How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
A good friend from college recommended that I give Montaigne a shot. Bakewell's delightful "How to Live" opened up a portal into Montaigne's world and that enigmatic gentleman reached across the centuries to intellectually seduce me. How? I'm not quite sure. The beauty of this book is how Bakewell lays out Montaigne's many contradictions and contextualizes them historically and philosophically. Montaigne bursts to life in these pages and Bakewell guides us on a joyful journey through his life and his thoughts. Accessibly written, well-organized, and full of strong personalities, "How to Live" is an enticing on-ramp to a further exploration of Montaigne's work.
Bakewell shocked me with her discussion of Montaigne's surprising influence on later creative thinkers. The Shakespeare connection astounded me - he was reading Montaigne? Montaigne's work is plagiarized in The Tempest?? And he may have been the crucial inspiration for Hamlet?! This is heady stuff. But I suppose it's plausible:
Montaigne and Shakespeare have each been held up as the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.
While I enjoyed each chapter individually, I struggled to find a coherent theme in Montaigne's overall philosophy. While Bakewell left me convinced that Montaigne would be a dinner guest par excellence, I fear that I agree with some of his critics who point out:
the Essays' deepest philosophical failing: their "absolute absence of decision." Other writers agreed. The chronicler Jules Lecomte dismissed Montaigne and his entire philosophy with one word: "coward!"
But Bakewell convinced me that Montaigne is a tricky guy to pin down. Part of the fun of reading him seems to be his self-awareness about this all. As Bakewell playfully envisions:
"Oh Lord," one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, "by all means let me be misunderstood."
My favorite highlights below:
Q. How to live?
This idea — writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity — has not existed forever. It had to be invented. And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official, and winegrower who lived in the Périgord area of southwestern France from 1533 to 1592.
He used these experiences as the basis for asking himself questions, above all the big question that fascinated him as it did many of his contemporaries. Although it is not quite grammatical in English, it can be phrased in three simple words: “How to live?” This is not the same as the ethical question, “How should one live?” Moral dilemmas interested Montaigne, but he was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did.
As one of his most obsessive early readers, Blaise Pascal, wrote in the seventeenth century: “It is not in Montaigne but in myself that I find everything I see there.”
All this can happen because the Essays has no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you; you can do as you please with it.
He could have taken as his motto Walt Whitman’s lines: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Essayer, in French, means simply to try.
As one of his favorite adages had it, there is no escaping our perspective: we can walk only on our own legs, and sit only on our own bum.
Most of those who come to the Essays want something from it. They may be seeking entertainment, or enlightenment, or historical understanding, or something more personal. As the novelist Gustave Flaubert advised a friend who was wondering how to approach Montaigne: Don’t read him as children do, for amusement, nor as the ambitious do, to be instructed. No, read him in order to live.
1. Q. How to live? A. Don’t worry about death
Cicero summed up their principle neatly: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
If you ran through the images of your death often enough, said his favorite sages, the Stoics, it could never catch you by surprise. Knowing how well prepared you were, you should be freed to live without fear. But Montaigne found the opposite. The more intensely he imagined the accidents that might befall him and his friends, the less calm he felt.
Death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, he wrote in one of his last added notes; it is not worth wasting any anxiety over.
Dying is not an action that can be prepared for. It is an aimless reverie.
One might expect pleasure in a death like that of Marcellinus. But Montaigne had learned something more surprising: that he could enjoy the same delightful floating sensations even while his body seemed to be convulsed, thrashing around in what looked to others like torment.
Philosophers find it hard to leave the world because they try to maintain control. So much for “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” Philosophy looked more like a way of teaching people to unlearn the natural skill that every peasant had by birthright.
2. Q. How to live? A. Pay attention
When his thirty-eighth birthday came around, he marked the decision — almost a year after he had actually made it — by having a Latin inscription painted on the wall of a side-chamber to his library: In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins [the Muses], where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquillity, and leisure.
Montaigne’s change of gear during his mid- to late thirties has been compared to the most famous life-changing crises in literature: those of Don Quixote, who abandoned his routine to set off in search of chivalric adventure, and of Dante, who lost himself in the woods “midway on life’s path.”
After his retirement, he chose one of two towers at the corners of his château complex to be his all-purpose retreat and center of operations; the other tower was reserved for his wife.
Over the years, Montaigne’s roof beams faded too, but they were later restored to clear legibility, so that, as you walk around the room now, voices whisper from above your head: Solum certum nihil esse certi Et homine nihil miserius aut superbius Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man. (Pliny the Elder) How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely? (Euripides) There is no more beautiful life than that of a carefree man; Lack of care is a truly painless evil. (Sophocles)
The great Stoic Seneca repeatedly urged his fellow Romans to retire in order to “find themselves,” as we might put it. In the Renaissance, as in ancient Rome, it was part of the well-managed life.
