which were left to him by La Boétie, sat on a curving set of shelves crafted to fit the circular tower. “My library is round in shape,” he wrote, “and in its roundness offering me a view of my books, arranged on five shelves all around.” One imagines the seigneur at his desk, head hunched downward as he scribbled, glancing up momentarily in search of an elusive word and smiling at the bounty of books encircling him.
Frampton tells us that Montaigne’s earliest essays were “characterized by their obsession with battle plans and tactics, arquebuses, lances and the generalissimos of old.” In them the author praises Alexander, discourses on armor, and describes the Romans’ facility with the javelin. But warfare in Montaigne’s day was changing, and the loudest chord he strikes in these pieces is of wariness and despair. Firearms and shifting, diluted codes of honor had made 16th-century battle a strikingly impersonal and unpredictable thing, and the French civil wars between Protestants and Catholics, which raged as Montaigne wrote, were especially erratic and capricious.
“Monstrous war,” he says of them. “Other wars act outwardly, this one acts against itself, eating away and destroying itself with its own venom.” Society, trust, principle—they were crumbling. The lone certainty in such a world was that death, impulsive and unpredictable as it is, would arrive, one way or another, and the essentiality of preparing oneself to die thus became Montaigne’s obsession. One readied himself for death, Montaigne wrote, not by shying from it but attacking it head-on. The lessons of the Stoics, men like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, were instructive here, and into this traditional stoicism which counseled constancy and impassivity Montaigne also blended Lucretius’ teachings. Why “seek to add longer life merely to renew ill-spent time and be tormented?” Lucretius had wondered. Better to use whatever scant existence we have to lay a strong foundation for the death that is sure to come.
Interestingly, it was Montaigne’s retelling of his own near-death experience that eventually jostled his Stoic certainty. As he recounts his equine accident and subsequent convalescence in the essay “Of Practice,” he begins to perceive that the mind and body are necessarily conjoined and that, as Frampton describes it, “our ability to distance ourselves from our passions and our senses”—the sort of detachment the Stoics advocated—“is necessarily curtailed.” Montaigne’s fall from his horse, then,
And so Montaigne decides that Lucretius is no longer for him, and he reaches up to the ceiling and replaces the poet’s pessimistic injunction with what Frampton calls “the humbler wisdom” of the book of Ecclesiastes (11:5): “You who do not know how the mind is joined to the body know nothing of the works of God.” Montaigne’s new skepticism served him, and serves us, well. It gave his writings their characteristic, interrogatory sheen. “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” he asks. It sounds silly—but consider that his cat allows Montaigne, as Frampton explains, to “think about stepping outside himself, to think about what it is to be her, and therefore what it is to be himself.” This questioning, of everything, is how the essayist made his intellectual discoveries.
In 1580, after the first volume of his Essays had been published, Montaigne set off on an adventure, what became a 17-month journey through Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Italy. He kept a detailed record of the trip, portions of which he used to supplement later versions of the Essays and which eventually became a stand-alone book called the Travel Journal, first published in 1774.
“Travel is in my opinion a profitable exercise,” he wrote. “The soul is there continually exercised in noticing new and unknown things,” which was, for Montaigne, the best way “in which to model life.” Traveling, he believed, helps one “rub and polish our brains through contact with others.” And rub and polish he does: He learns from a carpenter how the number of a tree’s rings corresponds to its age; he learns from Doctor Burro of the University of Rome about sea tides. On a visit to the Vatican library he scrutinizes Aristotle’s messy penmanship, and on a visit to Florence he scrutinizes the prostitutes (“nothing special”). He meets people, tastes cuisines, notes the price of horses and shape of hats. The villagers of Remiremont pay their rents in snow. Montaigne writes this down.
Among the consequences of the travels, according to Frampton, was that Montaigne became more alert to “the ironies and inconsistencies of religious zeal.” The Frenchman does note some places where Catholics and Protestants live in peace, but more often what he uncovers are situations in which intolerance and professed orthodoxy are accompanied by hypocrisy, dishonesty, and theological negligence. His depictions of quarrelling priests and friars in Pisa, and exorcisms in Rome, are tinged with disapproval and disbelief. While the Montaigne of the Essays is an allegedly conservative Catholic (albeit one mostly tolerant of other faiths), his Travel Journal presents a more skeptical, questioning, even dubious character.
In early September 1581, while soaking in the Bagni di Lucca, the mineral baths to which he had retreated in hopes of curing himself of the kidney stones that had bedeviled him for years, Montaigne was notified that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. He returned to his estate in November of that year and, reluctantly, to work. He continued to add to the Essays, however, contributing new pieces and revising old ones. Amended versions of the book were published in 1582 and 1587, and an enlarged edition came out in 1588.
In one of his final essays, Montaigne returns to his earlier preoccupation with death. Recalling the “thousand different kinds of evil” that befell him in 1586—the year the religious wars finally arrived at his doorstep, bringing with it looting and pillaging and plague—he is nonetheless able to find some solace. “If you do not know how to die, don’t worry yourself,” he writes. “Nature will inform you what to do on the spot, plainly and adequately . . . don’t bother your head about it.” Here, Montaigne makes his final break from the Stoics. Even in the bleakest times, death, so prevalent, is not “the goal of life; it is its finish, its limit, but not therefore its object.”
Montaigne died at home on September 13, 1592, of complications from kidney stones. In his last essay, he had written, “Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.” Virginia Woolf loved that line; she quoted it often. And Sarah Bakewell, in her own book on Montaigne, rightly calls it “as close as Montaigne ever came to a final or best answer to the question of how to live.”
Liam Julian is managing editor of Policy Review.