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Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Brad Rappaport writes an essay on the inventor of the essay.
In order to understand Michel de Montaigne, one must understand his time; and yet, paradoxically, the reason why his Essays continue to be read down to our own day is on account of their timelessness.
Montaigne lived in the late sixteenth century, a time of faction and civil war in France. Protestantism had just arisen out of the ferment of ideas which had been brewing since the rediscovery of ancient texts during the time now known to us as the Renaissance, which had seen the flourishing of the arts in all their forms. Eventually, the success of the arts in such respects as the emergence of perspective in painting would be paralleled by developments in the sciences, leading, centuries later, to the Industrial Revolution. But at the time Montaigne was writing, such forces were just beginning to coalesce, and their birth was violent, with wars of religion breaking out across Europe.
Montaigne: A ruff sketch by an unknown artist, 1570.
Montaigne was born on February 28, 1533, before the outbreak of religious conflict in France. His world and the thinking of his culture was circumscribed by religion, in particular, Catholicism. Moreover, Montaigne held title to nobility – he was Lord of Montaigne – at a time when the Western world was still unquestioningly organized around the principles of monarchy and aristocracy. The French Revolution lay two centuries in the future, and the majority of his contemporaries associated democracy with upheaval and mob rule, not the ordered and legitimate form of government with which it is associated today.
Several generations previously, a great-grandfather had made a fortune in business, and used it to buy the estate from which Michel de Montaigne would take his name – the family otherwise being known by the surname Eyquem. Some of Montaigne’s ancestors were Jews. Under pressure from the Expulsion Order of 1492, if they cared to preserve their faith intact, Jews in Spain fled to the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere, while some remained in Spain and continued to practice in secret, or else converted. Those who chose to remain usually blended in with the surrounding society, losing their distinctive character. It is from some of this party that Montaigne was partly descended. (Although I have not read it remarked upon elsewhere, it seems to me that Montaigne’s famous tolerance was part of his need to be authentic.) Montaigne sided with the Catholics in the wars of religion, putting him in an inherently conservative position; which is to say, he sought to preserve the existing order. However, he held the conflict itself in contempt, and savored time alone to write his Essays, partly out of resignation over an ultimate powerlessness to contribute meaningfully to its resolution.
Most of Montaigne’s contemporaries had neither time nor education for personal pursuits and interests, as a nobleman might have. Although he did serve the public, whether in the parliament of Bordeaux, where he lived, or later as its mayor, this service should be construed as noblesse oblige – the obligation of a nobleman to the locality to which he belonged as a leading figure.
Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, ending with the latter’s early death, is the stuff of legend. Much ink has been spilled by academics over the rise of subjectivity and the interior life in the early modern period, with the friendship between the two, who bonded over talk of ideas, being a set-piece in such discussions. He also married, and had a daughter.
One further biographical note about him: his father brought him up in a Latin-speaking environment from infancy. This doubtless accounts for his love of ancient Roman authors, on whom he principally draws for examples of the virtues which he himself has been judged by so many to exemplify.
In spite of his conservatism, Montaigne’s book Essays (1580-95) is widely held to be the first of its kind. It is of a piece with the spirit of experimentation which would come to define the scientific mentality in the centuries that would follow. The Essays has 107 chapters in three volumes, covering all sorts of topics, ranging from smells to laws to pedantry. The last volume was published posthumously, in 1595. Perhaps what marks the Essays as unique for its time, and singular in its effect on writers who would follow it, is that it is a work of psychology. The introspectiveness and unorthodoxy of the Essays sets it apart from any other kind of record of one’s activities which could have been found at the time.
It’s an interesting endeavor in which Montaigne is engaged. In a preface he deprecates his own value as subject-matter, and proposes that his essays are really best read as an attempt to keep a record of his own character for the sake of his friends and family. Yet elsewhere in the work he takes long detours from the subject at hand to discuss his project of essay-writing. Not for scribes alone, or monks in their cells, his repartee ! There is in this sense a somewhat unchristian ambition in the project of the Essays. Although he’s always mordantly self-deprecating, it cannot have escaped him that he was taking a shot at the kind of renown which he well knew it is folly to fix one's self-estimation on achieving. Perhaps he had something of a romance with the printing press, invented only in the previous century, which itself had a major role to play in the ferment of ideas of the time.