Seneca, in advising retirement, had also warned of dangers. In a dialogue called “On Tranquillity of Mind,” he wrote that idleness and isolation could bring to the fore all the consequences of having lived life in the wrong way,
Giving up work brings out spiritual ills, especially if one then gets the habit of reading too many books — or, worse, laying out the books for show and gloating over the view.
Finding his mind so filled with “chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose,” he decided to write them down, not directly to overcome them, but to inspect their strangeness at his leisure.
Seneca would have approved. If you become depressed or bored in your retirement, he advised, just look around you and interest yourself in the variety and sublimity of things. Salvation lies in paying full attention to nature.
Plutarch had made his name in the first century AD with lively potted biographies of historical figures, and also wrote short pieces called Moralia, which were translated into French in the year Montaigne began writing his Essays. These gathered together thoughts and anecdotes on questions ranging from “Can animals be called intelligent?” to “How does one achieve peace of mind?” On the latter point, Plutarch’s advice was the same as Seneca’s: focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.
In truth, however hard you try, you can never retrieve an experience in full. As a famous line by the ancient philosopher Heraclitus has it, you cannot step into the same river twice.
What was unusual in him was his instinct that the observer is as unreliable as the observed.
Thus, most of Montaigne’s thought consists of a series of realizations that life is not as simple as he has just made it out to be.
In writing about his experience as if he were a river, he started a literary tradition of close inward observation that is now so familiar that it is hard to remember that it is a tradition. Life just seems to be like that, and observing the play of inner states is the writer’s job. Yet this was not a common notion before Montaigne, and his peculiarly restless, free-form way of doing it was entirely unknown. In inventing it, and thus attempting a second answer to the question of how to live — “pay attention” — Montaigne escaped his crisis and even turned that crisis to his advantage.
3. Q. How to live? A. Be born
Montaigne was happy to talk about honesty and hereditary ailments, but was more discreet about other aspects of his heritage, for he came not from ancient aristocracy but, on both sides, from several generations of upwardly mobile merchants.
Being noble was not a je ne sais quoi of class and style; it was a technical matter, and the main rule was that you and your descendants must engage in no trade and pay no taxes for at least three generations.
This was allowed: you could make as much money as you liked selling the products of your own land, without its being considered trade.
Montaigne cheerfully acknowledged, adding: If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off — though I don’t know.
If his father’s background was murky, a more significant secret apparently lurked in the family of his mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve. Her ancestors were merchants; they were also immigrants from Spain, which, in the context of the time, strongly suggests that they were Jewish refugees.
As the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would warn, “One should not try to surpass one’s father in diligence; that makes one sick.”
By the time of Montaigne’s death, France was economically feeble, and ravaged by disease, famine, and public disorder. No wonder young nobles of his generation ended up as exquisitely educated misanthropes.
Montaigne had some of this anti-intellectual streak in him. He grew up to feel that the only hope for humanity lay in the simplicity and ignorance of the peasantry.
Montaigne had seven brothers and sisters, not counting the two who were born before him and who died, leaving him the eldest.
The only well-documented child in the family is Michel de Montaigne — and he was not merely educated. He was made the object of an almost unprecedented pedagogic experiment. The unusual treatment began soon after his birth, when Micheau was sent to live with a humble family in a nearby village.
From the start, Montaigne had the impression at once of being a peasant among peasants, and of being very special and different. This is the mixture of feelings that would stay with him for life. He felt ordinary, but knew that the very fact of realizing his ordinariness made him extraordinary.
Back in his family home, little peasant Micheau was now to be brought up as a native speaker of Latin.
Why did Pierre do it? This is one of those moments when the half-millennium gap between ourselves and our subject suddenly yawns at our feet. Most people today would think it crazy to separate parent and child for the sake of a dead language. But in the Renaissance, the prize was considered worth the sacrifice. Command of beautiful and grammatically perfect Latin was the highest goal of a humanistic education: it unlocked the door to the ancient world — considered the locus of all human wisdom — as well as to much of modern culture, since most scholars still wrote Latin. It offered entry to a good career: Latin was essential for legal and civil service. The language bestowed an almost magical blessing on anyone who spoke it.
Having been guided early in life by his own curiosity alone, he grew up to be an independent-minded adult, following his own path in everything rather than deferring to duty and discipline — an outcome perhaps more far-reaching than his father had bargained for.
Corporal punishment was almost unknown to him; in his entire boyhood, he was only twice struck with a rod, and then very gently. It was an education of “wisdom and tact.”
Pierre had got his ideas from his beloved scholar friends, and perhaps also from people he met in Italy, though the main ideologue to whom such an approach can be traced was a Dutchman, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had written on education while based in Italy two decades earlier.
In terms of making him a native Latinist, it did bear fruit in these early years, but the seeds of that fruit did not germinate further. Eventually, through lack of practice, he ended up on the same level as any other well-educated young nobleman.
