Guy Who Invented Essays

French writers of the airier, belletristic kind used to enjoy pointing out that Michel de Montaigne, the man who invented the essay, was born Michel Eyquem, in Bordeaux in 1533, and that the family name and estate survive to this day in the name of Château d’Yquem, the greatest of all French sweet wines. The connection feels improbable—as though there were a Falstaff Ale that really dates to Shakespeare’s Stratford—but also apt. Montaigne’s essays can seem like the Yquem of writing: sweet but smart, honeyed but a little acid. And, with wine and writer alike, we often know more about them than we know of them—in the wine’s case because it costs too much money to drink as much as we might desire, in the writer’s because it costs too much time to read as much as we might want.

Que sais-je?” “What do I know?” was Montaigne’s beloved motto, meaning: What do I really know? And what do we really know about him now? We may vaguely know that he was the first essayist, that he retreated from the world into a tower on the family estate to think and reflect, and that he wrote about cannibals (for them) and about cruelty (against it). He was considered by Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, to be the first social scientist, and a pioneer of relativism—he thought that those cannibals were just as virtuous as the Europeans they offended, that customs vary equably from place to place. Though some of his aphorisms have stuck, both funny (Doctors “are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”) and profound (“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn”), he is not really an aphorist. He is, we think, a philosopher, and somehow accounted the father of modern liberalism, though he was aristocratic in self-presentation. We think of him, above all, as we do of Thomas More: a nice guy, an ideal intellect. S. N. Behrman, the American playwright and diarist, began but never finished a heroic play about Montaigne called “The Many Men,” which might have sealed him as the man for all seasons before the other guy got there.

Philippe Desan, in “Montaigne: A Life” (Princeton; translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), his immense new biography, dryly insists that our “Château d’Yquem” Montaigne, Montaigne the befuddled philosopher and sweet-sharp humanist, is an invention, untrue to the original. Our Montaigne was invented only in the early nineteenth century. The Eyquem family, in their day, made no wine at all. They made their fortune in salted fish—and Desan’s project is to give us a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne, to take the Château d’Yquem out of his life and put the herring back in. Montaigne, to Desan’s dauntingly erudite but sometimes jaundiced eye, was an arriviste rather than an aristocrat, who withdrew into that tower out of fear as much as out of wisdom, having ridden political waves and been knocked down by them in a time, in France, of unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics. His motto was safety first, not solitude forever. That new form, the essay, is made as much from things that Montaigne prudently chose not to look at or evasively pretended not to know as from an avid, honest appetite for experience. We confuse him with the truly engagé Enlightenment and Romantic writers who came long afterward, as they came to confuse his briny Bordeaux with their winey one.

The idea of a salty rather than a sweet Montaigne follows the contemporary academic rule that all sweet things must be salted—all funny writers shown to be secretly sad, all philosophical reflection shown to be power politics of another kind. Desan has many crudely reductive theories—the most insistent being that Montaigne wrote essays about the world right now because he was covering up the truth that in the past his family were merchants, not lords—but he is a master of the micro-history of sixteenth-century Bordeaux. He lists all the other recipients of the royal necklace that Montaigne was proud to receive in midlife, signifying his elevation to the knightly Order of St. Michael, and no one, we feel assured, will have to go back and inspect those records again. At the same time, Desan suffers some from the curse of the archives, which is to believe that the archives are the place where art is born, instead of where it goes to be buried. The point of the necklaces, for him, is to show that Montaigne rose from a background of bribes and payoffs; he doesn’t see that we care about the necklaces only because one hung on Montaigne.

He establishes convincingly, though, that the Eyquem family had long been in trade—and was quite possibly Jewish in origin on Montaigne’s mother’s side—and that Montaigne’s persistent tone of lordly amusement was self-consciously willed rather than inherited. The family imported herring and woad in large enough quantities to buy an existing estate and win a kind of ersatz ennoblement. That act of ennoblement fooled nobody—the old aristocrats knew the difference and so did your bourgeois neighbors—but it gave you license to start acting aristocratic, which, if continued long enough, began to blend seamlessly with the real thing. “Most of these new nobles preferred to stress their way of living in retirement on their lands, free from any visible commercial activity,” Desan writes. “Family history is usually not mentioned, to the advantage of the present and everyday preoccupations.” The merchant Eyquems, under Michel’s father, Pierre, became noble “Montaignes,” able to use a single name in signature. The son’s retreat to the château and the tower was, on this slightly cynical view, simply another way of advertising and so accelerating the family’s elevation.

