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The Man Within

Why Montaigne is worth knowing.

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By LIAM JULIAN
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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.

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