He had to be prescriptive, for the essay “Of Education” was more or less commissioned from him by a neighbor, the pregnant Diane de Foix, comtesse de Gurson, who wanted Montaigne’s opinion on how she should give her child (assuming it was a boy) the best start in life.
In fact, the Collège was relatively adventurous and open minded, and some aspects of school life amused Montaigne more than he liked to admit. In the older classes, students competed in feats of oratory and debate, all in Latin of course, and with less attention to what they said than to how they said it. From these, Montaigne picked up rhetorical skills and critical habits of thought which he would use all his life. It was probably also here that he first encountered the idea of using “commonplace books”: notebooks in which to write down snippets one encountered in one’s reading, setting them in creative juxtaposition.
4. Q. How to live? A. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
One unsuitable text which Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight, and which changed his life, was Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Once a taste of this sort of thing had started him off, Montaigne galloped through other books similarly full of good stories: Virgil’s Aeneid, then Terence, Plautus, and various modern Italian comedies.
Among historians, he liked Tacitus best, once remarking that he had just read through his History from beginning to end without interruption.
Plutarch was to Montaigne what Montaigne was to many later readers: a model to follow, and a treasure chest of ideas, quotations, and anecdotes to plunder.
If Plutarch wants to tell us that the trick in living well is to make the best of any situation, he does it by telling the story of a man who threw a stone at his dog, missed, hit his stepmother instead, and exclaimed, “Not so bad after all!”
The rebellious, Ovid-reading boy would one day accumulate a library of around a thousand volumes: a good size, but not an indiscriminate assemblage.
His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: pursue pleasure. “If I encounter difficulties in reading,” he wrote, “I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.”
In truth he did work hard sometimes, but only when he thought the labor was worthwhile. Annotations in Montaigne’s hand survive on a few books from his collection, notably a copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things — clearly a text that merited close attention. This is exactly the kind of book, idiosyncratic and intellectually adventurous, that you would expect Montaigne to want to take such trouble over.
People with good memories have cluttered minds, but his brain was so blissfully empty that nothing could get in the way of common sense.
Like Montaigne, its adherents make slow speed into a moral principle. Its founding text is Sten Nadolny’s novel The Discovery of Slowness, which relates the life of Arctic explorer John Franklin, a man whose natural pace of living and thinking is portrayed as that of an elderly sloth after a long massage and a pipe of opium.
“Forget much of what you learn” and “Be slow-witted” became two of Montaigne’s best answers to the question of how to live. They freed him to think wisely rather than glibly; they allowed him to avoid the fanatical notions and foolish deceptions that ensnared other people; and they let him follow his own thoughts wherever they led — which was all he really wanted to do.
For him, the greatest problem with the law was that it did not take account of a fundamental fact about the human condition: people are fallible. A final verdict was always expected, yet by definition it was often impossible to reach one that had any certainty.
While Lutherans tend to stay aloof from worldly affairs, living according to their private conscience, Calvinists are supposed to engage with politics, and work to bring about God’s will on earth. In the sixteenth century, accordingly, Calvinists were trained in Switzerland in a special academy, and sent to France armed with arguments and forbidden publications to convert the natives and destabilize the state.
It was from this religious, economic, and political anguish that the civil wars would arise — wars which dominated France through most of the rest of the century, from 1562, when Montaigne was twenty-nine, to 1598, well after his death. Before the 1560s, military adventures in Italy and elsewhere had provided an outlet for France’s tensions. But in April 1559 the treaty of Câteau Cambrésis ended several of the foreign wars at a blow. By removing distractions and filling the country with unemployed ex-soldiers amid an economic depression, this peace almost immediately brought about the outbreak of a much worse war.
In December 1560, in a speech expressing a feeling widespread at the time, the chancellor Michel de L’Hôpital said, “It is folly to hope for peace, repose, and friendship among people of different faiths.” Even if desirable, it would be an impossible ideal. The only path to political unity was religious unity. As a Spanish theologian remarked, no republic could be well governed if “everyone considers his own God to be the only true God... and everyone else to be blind and deluded.”
These were the kinds of scene that would recur frequently in Montaigne’s essays: one person seeks mercy, and the other decides whether or not to grant it.
5. Q. How to live? A. Survive love and loss
Montaigne had heard of La Boétie as the promising author of a controversial manuscript in local circulation, called De la Servitude volontaire (“On Voluntary Servitude”).
The Renaissance was a period in which, while any hint of real homosexuality was regarded with horror, men routinely wrote to each other like lovestruck teenagers. They were usually in love less with each other than with an elevated ideal of friendship, absorbed from Greek and Latin literature. Such a bond between two well-born young men was the pinnacle of philosophy: they studied together, lived under each other’s gaze, and helped each other to perfect the art of living.
The subject of Voluntary Servitude is the ease with which, throughout history, tyrants have dominated the masses, even though their power would evaporate instantly if those masses withdrew their support.
