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.