But, we learn, the Montaignes, father and son, being the virtuous bourgeois they really were, played an active role in that parlement that the family had bought its way into. Here we begin to enter a more fertile vineyard of implication. The bureaucracies of justice and politics in which Montaigne found himself are, as Desan describes them, instantly familiar to anyone who knows the equivalent in contemporary France. They combined, then as now, a wild bureaucratic adherence to punctilio and procedure with entanglements of cohort and clan that could shortcut the procedure in a moment. Montaigne had to learn to master this system while recognizing its essential mutability or, if you prefer, hypocrisy. The forms had to be followed, even when there was no doubt that the fix was in.

This sense of doubleness—that what is presented as moral logic is usually mere self-sustained ritual—became essential to Montaigne’s view of the world. (Lawyers to this day seem particularly sensitive to the play between form and fact, which makes them good novelists.) “There is but little relation between our actions that are in perpetual mutation and the fixed and immutable laws,” a chagrined Montaigne wrote later. “I believe it were better to have none at all than so infinite a number as we have.” His most emphatic—if perhaps apocryphal—remark on the subject is still applicable. He is reputed to have said that, having seen the law at work, if someone accused him of stealing the towers of Notre-Dame cathedral he would flee the country rather than stand trial.

Montaigne was witnessing the beginning of the parallel paper universe of the French bureaucratic state, where euphemism allows interest, and sometimes evil, to take its course. But in his time these daily tediums were laid over the violently shifting tectonic plates of religious warfare. The struggles between Catholic and Protestant in mid-sixteenth-century France killed more than a million people, either directly or by disease. By the time the wars swept through Bordeaux, the issues had long since been swamped by simple tribalism, of the kind that has afflicted Christianity since the Arian controversy. It was a question not of two sides warring over beliefs but of two sides for whom the war had become the beliefs.

As the battles between those faithful to Henry of Navarre and those opposed to him went on in ever more intricate and absurd factional dances, Montaigne’s place within them was as treacherous as everyone else’s. Smart people got killed, and often. It was dangerous not only because your side might lose but because there were so many factions to keep track of. Early on, he wrote, cautiously, that it was a mistake to look to the fortunes of war for proof of the rightness of either side’s cause: “Our belief hath other sufficient foundations, and need not be authorized by events.” But events were in the saddle. [cartoon id="a20629"]

The first stirrings of Montaigne’s deflecting, double-sided literary style appear in his 1571 eulogy for his closest friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. Though the eulogy is modelled on classical stoic death scenes reaching back to Plato’s Phaedo, its originality lies in Montaigne’s honest reporting of the comic absurdities of his friend’s passing, and of his own emotional ambivalence at his death. La Boétie, suffering from some kind of ill-defined infection, is shown to be less than admirably resigned. The delirium of his final hours led him to believe that he was back in court, declaiming: “The whole chamber”—that is, his bedroom—“was filled with cries and tears, which did not, however, interrupt in the slightest the series of his speeches, which were rather long.” La Boétie implored Montaigne to guarantee his “place”—meaning, presumably, his social position—to which Montaigne replied, in a black, punning moment out of a Samuel Beckett play, that “since he breathed and spoke, and had a body, he consequently had his place.”

Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie helped convince him that religious belief is purely customary—that what we believe is what we are told to believe, but that our beliefs are still a duty to our social hierarchy. “Voluntary servitude” is the course that La Boétie recommends: obedience to the state or Church, with the inner understanding that this is a course we’ve chosen from social prudence, not from personal conviction. “We are Christians by the same title as we are either Périgordins or Germans” was Montaigne’s most forceful statement on this point.

Desan scolds both Montaigne and his friend—there is a lot of scolding of subject by author in this book—for thereby recommending or even inventing “the cornerstone of modern liberalism: individual freedom detached from any political or social action.” To say this, though, is surely to underestimate the originality of the position, or its audacity in its time. The assertion of individual freedom is a form of political action. As subsequent generations of intellectuals caught in violent irrational wars or under repressive governments have also learned, learning not to think foolishly is the first step toward sanity. (Live not by the lie, Solzhenitsyn urged his countrymen. Montaigne’s is the same idea, in a warmer climate with better wine.) Your mind belongs to you. Recognizing that everything is customary was not customary. Your body and your allegiance may indeed be given, prudently, to the state. But no one can make your mind follow suit: only a fool fools himself. The first step in dealing with the madness of the political world is not to let it make you crazy. “God keep me from being an honest man, according to the description I daily see made of honor,” Montaigne wrote.