Whenever a few individuals do break free, adds La Boétie, it is often because their eyes have been opened by the study of history.
What anarchists and libertarians admire most is his Gandhi-like idea that all a society needs, in order to free itself of tyranny, is to quietly withdraw cooperation.
The “quiet refusal” aspect of On Voluntary Servitude’s politics had an obvious appeal for Montaigne. He agreed that the most important thing in confronting political abuse was to maintain one’s mental freedom — and that could mean opting out of public life rather than engaging with it.
One radical theory has come and gone from circulation a few times in recent years. As remarked, On Voluntary Servitude has features so Montaignelike that it could almost be his own writing.
The idea of Montaigne writing a radical, proto-anarchist tract, then whipping up a dust storm of false information and hiding hints where only the sharp-eyed could spot them, appeals on several levels. Like all conspiracy theories, it offers the thrill of fitting the pieces together, and it makes Montaigne glamorous: a one-man revolutionary cell and a master of intrigue.
Among the thoughts likely to have gone through his mind is the one that would later come back to him in the light of his own experience: the hope that death might be a tranquil affair for the person undergoing it, however little it looked that way from outside.
Seneca had advised this: a wise man should be so good at making new friends that he can replace an old one without skipping a beat.
By dying, La Boétie changed from being Montaigne’s real-life, flawed companion to being an ideal entity under Montaigne’s control. He became less a person than a sort of philosophical technique. Seneca had advised his followers to use their friends in this way. Having found some admirable man, he said, one should visualize him as an ever-present audience, in order to hold oneself to his exalted standards. If you would live for yourself, he wrote, you should live for others — above all for your chosen friend.
6. Q. How to live? A. Use little tricks
About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their pedantries and abstractions. But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage, how to act well in morally difficult situations, and how to make the most of life. These were the philosophies he turned to in times of grief or fear, as well as for guidance in dealing with more minor everyday irritations. The three most famous such systems of thought were Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism
All the schools had the same aim: to achieve a way of living known in the original Greek as eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness,” “joy,” or “human flourishing.” This meant living well in every sense: thriving, relishing life, being a good person. They also agreed that the best path to eudaimonia was ataraxia, which might be rendered as “imperturbability” or “freedom from anxiety.”
Stoics and Epicureans shared a great deal of their theory, too. They thought that the ability to enjoy life is thwarted by two big weaknesses: lack of control over emotions, and a tendency to pay too little attention to the present.
Accordingly, Stoic and Epicurean thinkers spent much time devising techniques and thought experiments. For example: imagine that today is the last day of your life. Are you ready to face death? Imagine, even, that this very moment — now! — is the last moment of your existence. What are you feeling? Do you have regrets? Are there things you wish you had done differently? Are you really alive at this instant, or are you consumed with panic, denial, and remorse? This experiment opens your eyes to what is important to you, and reminds you of how time runs constantly through your fingers.
Stoics were especially keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of all the things they dreaded most. Epicureans were more inclined to turn their vision away from terrible things, to concentrate on what was positive. A Stoic behaves like a man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites an opponent to punch them. An Epicurean prefers to invite no punches, and, when bad things happen, simply to step out of the way. If Stoics are boxers, Epicureans are closer to Oriental martial arts practitioners.
Montaigne found the Epicurean approach more congenial in most situations, and he took their ideas even further. He claimed to envy lunatics, because they were always mentally elsewhere — an extreme form of Epicurean deflection.
Not everyone can have the benefit of being insane, but anyone can make life easier for themselves by turning down the beam of their reason slightly.
Montaigne once successfully cured a “young prince,” probably Henri de Navarre (the future Henri IV), of a dangerous passion for revenge. He did not talk the prince out of it, or advise him to turn the other cheek, or remind him of the tragic consequences that could result. He did not mention the subjects of anger or revenge at all: I let the passion alone and applied myself to making him relish the beauty of a contrary picture, the honor, favor, and good will he would acquire by clemency and kindness. I diverted him to ambition. That is how it is done.
One story he relished was that of how Zaleucus, prince of the Locrians of ancient Greece, reduced excessive spending in his realm. He ordered that any woman could be attended by several maids, but only when she was drunk, and that she could wear as many gold jewels and embroidered dresses as she liked, if she was working as a prostitute. A man could sport gold rings if he was a pimp. It worked: gold jewelry and large entourages disappeared overnight, yet no one rebelled, for no one felt they had been forced into anything.
For his contemporaries, this meant seizing on his most Stoic and Epicurean passages. They interpreted his book as a manual for living, and hailed him as a philosopher in the old style, great enough to stand alongside the originals. His friend Étienne Pasquier called him “another Seneca in our language.”
