Book Review

The Freedom of Montaigne

These essays are an attempt to communicate a soul.
—Virginia Woolf


Only fools are cocksure.
—Michel de Montaigne

The soul selects her own Montaigne, and nearly every soul can find the Montaigne she needs. Especially in terrible times, we look to him for ordinary sanity in extraordinary prose. Immune to dangerous idealism, he invented his wonderful essais from a seemingly complete being. “The soul that entertains philosophy,” he wrote, “ought by its health to render the body beautiful too.”[1] He loved health but hated doctors, and there’s something therapeutic about reading him in barbarous times. He was steeped in philosophy, yet as William Hazlitt wrote, “he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind, in its naked simplicity and force.”

Writers have always made of Montaigne what they needed, generally finding him adaptable to their requirements. In an unsigned review published in 1925, T. S. Eliot argued, “Montaigne is just the sort of writer to provide a stimulant to a poet; for what the poet looks for in his reading is not a philosophy—not a body of doctrine or even a consistent point of view which he endeavours to understand—but a point of departure.” He had Shakespeare in mind, but also himself. In the same decade, Virginia Woolf reviewed a new edition of the essays:

. . . this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection—this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.

It’s hard even in our jaded generation not to be similarly wowed. The essays Montaigne wrote between 1572 and his death twenty years later are unlike anything else I have read—a book of one man and a book of the world. They present textual problems because of their author’s technique of revision and accrual over three editions—making new pearls out of old irritations—but they delight because of the breadth and brightness of his being. He allowed for contradiction and contrariness. “We are, I know not how,” Montaigne wrote, “double in ourselves.” W. H. Auden would borrow that line for The Double Man (1941), his verse dissection of modern psychology and history. Woolf, too, had noted these inner and outer realms:

For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself. The soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us. If one has the courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite of what other people say.

We are at liberty to discover more than one Montaigne, including the political freethinker who saw beyond the sectarian wars of his own century to something like our postcolonial perspective. As Woolf put it,

Again with politics, statesmen are always praising the greatness of Empire, and preaching the moral duty of civilizing the savage. But look at the Spanish in Mexico, cried Montaigne in a burst of rage. “So many cities levelled with the ground, so many nations exterminated. . . and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned upside down for the traffic of pearl and pepper! Mechanic victories!”

No wonder we call him our contemporary. Montaigne was a man of the Renaissance, but he speaks powerfully to our own era of religious division, tribalism and global instability.

Readers dismayed by current politics should read Montaigne’s essay “Of Cruelty”:

Among other vices I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and judg­ment, as the extreme of all vices. But it is to such a degree of softness that I cannot see a chicken’s neck slit without trouble, and I cannot bear to hear the cry of a hare beneath the teeth of my dogs, though the chase is a stirring pleasure.

Our terrorists and torturers would not have surprised him. He lived through the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and other Christian atrocities, witnessed plenty of killing and public execution. His love of beauty and poetry arose partly in response to the cruelty surrounding him:

I live in a time wherein we abound in incredible examples of this vice through the license of our civil wars; and we see nothing in ancient histories more extreme than what we experience every day. But that has not at all accustomed me to it. I could hardly persuade myself, before I had seen it with my eyes, that there could be found men so monstrous who would wish to commit murder for the sole pleasure of it, would hack and lop off limbs of others, sharpen their wits to invent unusual torments and new kinds of deaths, without hatred, without profit, and for the sole end of enjoying the pleasant spectacle of the pitiful gestures and motions, the lamentable groans and cries of a man dying in anguish.

Montaigne can be funny and beautiful as well as outraged, but he is never deluded about the world. It is what it is, and the human part of it appalls as much as it edifies.

Many have made their own Montaigne. Escaping Nazism in World War II, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig found solace in the Essays. Here I turn to Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book, How to Live: or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010). Bakewell quotes a letter Zweig wrote to a friend from his “enforced exile in South America”:

The similarity of [Montaigne’s] epoch and situation to ours is astonishing. I am not writing a biography; I propose simply to present as an example his fight for interior freedom.