Desan also scolds Montaigne, vis-à-vis La Boétie, on a literary point, complaining that Montaigne, having first been inspired to literary effort by a friend, allows the idea of friendship to dissipate in his later essays, which entail no friend but the reader. The essay becomes an impersonal form of intimacy, betraying a fear of passionate commitment and political engagement. But each written form creates its own reader. A sonnet is addressed to an indifferent object of passion; even if the actual lover warms up, the sonneteer can’t become too easily complacent—a dark lady suddenly sunny produces no one’s idea of a poem. So, too, an essay is always addressed to an intimate unknown. E. B. White, a modern Montaigne, who got there through Thoreau, was deeply attached to his wife, Katharine. But she makes few if any appearances in his essays (though she’s there, hypochondriacally, all over his letters). He wasn’t neglecting her—it’s just that if the essays were even implicitly addressed to a particular intimate they would become too specific. The illusion of confiding in the reader alone is what essayists play on. You’re my best friend, Montaigne, like every subsequent essayist of his type, implies to his readers. By dramatizing an isolation that can be cured only by an unknown reader, the confidences come to belong to all.

Montaigne made several attempts at his essais—the French word means, simply, “tries,” in the sense of experimental effort, though the English word “sketches” comes closer—and the bulk of the work of writing was done in the seven years following La Boétie’s death. Far from being rendered in elegant isolation, we now know, the essays were written while Montaigne took part in Bordeaux politics, travelled to Italy (where the book was briefly confiscated by Church authorities, and he was subjected to a withering examination and a warning), and, eventually, became the mayor of Bordeaux. When Montaigne tells us that his library is where “I pass the greatest part of my live days and wear out most hours of the days,” he was being poetical. The pieces were, it now seems, far more often dictated on the run than written in that tower, dictation being the era’s more aristocratic, less artisanal method of composition. (They still occasionally bear dictation’s marks of run-on breathlessness.)

Montaigne’s “Essais,” in any of their stages—they went through three editions in his lifetime—are one of those classic books that benefit from being read irresponsibly. Sit down to read them thoroughly step by step, even in the great contemporary English translation, of 1603, by John Florio (whose renderings I’ve mostly been using), and you will be disappointed, since the “argument” of the essays is often less than fully baked, and the constant flow of classical tags and quotations is tedious. Open more or less at random, though, and dip in, and you will be stunned by the sudden epiphanies, the utterly modern sentences: “Super-celestial opinions and under-terrestrial manners are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord,” he writes, giving as an example a philosopher who always pisses as he runs.

Montaigne accepts, as no other writer had, that our inner lives are double, that all emotions are mixed, and that all conclusions are inconclusive. “In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure,” he writes in the essay called, tellingly, “We Taste Nothing Purely.” “There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . Painters are of opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh. Verily, before one or other be determined to express which, behold the pictures success; you are in doubt toward which one inclineth. And the extremity of laughing intermingles itself with tears.” Having two emotions at once is better than having one emotion repeatedly.

By giving life to this truth, Montaigne animates for the first time an inner human whose contradictions are identical with his conscience. “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself,” he writes, in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” In the writer’s soul, he maintained,

all contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.

Lists are the giveaways of writing. What we list is what we love, as with Homer and his ships, or Whitman and his Manhattan trades, or Twain and steamboats. That beautiful and startlingly modern list of mixed emotions suggests a delectation of diversities—he likes not knowing what he feels or who he is, enjoys having “wise” and “ignorant,” insulated by nothing but a comma, anchored together in one soul’s harbor. They bang hulls inside our heads.

Although those epigrammatic sentences can be arresting—“Nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least”—Montaigne doesn’t think epigrammatically. What makes him astonishing is a sort of “show all work” ethic that forced thought as it really is, mixed in motive and meanings, onto the page. He seems wise, more than smart or shrewd—wise without being smart or shrewd. He can be embarrassing, as he was often thought to be in his time, in a way that recalls less a polished columnist than a great diarist, like James Boswell or Kenneth Tynan, incapable of being guarded, the way shrewder people are. When he writes about the joys of having sex with cripples, we feel uneasy, nervous, and then enlightened. Whatever he’s telling, he’s telling it, as Howard Cosell used to say, like it is.

