February 4, 2015

Michel de Montaigne: A Man in his Tower, Thinking and Writing

Montaigne's tower where he had his library.
Images courtesey of Wikipedia.

Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice; for it is my own self that I am painting..../And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.  
I undertake to write without preconceptions on any subject which comes to mind, employing nothing but my own natural resources...What I myself have thought up and produced is poor feeble stuff, but I let it go on, without plastering over the cracks or stitching up the rents which have been revealed by such comparisons [with the great authors of the past]. 
Ah, how can one not be charmed by these sentiments––as overly modest as they may be––and how amazing that they were written in the 16th century by a French nobleman, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592). In his massive books of essays, Essais written over 20 years (the French essayer means to try, to attempt) he ranged widely in his thoughts, writing essays:
On sadness; On liars; On idleness; On constancy; That the taste of good and evil things depends in large part on the opinion we have of them; On Moderation; On the Cannibals; Judgements on God's ordinances must be embarked upon with prudence; On the uncertainty of our judgement; On smells; To philosophize is to learn how to die; On educating children; On drunkenness; On cruelty; On vanity.....
....and that is just a small sample. Although each essay has a subject, Montaigne wanders about while discussing it, adding stories that he heard or witnessed, classical quotes, ideas sometimes tenuously connected to the subject at hand. This makes for a casual read, comfortable, like chatting with a friend. He is the originator of the essay form, looking inside himself and writing what he thinks. And, he was at times very funny. In writing about his memory, which he "can hardly find a trace of it in myself"; but its lack has its positive aspects: it has helped him to avoid ambition in worldly affairs and 
Then again, I talk less; it is always easier to draw on the storehouse of memory than to find something original to say. If my memory had stood fast, I would have deafened my friends with my chatter......Once you are off, it is hard to cut if short and stop talking. Nothing tells you more about a horse than a pronounced ability to pull up short. I have even known men who can speak pertinently, who want to stop their gallop, but who do not know how to do so. While looking for a way to bring their hoofs together they amble on like sick men, dragging out trivialities.
I quote this to give you an idea of how easy going and rambling and interesting the essays are; how readable and thought provoking. Of course, praise must be given to the translator of the complete essays. The version I have was translated by M.A. Screech, originally published in 1991; it includes a short and helpful introduction to each essay and copious notes. 

I was introduced to Montaigne via a wonderful biography, worthy of his character: How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Bakewell loves her subject; her engaging writing leads us to also love him. Her book is biography and philosophy combined; it's a book that both entertains and invites us to think about big questions, not only how to live but also how to die. Montaigne lived during a terrible time in France, that of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, a time of such violence that our current religious brutality seems minor in comparison. This made him conservative in supporting the Catholic church over the new Protestants (although he did support Henri of Navarre, a Protestant, to be king, showing his pragmatism and his belief in good character above all else); he wrote "I abhor novelty....for I have seen some of its disastrous effects...". Montaigne was also remarkably modern in his relativistic acknowledgment––explicit in the essay "On Habit: and on never easily changing a traditional law"––that we are most comfortable with our own customs, thinking those of others unnatural and even immoral:
Peoples nurtured on freedom and self-government judge any other form of polity to be deformed and unnatural. Those who are used to monarchy do the same... 
The laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom.  
...usage hides the true aspect of things from us.
Bakewell tells us of Montaigne's unusual education as a child: his father's unusual educational ideas led him to engage a Latin scholar as tutor so that Latin was his first language. Another essay of his that is very modern in its ideas is "On educating children". He insists that learning should be a joyous activity:
The most express sign of wisdom is unruffled joy: like all in the realms above the Moon, her state is ever serene.
He is dismissive of just book-learning; he wants the child to learn judgement, and to experience the world.
For our boy any place and any time can be used to study: his room, a garden; his table, his bed; when alone or in company; morning and evening. His chief study will be philosophy, that Former of good judgement and character who is privileged to be concerned with everything.
Montaigne is very much of his time in dismissing the abilities of women, although he did have women friends who he respected. There is so much about him to be admired that I can overlook this lapse into customary prejudice. This post is very long because it's difficult to summarize Montaigne's writing; I keep wanting to quote this and this and this. But if this is at all intriguing to you, I highly recommend Bakewell's book How to Live as a great introduction to the man and his thought. I will leave you with one last characteristic statement from Montaigne, one that is so modern and so modest; these sentiments could be/have been my sentiments:
Anyway these are my humours, my opinions: I give them as things which I believe, not as things to be believed. My aim is to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me. I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed. I feel too badly taught to teach others.

*You can read a selection of Montaigne quotes at this Wikipedia link


  1. oh this is so wonderful.
    Thanks Altoon
    love to you

    1. I'm so glad you like it, Toni. It's a rather esoteric subject.

  2. I'll get right on the Bakewell. Sounds good....right in line with the Stevenson I picked-up here, "We can know others only by ourselves."
    He also sounds a little "Berean", as in Acts 17:11, "don't believe a word I say until you've run it by the Scriptures..."
    Don't you think everyone is at least one good book? That is always one of the back-programs I have running at funerals...

  3. I had to look up Berean. Maybe they were Montaignan, but I doubt it. He got his philosophy in part from the great Classical authors: philosophies such as Skepticism and Stoicism were important to him. And I doubt he'd think "don't believe a work I say until you run it by the Scriptures"; though he was a Catholic, he was a relativist and wasn't a great believer in ultimate truths.