The Magazine

What Do I Know?

Montaigne’s persistent search for meaning.

Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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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 Picture

Michel de Montaigne

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decent conversation?”

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:
Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit. .  .  . Live temperately. .  .  . Reflect on everything; regret nothing, and so on. But she knows that he’s no life coach. He can help us figure out how to live only because he doesn’t tell us how to live. He tells us how he lived.

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.”

He revealed himself in private postures and habits—eating, enjoying bantering conversation, seducing girls, being lazy, wishing on the whole he weren’t married, enduring the kidney stones that eventually killed him—more freely than any writer before him. His contemporaries, thinking of him as a reincarnation of Stoic philosophy, were a bit embarrassed by all the candor. But there’s nothing self-congratulatory or calculated about it, as there is in Rousseau or some of our own memoir-mongers. He’s as matter-of-fact talking about himself as he is talking about the customs of ancient Scythians.

Bakewell gives us his remarkable childhood (his first language, as arranged by his soldier-turned-humanist father, was Latin), his crucial friendship with the writer Étienne de La Boétie, and his somewhat stormy youth—more impulsively amorous and hot-tempered than you might expect from his wry and imperturbable essays, which he began as he approached 40. The serial editions of the Essais were immediately successful, though it took the French a long time to get used to his pungent and sprawling style. The English, on the other hand, quickly decided he was an honorary Englishman. His whimsical influence is all over English literature.

The German scholar Hugo Friedrich, in his great postwar study of Montaigne, found in the essays a trajectory from his early emulation of the Stoic ideal of rigorous self-discipline and emotionless detachment to a “will to powerlessness,” a renunciation of abstract perfection in favor of a yielding, serene, and supple immersion in the changing currents of life and self. The transition is mirrored in the increasingly formless form and meandering style of the essays themselves. And in Bakewell’s last few chapter titles: Give up control. .  .  . Be ordinary and imperfect. .  .  . Let life be its own answer.

You finally go to him as you go to Shakespeare—not for convictions or causes, but for a sense of the irreducible diversity and mystery of human life. Shakespeare knew John Florio, who made the first translation of Montaigne into English, and the influence of the essays is there: The Tempest borrows freely from a passage in “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne’s defense of the simple lives and virtues of South American Indians. Bakewell cites the scholar J. M. Robertson’s remark that all modern literature since Shakespeare and Montaigne is an elaboration of their joint theme, the “discovery of self-divided consciousness.” Hamlet has been heard from, and here’s Montaigne:

We are all made of fragments so shapelessly and strangely assembled that at every moment, each piece plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.

So there’s some logic in Montaigne after all. Since the fragmentary strangers within are as strange as the strangers without, we can regard both with the same mix of curiosity and sympathy—even very exotic strangers, like cannibals, even cats: “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, rather than I with her?” Bakewell rightly locates Montaigne’s whole approach to life in that question. What he offers is not self-absorption, or even methodical self-examination, but a free, footloose exploration of self that, bravely and honestly done, leads us to
embrace others.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.