Desan, writing only about the French Montaigne, avoids the question that, for an English speaker, is essential: the great question of Montaigne’s relationship to Shakespeare. Although Florio’s 1603 effort was the first English rendering of Montaigne’s essays to appear in book form, they had certainly been circulating in manuscript before that. In an introduction to a new edition of the Florio, Stephen Greenblatt tantalizes us with the suggestion that the relation exists, and shows how richly it can be teased out—and then responsibly retreats from too much assertion with too little positive evidence, willing to mark it down to the common spirit of the time.

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Well, essayists can go where scholars dare not tread—a key lesson to take from Montaigne—and this essayist finds it impossible to imagine that Shakespeare had not absorbed Montaigne fully, and decisively, right around 1600. It is evident not in the ideas alone but in a delighted placement of opposites in close relation, even more apparent in Shakespeare’s prose than in his verse. Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:

How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!

It’s not merely in the steady (and modern) use of exclamation points but in the sudden turns and reversals, without the mucilage of extended argument—the turn-on-a-dime movements, the interjections, the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back. The alteration in the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters around 1600, as evident in “As You Like It” as in “Hamlet,” bears his mark—as in Jaques’s speech on the seven ages of man, which very much resembles Montaigne’s insistence that life-living is role-playing. (“We must play our parts duly, but as the part of a borrowed personage.”)

Indeed, the Frenchman Jaques, even more than Hamlet, and from the same year, is Montaignean man. In this case, a specific relation seems to exist between Montaigne’s great essay “On Cruelty” and the scene in “As You Like It” where Jaques is reported brooding on the death of a deer. Montaigne’s point is that when it comes to cruelty we should subordinate all other “reasoning”—stoic, of degree and dependency—to the essential fact of the stag’s suffering. We can reason our way past another creature’s pain, but, as we do so, such “reason” becomes the indicted evil. Jaques feels the same way. “We are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse / To fright the animals and kill them up,” he says, while “weeping and commenting upon the sobbing deer.” We are meant to find Jaques’s double occupation of weeping and commenting, feeling and keeping track of his feelings, mildly comic—Shakespeare being always convinced, in his English way, that the French are hypersensitive and overintellectual. But Jaques is not a ridiculous figure. He is conscience speaking through contradiction.

It was in the midst of all this that Montaigne was elevated to mayor of Bordeaux—an achievement, Desan shows, that was rather like getting appointed police commissioner under Tammany Hall. He wasn’t much of a mayor, although it was under his administration that the first protection and “control” of Bordeaux’s cru bourgeois was attempted, wine having crept up to become the city’s most important export, more important even than the salt fish that the family fortune had been built on. (It was a sign of the middle-class affluence that sped along in spite of the wars of faith.) His one attempted intervention in the religious conflict led to his being arrested and held in the Bastille, for a few hours, by extremist Catholics in Paris. He was released only after convincing the jailers of his Catholic bona fides. Fanaticism always seems foolish until it locks you up.

After his mayoralty, combining, as it did, the trivial and the terrifying, Montaigne moved away from political action, and Desan, in the end, is hard on his politics. “Montaigne’s humanism, as it was conceptualized starting in 1585, implies a renunciation of politics,” he declares, and elsewhere he sees in Montaigne a sort of false dawn of liberalism. Montaigne’s retreat was only a rich man’s way of getting off the highway before history ran him over. “Montaigne is supposed to be the best proof of . . . the victory of private judgment over systems or schools of thought,” Desan writes. “Modern liberal thought discerns in Montaigne the starting point of its history . . . but let us make no mistake: most of the strictly philosophical readings of Montaigne are the expression of a form of (unconscious) ideological appropriation that aims to place the universal subject on a pedestal, to the detriment of its purely historical and political dimension.”

This view is deaf to the overtones of Montaigne’s self-removal. To be against violence, frightened of fanaticism, acutely conscious of the customary nature of our most devout attachments—without this foundation in realism, political action always pivots toward puritanical self-righteousness. It is not that Montaigne is placed on a pedestal; it’s that we look up at him only to find that he is already down here with us. His houses are built on sand, rock being too hard for people, who are bound to fall. His moral heroism lies in his resilience in retreat, which allows him to remind us of our capacity to persevere. His essays insist that an honest relation to experience is the first principle of action. As a practical matter, this has been most actively inspirational at times of greatest stress. The German author Stefan Zweig, in flight from Nazism, turned first of all to Montaigne, writing, “Montaigne helps us answer this one question: ‘How to stay free? How to preserve our inborn clear-mindedness in front of all the threats and dangers of fanaticism, how to preserve the humanity of our hearts among the upsurge of bestiality?’ ”

Montaigne is present now in the things he feels and the way he sounds, and that is like a complete human being. He’s funny, he’s touching, he’s strange, he’s inconclusive. Ironic self-mockery, muted egotism, a knowledge of one’s own absurdity that doesn’t diminish the importance of one’s witness, a determinedly anti-heroic stance that remains clearly ethical—all these effects and sounds of the essayist are first heard here. We imitate the sound without even knowing its source. Good critics and scholars can teach us how to listen. Only writers show us how to speak—even when they tell us that it is best to whisper.