Micheau wanted to write: very well, let him write! Pierre handed him a 500-page folio volume, written by a Catalan theologian over a century earlier, in stilted Latin, and said, “Translate this into French for me when you get a moment, will you, son?” This would have been a good way of putting Montaigne off literary endeavors for life; perhaps that was what Pierre was trying to do. As good luck would have it, however, the book was more than just long and boring. It also promoted a brand of theology that Montaigne found abhorrent. This woke him out of his slumbers. More than the work on La Boétie’s manuscripts, and perhaps more even than the crafting of the letter describing his friend’s dying moments, his father’s translation task lit the spark that one day blazed up into the Essays. The book was called Theologia naturalis, sive liber creaturarum (Natural Theology, or Book of Creatures). Its author, Raymond Sebond, had written it in 1436, though it was not published until 1484: still well before Montaigne’s time, and Pierre’s.
Montaigne may not have felt a great desire for faith, but he did feel a strong aversion to all human pretension — and the result was the same.
He probably surprised himself by how much he got out of it. It stimulated him as grit stimulates an oyster. The whole time he was writing, he must have been thinking, “But... but...,” and even “No! No!” It forced him to analyze his own ideas.
“Apology” means “defense”; and indeed the essay does begin as a defense of Sebond. It stays that way for about half a page. Then it swerves off into something very different: something much more like an attack. As the critic Louis Cons once put it, it supports Sebond “as the rope supports the hanged man.” How, then, can he call it an “apology”? Montaigne’s trick is simple. He purports to defend Sebond against those who have tried to bring him down using rational arguments. He does this by showing that rational arguments, in general, are fallible, because human reason itself cannot be relied on. Thus he defends a rationalist against other rationalists by arguing that anything based on reason is valueless. Montaigne’s defense undermines Sebond’s enemies, all right, but it undermines Sebond himself even more fatally. Of this, he was obviously well aware.
7. Q. How to live? A. Question everything
Like the others, Skepticism amounted to a form of therapy. This, at least, was true of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, the type originated by the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who died about 275 BC, and later developed more rigorously by Sextus Empiricus in the second century AD. (“Dogmatic” or “Academic” Skepticism, the other kind, was less far-reaching.) Some idea of the bizarre effect Pyrrhonism had on people is apparent from the story of how Henri Estienne, Montaigne’s near-contemporary and first French translator of Sextus Empiricus, reacted to his encounter with Sextus’s Hypotyposes. Working in his library one day, but feeling too ill and tired to do his usual work, he found a copy while browsing through an old box of manuscripts. As soon as he started reading, he found himself laughing so heartily that his weariness left him and his intellectual energy returned.
The key to the trick is the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously. Pyrrhonism does not even take itself seriously. Ordinary dogmatic Skepticism asserts the impossibility of knowledge: it is summed up in Socrates’s remark: “All I know is that I know nothing.” Pyrrhonian Skepticism starts from this point, but then adds, in effect, “and I’m not even sure about that.” Having stated its one philosophical principle, it turns in a circle and gobbles itself up, leaving only a puff of absurdity.
Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as shorthand for this maneuver: in Greek, epokhe. It means “I suspend judgment.” Or, in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je soutiens: “I hold back.” This phrase conquers all enemies; it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes.
The most obvious advantage is that Pyrrhonians need never worry about getting anything wrong. If they win their arguments, they show that they are right. If they lose, that just proves that they were right to doubt their own knowledge. This makes them simultaneously very peaceful and very contrary. They are fond of arguing for unpopular points of view, for the fun of it.
How puny is the knowledge of even the most curious person, he reflected, and how astounding the world by comparison.
There was only one exception to his “question everything” rule: he was careful to state that he considered his religious faith beyond doubt. He adhered to the received dogma of the Catholic Church, and that was that. This can come as a surprise to modern readers. Today, Skepticism and organized religion are usually thought to occupy opposite sides of a divide, with the latter representing faith and authority while the former allies itself with science and reason. In Montaigne’s day, the lines were drawn differently. Science in the modern sense did not yet exist, and human reason was only rarely considered something that could stand alone, unsupported by God. The idea that the human mind could find things out for itself was the very thing Skeptics were likely to be most skeptical about. And the Church currently favored faith over “rational theology,” so it naturally saw Pyrrhonism as an ally. Attacking human arrogance as it did, Pyrrhonian Skepticism was especially useful against the “innovation” of Protestantism, which prioritized private reasoning and conscience rather than dogma.
As the modern critic David Quint has summed it up, Montaigne would probably interpret the message for humanity in Christ’s crucifixion as being “Don’t crucify people.”
The result, in any case, was that he lived his life without ever encountering serious problems with the Church: quite an achievement for a man who wrote so freely, who lived on a border between Catholic and Protestant lands, and who occupied public office in a time of religious war.