To Bakewell, Zweig’s essay represents the usefulness of Montaigne for readers of vastly different historical periods. She writes,

In a time such as that of the Second World War, or in civil-war France . . . ordinary people’s lives are sacrificed to the obsessions of fanatics, so the question for any person of integrity becomes not so much “How do I survive?” as “How do I remain fully human?” The question comes in many variants: How do I preserve my true self? How do I ensure that I go no further in my speech or actions than I think is right? How do I avoid losing my soul? Above all: How do I remain free? Montaigne was no freedom fighter in the usual sense, Zweig admits. “He has none of the rolling tirades and the beautiful verve of a Schiller or Lord Byron, none of the aggression of a Voltaire.” His constant assertions that he is lazy, feckless, and irresponsible make him sound a poor hero, yet these are not really failings at all. They are essential to his battle to preserve his particular self as it is.

Zweig committed suicide with his wife in 1942. Bakewell points out that he had selected “a very Stoic Montaigne,” as if clinging to the Essays for survival. She offers Zweig’s distillation of Montaigne into “eight freedoms”:

Be free from vanity and pride.
Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties.
Be free from habit.
Be free from ambition and greed.
Be free from family and surroundings.
Be free from fanaticism.
Be free from fate; be master of your own life.
Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.

Montaigne knew that death should not be feared, but the fearful anticipation of death can be agony. That’s why we must find a way to live with our death, to accept it in the fullness of living.
I devoured Sarah Bakewell’s popular book partly in procrastination while slogging through a very different biography.[2] Philippe Desan’s weighty, authoritative tome appeared in France in 2014 as Montaigne: Une biographie politique. If Montaigne’s renewed popularity owes something to books like Bakewell’s, Desan disdains the popular and would give us Montaigne in his own time. He takes his time doing it, too, and I can’t blame the translators for a merely functional prose style and a scholar’s obsession with minutiae. His declared goal “is to relate the two inseparable aspects of [Montaigne’s] life: literature and political action.” Desan belabors details about the workings of French regional government in the sixteenth century. We who read Montaigne for help in our trying times, Desan suggests, ought to see him clearly in relation to his own. Fair enough. Montaigne was a Catholic aristocrat, though some of his family turned Protestant and he had friends on both sides. He was a councillor and mayor of Bordeaux, a friend of kings and princes who somehow survived an epoch of bloody religious conflict, retired in relative peace to his books and died of natural causes in his bed at 59. If many of his views and curiosities now seem to us liberal in the best sense of that word, he had his conservative, pragmatic side as well.

It was one hell of a century—the Renaissance bleeding into the Reformation, with occasional rashes of plague and burnings at the stake. Twenty years before Montaigne’s birth in 1533, Machiavelli published The Prince, and in the year of Montaigne’s death Shakespeare produced Richard III. It was the century in which Copernicus and Brahe disturbed the universe, in which da Vinci died and Cortez conquered New Spain, in which Suleiman the Magnificent brought the Ottoman Empire nearly to Vienna, in which Tyndale died for his Bible, in which Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots lost their heads and the Armada sailed for England. And that’s not the half of it. One could be excused for feeling the earth unsteady beneath one’s feet.

If a man had to make his place in the world and a woman had to make a good marriage, it helped to have successful parents. Montaigne’s mother was a tough, controlling figure, but he was loyal to her, and he adored his father, who had been a soldier and politician and valued education above all things. His great essay “On the Education of Children,” composed as a letter to Madame Diane de Foix, begins, “I never saw a father who, however mangy or hunchbacked his son might be, failed to own him.” For Montaigne, philosophy in its root sense was the essence of education and “that which instructs us to live.” Those who disdained philosophy and went running after fact he called “ergotists.” Schools become “veritable jails of imprisoned youths.” Real education would educate the whole person, and the most wholly educated people were the great philosophers and poets:

Someone asked Socrates of what country he was. He did not answer “Of Athens,” but, “Of the world.” Having an imagination richer and more expansive, he embraced the whole world as his city and extended his society, his friendship, and his knowledge to all mankind; not as we do, who look no farther than our feet.

His style can be energetic—the manner of expression every bit as important as the substance expressed.