Montaigne’s writing has not been taken out of his time. It exists outside of his time. He is not plucked out to become a false father; he is heard, long past his time, as a true friend. He is an emotional, not a contractual, liberal. He didn’t give a damn about democracy, or free speech, or even property rights. Equality before the law he saw as impossible—not even aristocrats could get it. But he had a rich foundational impulse toward the emotions that make a decent relation between man and state possible. Here was a far-reaching skepticism about authority (either the ancients’ or the actual), a compassion toward suffering, a hatred of cruelty that we now imagine as human instinct, though all experience shows us that it must be inculcated. Montaigne, having no access to the abstract concepts that were later laid on this foundation, gives us deeper access to them, because he was the one who laid it. The liberalism that came after humanism may be what keeps his memory alive and draws us to him. The humanism that has to exist before liberalism can even begin is what Montaigne is there to show us still. ♦

Michel de Montaigne, in full Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, (born February 28, 1533, Château de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, France—died September 23, 1592, Château de Montaigne), French writer whose Essais (Essays) established a new literary form. In his Essays he wrote one of the most captivating and intimate self-portraits ever given, on a par with Augustine’s and Rousseau’s.

Living, as he did, in the second half of the 16th century, Montaigne bore witness to the decline of the intellectual optimism that had marked the Renaissance. The sense of immense human possibilities, stemming from the discoveries of the New World travelers, from the rediscovery of classical antiquity, and from the opening of scholarly horizons through the works of the humanists, was shattered in France when the advent of the Calvinistic Reformation was followed closely by religious persecution and by the Wars of Religion (1562–98). These conflicts, which tore the country asunder, were in fact political and civil as well as religious wars, marked by great excesses of fanaticism and cruelty. At once deeply critical of his time and deeply involved in its preoccupations and its struggles, Montaigne chose to write about himself—“I am myself the matter of my book,” he says in his opening address to the reader—in order to arrive at certain possible truths concerning man and the human condition, in a period of ideological strife and division when all possibility of truth seemed illusory and treacherous.

Life

Born in the family domain of Château de Montaigne in southwestern France, Michel Eyquem spent most of his life at his château and in the city of Bordeaux, 30 miles to the west. The family fortune had been founded in commerce by Montaigne’s great-grandfather, who acquired the estate and the title of nobility. His grandfather and his father expanded their activities to the realm of public service and established the family in the noblesse de robe, the administrative nobility of France. Montaigne’s father, Pierre Eyquem, served as mayor of Bordeaux.

As a young child Montaigne was tutored at home according to his father’s ideas of pedagogy, which included the creation of a cosseted ambience of gentle encouragement and the exclusive use of Latin, still the international language of educated people. As a result the boy did not learn French until he was six years old. He continued his education at the College of Guyenne, where he found the strict disciplineabhorrent and the instruction only moderately interesting, and eventually at the University of Toulouse, where he studied law. Following in the public-service tradition begun by his grandfather, he entered into the magistrature, becoming a member of the Board of Excise, the new tax court of Périgueux, and, when that body was dissolved in 1557, of the Parliament of Bordeaux, one of the eight regional parliaments that constituted the French Parliament, the highest national court of justice. There, at the age of 24, he made the acquaintance of Étienne de la Boétie, a meeting that was one of the most significant events in Montaigne’s life. Between the slightly older La Boétie (1530–63), an already distinguished civil servant, humanist scholar, and writer, and Montaigne an extraordinary friendship sprang up, based on a profound intellectual and emotional closeness and reciprocity. In his essay “On Friendship” Montaigne wrote in a very touching manner about his bond with La Boétie, which he called perfect and indivisible, vastly superior to all other human alliances. When La Boétie died of dysentery, he left a void in Montaigne’s life that no other being was ever able to fill, and it is likely that Montaigne started on his writing career, six years after La Boétie’s death, in order to fill the emptiness left by the loss of the irretrievable friend.