Descartes cannot truly exchange a glance with an animal. Montaigne can, and does. In one famous passage, he mused: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” And he added in another version of the text: “We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.” He borrows his cat’s point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupies his own in relation to her. Montaigne’s little interaction with his cat is one of the most charming moments in the Essays, and an important one too. It captures his belief that all beings share a common world, but that each creature has its own way of perceiving this world. “All of Montaigne lies in that casual sentence,” one critic has commented. Montaigne’s cat is so celebrated that she has inspired a full scholarly article, and an entry to herself in Philippe Desan’s Dictionnaire de Montaigne.
Descartes’s real innovation was the strength of his desire for certainty. Also new was his general spirit of extremism.
The work for which Pascal is best remembered, the Pensées (“Thoughts”), was never meant to terrify anyone except himself: it was a collection of disorderly notes for a more systematic theological treatise which he never managed to write. Had he completed this work, it would probably have become less interesting. Instead, he left us one of the most mysterious texts in literature, a passionate outpouring largely written to try to ward off what he saw as the dangerous power of Montaigne’s Essays.
Pascal had almost nothing in common with Descartes except for an obsession with Skepticism. Rapturously mystical, he disliked Descartes’s trust in reason, and deplored what he called the “spirit of geometry” taking over philosophy.
As T. S. Eliot also remarked: Of all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences, or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.
Harold Bloom in The Western Canon calls the Pensées “a bad case of indigestion” in regard to Montaigne. But, in copying Montaigne, Pascal also changed him.
And the modern critic Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani describes the Essays as “a prodigious seduction machine.”
Montaigne once remarked that certain books “become all the more marketable and public by being suppressed.” To some extent, this happened to him: the suppression of his book in France gave it an irresistible aura. In the century to come, it enhanced his appeal to rebellious Enlightenment philosophers and even to full-blown revolutionaries.
8. Q. How to live? A. Keep a private room behind the shop
As well as forcefulness, Françoise had staying power. She would outlive Montaigne by nearly thirty-five years, dying on March 7, 1627, at the age of eighty-two. She also survived all her children, including the only one to make it beyond infancy into adulthood. Montaigne’s mother survived him too. One almost gets the impression that, between them, they drove him into an early grave.
“Nothing costs me dear except care and trouble,” wrote Montaigne. “I seek only to grow indifferent and relaxed.”
9. Q. How to live? A. Be convivial: live with others
Montaigne loved open debate. “No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers with my own.” He liked being contradicted, as it opened up more interesting conversations and helped him to think — something he preferred to do through interaction rather than staring into the fire like Descartes.
People spoke of “monsters,” he wrote, but such individuals were not contrary to nature, only to habit. Where real oddity was concerned, there was no doubt where Montaigne thought the prize should go: I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself. We become habituated to anything strange by use and time; but the more I frequent myself and know myself, the more my deformity astonishes me, and the less I understand myself.
He insisted on welcoming anyone who arrived at the gate, though he knew the risks and admitted that sometimes it meant going to bed not knowing whether he would be murdered in his sleep
Also, the usual rules of fortification hardly apply in a civil war: “Your valet may be of the party that you fear.” You cannot barricade the gates against a threat that is already inside; far better to win the enemy over by behaving with generosity and honor.
Events seemed to prove Montaigne right. Once, he invited a troop of soldiers in, only to realize that they were plotting to take advantage of his hospitality by seizing the place. They abandoned the plan, however, and the leader told Montaigne why: he had been “disarmed” by the sight of his host’s “face and frankness.”
Once one has shown weakness and triggered a sort of hunting instinct in the other, all is lost. And there is rarely any hope if one really is facing a hunter. Montaigne was haunted by the image of a stag at bay after hours of pursuit, exhausted and trapped, having no option but to give himself up to the hunters — “asking for our mercy by his tears.” Such mercy will never be granted.
Montaigne’s view, on balance, was that both victim and victor should take the path that entailed placing maximum trust in the other — that is, like good Christians, the defeated party should seek mercy and the victor should grant it. But both must do this boldly, with an “open countenance,” free of cringing and submissiveness. A “pure and clean confidence” should characterize the situation on both sides.
Of all famous warriors, Montaigne most admired the Theban general Epaminondas, who was known for his ability to keep furor in check: once, in mid-battle and “terrible with blood and iron,” Epaminondas found himself face to face with an acquaintance in whose house he had stayed. He turned aside and did not kill him.
In his own career, he was expected to order such punishments, but he refused to do so. “I am so squeamish about hurting that for the service of reason itself I cannot do it. And when occasions have summoned me to sentencing criminals, I have tended to fall short of justice.”
Among less emotionally wrought readers, one much affected by Montaigne’s remarks on cruelty was Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard Woolf. In his memoirs, he held up Montaigne’s “On Cruelty” as a much more significant essay than people had realized. Montaigne, he wrote, was “the first person in the world to express this intense, personal horror of cruelty. He was, too, the first completely modern man.”
