The Man Within
Why Montaigne is worth knowing.
May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By LIAM JULIAN
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.