In 1565 Montaigne was married, acting less out of love than out of a sense of familial and social duty, to Françoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of one of his colleagues at the Parliament of Bordeaux. He fathered six daughters, five of whom died in infancy, whereas the sixth, Léonore, survived him.

In 1569 Montaigne published his first book, a French translation of the 15th-century Natural Theology by the Spanish monk Raymond Sebond. He had undertaken the task at the request of his father, who, however, died in 1568, before its publication, leaving to his oldest son the title and the domain of Montaigne.

In 1570 Montaigne sold his seat in the Bordeaux Parliament, signifying his departure from public life. After taking care of the posthumous publication of La Boétie’s works, together with his own dedicatory letters, he retired in 1571 to the castle of Montaigne in order to devote his time to reading, meditating, and writing. His library, installed in the castle’s tower, became his refuge. It was in this round room, lined with a thousand books and decorated with Greek and Latin inscriptions, that Montaigne set out to put on paper his essais, that is, the probings and testings of his mind. He spent the years from 1571 to 1580 composing the first two books of the Essays, which comprise respectively 57 and 37 chapters of greatly varying lengths; they were published in Bordeaux in 1580.

Although most of these years were dedicated to writing, Montaigne had to supervise the running of his estate as well, and he was obliged to leave his retreat from time to time, not only to travel to the court in Paris but also to intervene as mediator in several episodes of the religious conflicts in his region and beyond. Both the Roman Catholic king Henry III and the Protestant king Henry of Navarre—who as Henry IV would become king of France and convert to Roman Catholicism—honoured and respected Montaigne, but extremists on both sides criticized and harassed him.

After the 1580 publication, eager for new experiences and profoundly disgusted by the state of affairs in France, Montaigne set out to travel, and in the course of 15 months he visited areas of France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Curious by nature, interested in the smallest details of dailiness, geography, and regional idiosyncrasies, Montaigne was a born traveler. He kept a record of his trip, his Journal de voyage (not intended for publication and not published until 1774), which is rich in picturesque episodes, encounters, evocations, and descriptions.

While still in Italy, in the fall of 1581, Montaigne received the news that he had been elected to the office his father had held, that of mayor of Bordeaux. Reluctant to accept, because of the dismal political situation in France and because of ill health (he suffered from kidney stones, which had also plagued him on his trip), he nevertheless assumed the position at the request of Henry III and held it for two terms, until July 1585. While the beginning of his tenure was relatively tranquil, his second term was marked by an acceleration of hostilities between the warring factions, and Montaigne played a crucial role in preserving the equilibrium between the Catholic majority and the important Protestant League representation in Bordeaux. Toward the end of his term the plague broke out in Bordeaux, soon raging out of control and killing one-third of the population.

Montaigne resumed his literary work by embarking on the third book of the Essays. After having been interrupted again, by a renewed outbreak of the plague in the area that forced Montaigne and his family to seek refuge elsewhere, by military activity close to his estate, and by diplomatic duties, when Catherine de Médicis appealed to his abilities as a negotiator to mediate between herself and Henry of Navarre—a mission that turned out to be unsuccessful—Montaigne was able to finish the work in 1587.

The year 1588 was marked by both political and literary events. During a trip to Paris Montaigne was twice arrested and briefly imprisoned by members of the Protestant League because of his loyalty to Henry III. During the same trip he supervised the publication of the fifth edition of the Essays, the first to contain the 13 chapters of Book III, as well as Books I and II, enriched with many additions. He also met Marie de Gournay, an ardent and devoted young admirer of his writings. De Gournay, a writer herself, is mentioned in the Essays as Montaigne’s “covenant daughter” and was to become his literary executrix. After the assassination of Henry III in 1589, Montaigne helped to keep Bordeaux loyal to Henry IV. He spent the last years of his life at his château, continuing to read and to reflect and to work on the Essays, adding new passages, which signify not so much profound changes in his ideas as further explorations of his thought and experience. Different illnesses beset him during this period, and he died after an attack of quinsy, an inflammation of the tonsils, which had deprived him of speech. His death occurred while he was hearing mass in his room.