History is more my quarry, or poetry, which I love with a particular affection. For, as Cleanthes said, just as sound compressed in the narrow passage of a trumpet comes out sharper and stronger, so, it seems to me, a thought compressed into the measured harmony of verse bounds forth much more briskly and strikes me with a livelier jolt.

Convinced that too much effort was spent in giving sons the ancient languages in the formal classroom, Montaigne’s father decided to raise his son from birth as a speaker of Latin:

. . . in my infancy, and before I began to speak, he committed me to the care of a German (who since died a famous physician in France), totally ignorant of our language and very well versed in Latin. This man, whom he had sent for specially and whom he paid extremely well, had me continually with him. With him there were also two others, of less learning, to attend me and to relieve him. They conversed with me in no other language but Latin. As to the rest of the household, it was an inviolable rule that neither himself, nor my mother, nor any valet or maid should speak anything in my company but such Latin words as everyone had learned in order to gaggle with me. It is wonderful how much everyone derived from this.

Though Montaigne claims to have forgotten much of it later in formal schooling (where he got his experience of how not to educate children), his mind remained well stocked with so much classical culture that his essays are veritable anthologies of quotation and allusion. From his early reading of Ovid, he learned that the first principle of reading is pleasure, and also that the world is a strange and magical place, constantly changing. It was a world in which science, superstition and medicine melded together. In 1560, for example, Montaigne would witness the trial of Martin Guerre, or the man who pretended to be Martin Guerre. The only DNA test was hearsay and memory.

Desan covers all this very well and with more context than Bakewell’s book—though, as I say, the context sometimes seems best suited for specialists. He is particularly strong on the most important friendship of Montaigne’s early years, with the poet and philosopher Estienne de La Boétie. The two young men formed an intense bond, their sympathies literary and intellectual, but also more—perhaps homoerotic. In a poem of La Boétie, Desan writes, “Montaigne is depicted as a lost soul who chases women in brothels. More interested in sexual prowess followed by long periods of laziness, the young Montaigne represents a very different kind of friendship. . . .” Just as La Boétie gives us a version of Montaigne, so Montaigne would preserve La Boétie’s philosophical writings and leave an account of his friend’s untimely death of the plague in 1563.

La Boétie’s discourse On Voluntary Servitude, which Montaigne at the very least edited and published (some believe he wrote it himself), seems to be a remarkable piece of political philosophy—though I have read of it only in the books discussed here. On Voluntary Servitude asks why it is that people willingly give up their liberty and devote themselves to a king: “What evil chance has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?” The work prefigures Rousseau and Locke, and it would certainly have been viewed as seditious or at least dangerous thinking in Montaigne’s time. But this was also nearly the moment of Shakespeare’s history plays, questioning the divine right of kings, and some form of political enlightenment was very much in the air even as monarchies were clamping down. In part La Boétie presents an aristocratic curiosity about the lower orders—like voters who cannot apprehend their own interest but develop a crush on a strong leader. As Bakewell puts it, “La Boétie believes that tyrants somehow hypnotize their people—though this term had not yet been invented. To put it another way, they fall in love with him. They lose their will in his. It is a terrible spectacle to see ‘a million men serving miserably with their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater force, but somehow (it seems) enchanted and charmed by the mere mention of the name of one, whose power they should not fear, since he is alone, and whose qualities they should not love, since he is savage and inhuman towards them.’”