10. Q. How to live? A. Wake from the sleep of habit
Coste helped to create a version of Montaigne still popular today: a secret radical, who conceals himself under a veil of discretion.
11. Q. How to live? A. Live temperately
Montaigne distrusts godlike ambitions. For him, people who try to rise above the human manage only to sink to the subhuman.
12. Q. How to live? A. Guard your humanity
killing went on for nearly a week through the districts of Paris, then spread around the rest of the country. In Paris alone, the massacres, which were known for ever more by the name of St. Bartholomew, left up to five thousand dead. By the end some ten thousand had been killed in France.
As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.
“There is no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility,” he even wrote at one point. In place of the figure of the burning-eyed Christian zealot, he preferred to contemplate that of the Stoic sage: a person who behaves morally, moderates his emotions, exercises good judgment, and knows how to live.
Those who have adopted Montaigne in this role usually cast him as a hero of an unusual sort: the kind that resists all claim to heroism. Few revere him for doing great public deeds, though he did accomplish some noteworthy things in his later life. More often, he is admired for his stubborn insistence on maintaining normality in extraordinary circumstances, and his refusal to compromise his independence.
He also provided something more nebulous: a sense of how one could survive public catastrophe without losing one’s self-respect. Just as you could seek mercy from an enemy forthrightly, without compromising yourself, or defend your property by electing to leave it undefended, so you could get through an inhumane war by remaining human. This message in Montaigne would have a particular appeal to twentieth-century readers who lived through wars, or through Fascist or Communist dictatorships.
Zweig knew that Montaigne disliked preaching, yet he managed to extract a series of general rules from the Essays. He did not list them as such, but paraphrased them in such a way as to resolve them into eight separate commandments — which could also be called the 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.
13. Q. How to live? A. Do something no one has done before
Montaigne’s Essays initially presented itself as a fairly conventional work: a bunch of blossoms plucked from the garden of the great classical authors, together with fresh considerations on diplomacy and battlefield ethics. Yet, once its pages were opened, they metamorphosed like one of Ovid’s creatures into a freak held together by just one thing: the figure of Montaigne. One could hardly defy convention more comprehensively than this. Not only was the book monstrous, but its only point of unity was the thing that should have been vanishing modestly into the background.
14. Q. How to live? A. See the world
15. Q. How to live? A. Do a good job, but not too good a job
And, by the same kind of twist that made the lack of door locks a good security feature, Montaigne’s rough honesty proved a formidable diplomatic talent. It opened more doors than the labyrinthine deceptions of his colleagues ever could. Even when dealing with the most powerful princes in the land — perhaps especially then — he looked them straight in the face. “I frankly tell them my limits.” His openness made other people open up as well; it drew them out, he said, like wine and love.
The incident exposed the Essays’ deepest philosophical failing: their “absolute absence of decision.” Other writers agreed. The chronicler Jules Lecomte dismissed Montaigne and his entire philosophy with one word: “coward!”
16. Q. How to live? A. Philosophize only by accident
Then there was his philosophy, if you could call it that. The English were not born philosophers; they did not like to speculate about being, truth, and the cosmos. When they picked up a book they wanted anecdotes, odd characters, witty sallies, and a touch of fantasy. As Virginia Woolf said à propos Sir Thomas Browne, one of many English authors who wrote in a Montaignean vein, “The English mind is naturally prone to take its ease and pleasure in the loosest whimsies and humors.” This is why William Hazlitt praised Montaigne in terms guaranteed to appeal to an unphilosophical nation: In taking up his pen 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.
The Essays happened to find an excellent English translator from the beginning, in a man named John Florio. This made all the difference.
Shakespeare and Florio did know one another, and Shakespeare was among the first readers of the Essays translation. He may even have read parts in manuscript before it went to press; signs of Montaigne seem faintly discernible in Hamlet, which predates Florio’s edition. A much later play, The Tempest, contains one passage so close to Florio that there can be no doubt of his having read it. Eulogizing his vision of a perfect society in the state of nature, Shakespeare’s Gonzalo says: I’th’ commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things, for no kind of traffic Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, And use of service, none; contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; No occupation, all men idle, all. Which is remarkably like what Montaigne says about the Tupinambá, in Florio’s translation: It is a nation... that hath no kind of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches, or of povertie; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common, no apparell but naturall, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or mettle.
Ever since this obvious parallel was spotted by Edward Capell in the late eighteenth century, it has become a popular sport to hunt out signs of influence in other Shakespeare plays. The most promising is certainly Hamlet, for its hero often sounds like a Montaigne given a dramatic dilemma to solve and set upon a stage. When Montaigne writes, “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves,” or describes himself with the incoherent torrent of adjectives “bashful, insolent; chaste, lascivious; talkative, taciturn; tough, delicate; clever, stupid; surly, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant, liberal, miserly, and prodigal,” he could be voicing a monologue from the play. He also observes that anyone who thinks too much about all the circumstances and consequences of an action makes it impossible to do anything at all — a neat summary of Hamlet’s main problem in life.