The Essays

Montaigne saw his age as one of dissimulation, corruption, violence, and hypocrisy, and it is therefore not surprising that the point of departure of the Essays is situated in negativity: the negativity of Montaigne’s recognition of the rule of appearances and of the loss of connection with the truth of being. Montaigne’s much-discussed skepticism results from that initial negativity, as he questions the possibility of all knowing and sees the human being as a creature of weakness and failure, of inconstancy and uncertainty, of incapacity and fragmentation, or, as he wrote in the first of the essays, as “a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating thing.” His skepticism is reflected in the French title of his work, Essais, or “Attempts,” which implies not a transmission of proven knowledge or of confident opinion but a project of trial and error, of tentative exploration. Neither a reference to an established genre (for Montaigne’s book inaugurated the term essay for the short prose composition treating a given subject in a rather informal and personal manner) nor an indication of a necessary internal unity and structure within the work, the title indicates an intellectual attitude of questioning and of continuous assessment.

Montaigne’s skepticism does not, however, preclude a belief in the existence of truth but rather constitutes a defense against the danger of locating truth in false, unexamined, and externally imposed notions. His skepticism, combined with his desire for truth, drives him to the rejection of commonly accepted ideas and to a profound distrust of generalizations and abstractions; it also shows him the way to an exploration of the only realm that promises certainty: that of concrete phenomena and primarily the basic phenomenon of his own body-and-mind self. This self, with all its imperfections, constitutes the only possible site where the search for truth can start, and it is the reason Montaigne, from the beginning to the end of the Essays, does not cease to affirm that “I am myself the matter of my book.” He finds that his identity, his “master form” as he calls it, cannot be defined in simple terms of a constant and stable self, since it is instead a changeable and fragmented thing, and that the valorization and acceptance of these traits is the only guarantee of authenticity and integrity, the only way of remaining faithful to the truth of one’s being and one’s nature rather than to alien semblances.

Yet, despite his insistence that the self guard its freedom toward outside influences and the tyranny of imposed customs and opinions, Montaigne believes in the value of reaching outside the self. Indeed, throughout his writings, as he did in his private and public life, he manifests the need to entertain ties with the world of other people and of events. For this necessary coming and going between the interiority of the self and the exteriority of the world, Montaigne uses the image of the back room: human beings have their front room, facing the street, where they meet and interact with others, but they need always to be able to retreat into the back room of the most private self, where they may reaffirm the freedom and strength of intimate identity and reflect upon the vagaries of experience. Given that always-available retreat, Montaigne encourages contact with others, from which one may learn much that is useful. In order to do so, he advocates travel, reading, especially of history books, and conversations with friends. These friends, for Montaigne, are necessarily men. While none can ever replace La Boétie, it is possible to have interesting and worthwhile exchanges with men of discernment and wit. As for his relations with women, Montaigne wrote about them with a frankness unusual for his time. The only uncomplicated bond is that of marriage, which reposes, for Montaigne, on reasons of family and posterity and in which one invests little of oneself. Love, on the other hand, with its emotional and erotic demands, comports the risk of enslavement and loss of freedom. Montaigne, often designated as a misogynist, does in fact recognize that men and women are fundamentally alike in their fears, desires, and attempts to find and affirm their own identity and that only custom and adherence to an antiquated status quo establish the apparent differences between the sexes, but he does not explore the possibility of overcoming that fundamental separation and of establishing an intellectual equality.

Montaigne extends his curiosity about others to the inhabitants of the New World, with whom he had become acquainted through his lively interest in oral and written travel accounts and through his meeting in 1562 with three Brazilian Indians whom the explorer Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon had brought back to France. Giving an example of cultural relativism and tolerance, rare in his time, he finds these people, in their fidelity to their own nature and in their cultural and personal dignity and sense of beauty, greatly superior to the inhabitants of western Europe, who in the conquests of the New World and in their own internal wars have shown themselves to be the true barbarians. The suffering and humiliation imposed on the New World’s natives by their conquerors provoke his indignation and compassion.

Involvement in public service is also a part of interaction with the world, and it should be seen as a duty to be honourably and loyally discharged but never allowed to become a consuming and autonomy-destroying occupation.

Montaigne applies and illustrates his ideas concerning the independence and freedom of the self and the importance of social and intellectual intercourse in all his writings and in particular in his essay on the education of children. There, as elsewhere, he advocates the value of concrete experience over abstract learning and of independent judgment over an accumulation of undigested notions uncritically accepted from others. He also stresses, throughout his work, the role of the body, as in his candid descriptions of his own bodily functions and in his extensive musings on the realities of illness, of aging, and of death. The presence of death pervades the Essays, as Montaigne wants to familiarize himself with the inevitability of dying and so to rid himself of the tyranny of fear, and he is able to accept death as part of nature’s exigencies, inherent in life’s expectations and limitations.