Desan’s reading of La Boétie is more complex. If On Voluntary Servitude contains a critique of tyranny, it also suggests that degrees of freedom might remain even in relinquishment. To make a comparison with our own time, the so-called “nanny state” with its Medicare for everyone might eliminate part of the free market, but it also relieves citizens of oppressive stresses. “That is why allegiance to rules estab­lished by others is not incompatible with freedom in principle,” Desan writes. “To be free is to retain the possibility of emancipation, while at the same time conforming to the laws that force us into servitude.” Freedom is not an absolute, not an either-or proposition, but a set of relations, possibilities mixed with actualities. The argument is less sexy than a full-on liberal or conservative thesis, but it contains a respectable dose of realism. Let us consider this again in relation to our own time. Is America freer because it has more guns, one might ask? Or is Australia, with stricter gun laws, freer because less fear driven? One can almost understand Robert Frost saying, “Political freedom means nothing to me.” There are realms of human life that politics do not quite touch. And yet, of course, there are also those charismatic tyrants. Desan quotes Montaigne saying, “Our truth nowadays is not what is, but what others can be convinced of.” In “Of Giving the Lie,” Montaigne wrote, “The first step in the corruption of morals is the banishment of truth. . . .” To which I say, Thou shouldst be living at this hour.
Montaigne is the Shakespeare of the essay form, and after 1603 the Bard’s plays exhibit the intoxicating influence of John Florio’s wild and wonderful translation. Bakewell has some fun with this:

Where Montaigne writes, “Our Germans, drowned in wine” (nos Allemans, noyez dan le vin), Florio has “our carowsing tospot German souldiers, when they are most plunged in their cups, and as drunk as Rats.” A phrase which the modern translator Donald Frame renders calmly as “werewolves, goblins, and chimeras” emerges from Floriation as “Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and other such Bug-beares and Chimeraes”—a piece of pure Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Montaigne wrote essays on smells, on drunkenness, on thumbs, on names, on prayer, on solitude, on books, on how “Difficulty Increases Desire” (a title translated by the magnificently named M. A. Screech). He was hard on religious hypocrites, harder on doctors, having suffered terribly from kidney stones, an affliction inherited from his father. He wrote “On the Resemblance of Children to their Fathers”—a patriarchal tradition that now seems out of balance. Part of the joy of reading him is in discovering his unfettered mind. Discouraged writers can find balm in his words:

And even if nobody reads me, have I wasted my time in entertaining myself so many idle hours with such useful and agreeable thoughts? In modeling this figure upon myself, I have been so often obliged to shape and compose myself in order to bring myself out that the model has thereby become firm and has to some extent formed itself. Painting myself for others, I have painted my inner self in clearer colors than were my first ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me: a book consubstantial with its author, concerned only with me, a vital part of my life; not having an outside and alien concern and objective like all other books. Have I wasted my time by taking account of myself so continually, so carefully? For they who survey themselves only in their minds, and occasionally aloud, do not examine themselves so fundamentally nor penetrate so deeply as does he who makes it his study, his work, and his trade, who with all his faith, with all his strength, binds himself to make a lasting account.

His great invention, the essay, remains an attempt and a field of infinite flexibility. “And, in truth,” he wrote, “what are these things I scribble but grotesques and monstrous bodies pieced together of sundry members, without any definite shape, having no order, coher­ence, or proportion, except by accident?” He seems curious about everything. Sometime after 1550, when in Desan’s words, “fifty Brazilian natives who had recently disembarked” were put on display for Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, Montaigne’s imagination was galvanized. He could hardly stop writing about “cannibals” in contrast to the monsters of his own civilization: “The savages do not so much shock me in roasting and eating the bodies of the dead as do those who torment and persecute the living.” He pitied Caliban before Caliban even dreamed:

. . . I am sorry that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead, in tearing by tortures and the rack a body that is still full of feeling, in roasting him by degrees, causing him to be bitten and torn by dogs and swine . . . than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.

Yes, Montaigne was a man of his time, an aristocrat, a survivor of brutal political and religious conflict. But out of the thinking of men like him we derive the values that ended slavery and would dispel the tribalism now eating away at our world. He greets us as a brother, as a friend, and trusts us to understand how much alike we may really be in our bodies, our desires and curiosities, our flaws, our fears, our love.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, translations are from Montaigne: Selected Essays. The Charles Cotton–W. Hazlitt Translation, revised and edited, with an introduction by Blanchard Bates (New York, 1949). This is the battered paperback I happened to have on hand while travelling through America much of the spring. Since then I’ve also come to admire M. A. Screech’s translation of The Complete Essays (New York, 2003), and I’m told that Donald Frame’s translations (Redwood City, CA, 1958) also deserve study.

[2] MONTAIGNE: A Life, by Philippe Desan, trans. by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal. Princeton University Press. $39.95.