Montaigne and Shakespeare have each been held up as the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do. The Shakespearean scholar J. M. Robertson believed that all literature since these two authors could be interpreted as an elaboration of their joint theme: the discovery of self-divided consciousness.
One aspect of the story has some basis in fact: Anthony Bacon did know Montaigne, and visited him twice, once in the early 1580s and again in 1590. He could easily have brought a copy of the Essays back for his brother, which means that Francis could have read it (in French) before publishing his own collection of Essays in 1597. That would explain something that has often puzzled people: how did Bacon and Montaigne come up with the same book title within a few years of each other?
Of all Montaigne’s cross-Channel heirs, the one who deserves the last word is an Anglo-Irishman: Laurence Sterne, eighteenth-century author of Tristram Shandy. His great novel, if it can be so classified, is an exaggerated Montaignesque ramble, containing several explicit nods to its French predecessor, and filled with games, paradoxes, and digressions.
It is like Montaigne on speed.
Tristram Shandy started an Irish tradition that would reach its most extreme point with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a novel which divides into offshoots and streams of association over hundreds of pages until, at the end, it loops around on itself: the last half-sentence hooks on to the half-sentence with which the book began. This is much too tidy for Sterne, or for Montaigne, who avoided neat wrap-ups. For both of them, writing and life should be allowed just to flow on, even if that means branching further and further into digressions without ever coming to any resolution.
17. Q. How to live? A. Reflect on everything; regret nothing
Montaigne did not smear his words around like Joyce, but he did work by revisiting, elaborating, and accreting. Although he returned to his work constantly, he hardly ever seemed to get the urge to cross things out, only to keep adding more. The spirit of repentance was alien to him in writing, just as it was in life, where he remained firmly wedded to amor fati: the cheerful acceptance of whatever happens. This was at odds with the doctrines of Christianity, which insisted that you must constantly repent of your past misdeeds, in order to keep wiping clean the slate and giving yourself fresh beginnings. Montaigne knew that some of the things he had done in the past no longer made sense to him, but he was content to presume that he must have been a different person at the time, and leave it at that.
18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control
Diderot would make almost the same observation of Montaigne in a later century: “His book is the touchstone of a sound mind. If a man dislikes it, you may be sure that he has some defect of the heart or understanding.”
Authors have always undergone abridgement. Reductions of great works still thrive in the publishing industry today, often under titles such as “Compact Editions.” A spokesman for one such recent British series was quoted as saying, “Moby-Dick must have been difficult in 1850 — in 2007 it’s nigh-on impossible to make your way through it.” Yet the danger in cutting too much blubber out of Moby-Dick is that of being left with no whale. Similarly, Montaigne’s “spirit” resides in the very bits editors are most eager to lose: his swerves, his asides, his changes of mind, and his restless movement from one idea to another. No wonder he himself was driven to say that “every abridgment of a good book is a stupid abridgment.”
Virginia Woolf had a beautiful vision of generations interlinked in this way: of how “minds are threaded together — how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides... It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.” This capacity for living on through readers’ inner worlds over long periods of history is what makes a book like the Essays a true classic. As it is reborn differently in each mind, it also brings those minds together.
There can be no really ambitious writing without an acceptance that other people will do what they like with your work, and change it almost beyond recognition. Montaigne accepted this principle in art, as he did in life.
“Oh Lord,” one might imagine Montaigne exclaiming, “by all means let me be misunderstood.”
19. Q. How to live? A. Be ordinary and imperfect
Modern readers who approach Montaigne asking what he can do for them are asking the same question he himself asked of Seneca, Sextus, and Lucretius — and the same question they asked of their predecessors. This is what Virginia Woolf’s chain of minds really means: not a scholarly tradition, but a series of self-interested individuals puzzling over their own lives, yet doing it cooperatively.
Old age provides an opportunity to recognize one’s fallibility in a way youth usually finds difficult. Seeing one’s decline written on body and mind, one accepts that one is limited and human. By understanding that age does not make one wise, one attains a kind of wisdom after all.
20. Q. How to live? A. Let life be its own answer
They remained alive, and, for Montaigne, it was always life that mattered. Virginia Woolf was especially fond of quoting this thought from his last essay: it was as close as Montaigne ever came to a final or best answer to the question of how to live. Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself. Either this is not an answer at all, or it is the only possible answer. It has the same quality as the answer given by the Zen master who, when asked, “What is enlightenment?” whacked the questioner on the head with a stick Enlightenment is something learned on your own body: it takes the form of things happening to you. This is why the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics taught tricks rather than precepts. All philosophers can offer is that blow on the head: a useful technique, a thought experiment, or an experience — in Montaigne’s case, the experience of reading the Essays. The subject he teaches is simply himself, an ordinary example of a living being.