Montaigne seems to have been a loyal if not fervent Roman Catholic all his life, but he distrusted all human pretenses to knowledge of a spiritual experience which is not attached to a concretely lived reality. He declined to speculate on a transcendence that falls beyond human ken, believing in God but refusing to invoke him in necessarily presumptuous and reductive ways.

Although Montaigne certainly knew the classical philosophers, his ideas spring less out of their teaching than out of the completely original meditation on himself, which he extends to a description of the human being and to an ethics of authenticity, self-acceptance, and tolerance. The Essays are the record of his thoughts, presented not in artificially organized stages but as they occurred and reoccurred to him in different shapes throughout his thinking and writing activity. They are not the record of an intellectual evolution but of a continuous accretion, and he insists on the immediacy and the authenticity of their testimony. To denote their consubstantiality with his natural self, he describes them as his children, and, in an image of startling and completely nonpejorative earthiness, as the excrements of his mind. As he refuses to impose a false unity on the spontaneous workings of his thought, so he refuses to impose a false structure on his Essays. “As my mind roams, so does my style,” he wrote, and the multiple digressions, the wandering developments, the savory, concrete vocabulary, all denote that fidelity to the freshness and the immediacy of the living thought. Throughout the text he sprinkles anecdotes taken from ancient as well as contemporary authors and from popular lore, which reinforce his critical analysis of reality; he also peppers his writing with quotes, yet another way of interacting with others, that is, with the authors of the past who surround him in his library. Neither anecdotes nor quotes impinge upon the autonomy of his own ideas, although they may spark or reinforce a train of thought, and they become an integral part of the book’s fabric.

Montaigne’s Essays thus incorporate a profound skepticism concerning the human being’s dangerously inflated claims to knowledge and certainty but also assert that there is no greater achievement than the ability to accept one’s being without either contempt or illusion, in the full realization of its limitations and its richness.

Readership

Throughout the ages the Essays have been widely and variously read, and their readers have tended to look to them, and into them, for answers to their own needs. Not all his contemporaries manifested the enthusiasm of Marie de Gournay, who fainted from excitement at her first reading. She did recognize in the book the full force of an unusual mind revealing itself, but most of the intellectuals of the period preferred to find in Montaigne a safe reincarnation of stoicism. Here started a misunderstanding that was to last a long time, save in the case of the exceptional reader. The Essays were to be perused as an anthology of philosophical maxims, a repository of consecrated wisdom, rather than as the complete expression of a highly individual thought and experience. That Montaigne could write about his most intimate reactions and feelings, that he could describe his own physical appearance and preferences, for instance, seemed shocking and irrelevant to many, just as the apparent confusion of his writing seemed a weakness to be deplored rather than a guarantee of authenticity.

In the 17th century, when an educated nobility set the tone, he was chiefly admired for his portrayal of the honnête homme, the well-educated, nonpedantic man of manners, as much at home in a salon as in his study, a gentleman of smiling wisdom and elegant, discreet disenchantment. In the same period, however, religious authors such as Francis of Sales and Blaise Pascal deplored his skepticism as anti-Christian and denounced what they interpreted as an immoral self-absorption. In the pre-Revolutionary 18th century the image of a dogmatically irreligious Montaigne continued to be dominant, and Voltaire and Denis Diderot saw in him a precursor of the free thought of the Enlightenment. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, the encounter with the Essays was differently and fundamentally important, as he rightly considered Montaigne the master and the model of the self-portrait. Rousseau inaugurated the perception of the book as the entirely personal project of a human being in search of his identity and unafraid to talk without dissimulation about his profound nature. In the 19th century some of the old misunderstandings continued, but there was a growing understanding and appreciation of Montaigne not only as a master of ideas but also as the writer of the particular, the individual, the intimate—the writer as friend and familiar. Gustave Flaubert kept the Essays on his bedside table and recognized in Montaigne an alter ego, as would, in the 20th century, authors such as André Gide, Michel Butor, and Roland Barthes.

The Essays were first translated into English by John Florio in 1603, and Anglophone readers have included Francis Bacon, John Webster, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.

Today Montaigne continues to be studied in all aspects of his text by great numbers of scholars and to be read by people from all corners of the earth. In an age that may seem as violent and absurd as his own, his refusal of intolerance and fanaticism and his lucid awareness of the human potential for destruction, coupled with his belief in the human capacity for self-assessment, honesty, and compassion, appeal as convincingly as ever to the many who find in him a guide and a friend.

Tilde A. Sankovitch

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