What Do I Know?
Montaigne’s persistent search for meaning.
Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Reading an essay by Montaigne is like strolling through a labyrinthine flea market. You are likely to find all sorts of things there, except maybe logic, and you are likely to get, like the author, a bit lost. His essays, ruled only by curiosity, wander, wonder, sidestep, and circle, accumulate anecdotes, quotations, and conjectures as they go, but never arrive at a definite conclusion or offer an argument that might drop you off at one. Even when he has a sharp point to make on a controversial subject, he often leaves it hovering in the form of a question: “What has the sexual act, so natural, so necessary, and so just, done to mankind, for us not to dare talk about it without shame and for us to exclude it from serious and
Michel de Montaigne
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That’s from an essay innocuously titled “Of some verses of Virgil,” which is mostly about sex but a dozen other things besides. His 106 other essays (“Of sadness,” “Of thumbs,” “Of drunkenness,” “Of the custom of wearing clothes,” etc.) similarly avoid sticking to their nominal subject, if they ever get around to it.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592), a provincial aristocrat and one-term mayor of Bordeaux, a descendant of prosperous merchants and, possibly, on his mother’s side, converted Spanish Jews, lived at a time when France was being torn to pieces in religion-inspired civil wars and massacres. He decided it was mad to claim certain knowledge of God’s will—or of anything else, with the possible exception of what was right in front of you. Even reason ran in circles. Every faction had its own airtight argument.
Que sais-je? (“What do I know?”) was one of the mottos he had inscribed in the tower room where he eventually retreated from an indifferent career at law, from his estate’s tedious winemaking business, from an evidently impatient wife and hectoring mother. There he could muse, pace, read, and invent a form of writing that he could only call an essai, attempt, since he wrote mostly to find out what he was writing about, to discover what he thought or, on second thought, didn’t think.
This sort of skepticism could hardly be radical in the manner of the Enlightenment two centuries later. In fact, it kept him in the Roman Catholic faith he was born into and made him a faute de mieux sort of conservative, a shoulder-shrugging supporter of established authority and tradition. He knew his essays had some subversive tendencies (“I express my opinions so far as custom allows me; I point with my finger to what I cannot say openly”). The Church, which raised no serious objections to them during his lifetime, eventually, in the mid-17th century, put them on the Index of Prohibited Books, where they stayed until 1854.
But he never takes an aggressive, debunking approach toward even the things that he clearly doubts, like miracles and witch trials. On any subject, he just multiplies and inverts perspectives until, the rug pulled out from under you, you find yourself suspended in midair, with plenty of amusing anecdotes for company.
For the British writer Sarah Bakewell, in this easygoing and acute biographical study, Montaigne’s playful juggling of perspectives is the essence of the essays. So it may seem odd that she’s titled her book How to Live, which at first glance makes him something he didn’t want to be: instructive. Her successive chapters are laid out like catechism responses to the question posed by the title:
She’s asking us to read Montaigne as Montaigne read others, especially his favorite biographers and historians: Plutarch, Herodotus, Tacitus. He wanted to know about other people’s lives and other times and cultures, which may offer hints about doing or seeing things differently but issue no marching orders. Montaigne scatters such hints freely throughout his essays, and Bakewell does a good job of picking them up. But all he’s really telling us is: “Don’t mind me, I’m just being Montaigne. Be yourself. That’s what succeeds. And that’s what’s interesting.”