What strikes the reader first about the Essays is that Montaigne is unsystematic. He has no intentions of circumscribing the world in a book. As I said, religion and the state already circumscribed his world, and he wrote of what he found within it. As a conservative, he shrank back from any prospect that the regular order of things, sustained by custom, could be upended by a radical attempt to re-organize it along artificial lines, which is to say, against the grain of habit. Montaigne gives due deference to religion, and does not dismiss accounts of the fantastical, such as feats of superhuman strength in ancient times or the testimony to miracles that are integral to Christianity. However, he is anything but a theologian. Much of the philosophy which succeeded the ancient world but which preceded Montaigne had about it the character of apologetic – sophisticated rationalizations as to why one should believe in the manner expected of a Christian, Jew or Muslim. Montaigne, by contrast, is quite content to let the reader presume, based on what he has written, that he extends no credit to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul – provided that it’s publically understood that he does credit it. He has no ambition to set himself up as a genius from whom others should take their bearings, for he knows full well that the ideas informing him come from outside of himself. It is from the security of a known world – the world of Church and throne – that he is able to turn his gaze inward and report on what he finds there. If what he finds seems to be at odds with what he avows as true as a good Catholic, so much the worse for what he finds; yet it does not cease to have been discovered, even if it contravenes revealed truth.
An Essay into the Essays
Montaigne had no illusions about the ultimate groundlessness of custom and habit as such. In his early essay ‘On Prognostication’, Montaigne quotes a Roman authority: “As for those who understand the language of birds and learn more from the liver of a beast than from their own thought, they should be heard, I think, rather than heeded.” Indeed, in this essay he heaps scorn on those who would place their faith in divination. To those who point out the occasions on which a prediction has been vindicated he says in effect that even a broken clock is right twice a day. But in a later essay, he proves more yielding to the possibility of mysterious interpositions in human affairs, writing that “it is an absurd presumption to scorn and condemn as false what seems to us not probable”, saying further that this presumption is an affliction common to those who think themselves superior to the common man. Here is his agnosticism at work. Montaigne is determined to remain open to the possibility of what is widely credited and reported, especially by those whom he esteems, such as Augustine. He constantly asks, ‘What do I know?’ Indeed, his biographers make much of his having adopted those words as his motto.
Montaigne’s argument for openness to reports of the improbable is that even those things which are natural strike us as amazing if we have never seen them before. In an essay ‘On A Child Monster’, he gives the example of a child who has a second head and another set of arms. We now know this to be caused by the failure of twins to differentiate themselves in the womb. The explanation, of course, does not negate the improbability of the occurrence. Likewise, in ‘On Conversation’, Montaigne gives the examples of preferring to be the twelfth or fourteenth to arrive at a banquet rather than the thirteenth, and of putting on the left shoe before the right, and says that, weighed against the alternative of ‘emptiness’, he believes that such inclinations should be allowed. When it comes to affirming the attested miracles of the Christian faith, he confesses that it is obligatory to treat them as verities if we would honor tradition. Yet Montaigne is incontrovertibly correct when he says that there are some things which, by definition, we cannot know.
In his essay ‘On Custom and the Inadvisability of Changing an Established Law’, he writes of something he certainly did not fail to observe in his own case: “Peoples brought up in liberty, and to rule themselves, consider every other form of government monstrous and contrary to nature. Those who are accustomed to monarchy think in the same fashion.” The reader with the conviction of our day, that liberal democracy is self-evidently the best form of government, should take note. Yet lest he conclude that it is required by intellectual rigor that he abandon this conviction, let him note that Montaigne goes on as follows: “It is the rule of rules and the universal law of laws, that every one must obey those of the place where he is”, quoting what my edition says is an unknown Greek source: “It is noble to obey the laws of the country in which one dwells.” For all his devotion to Christianity and defense of the laws of France against innovation, Montaigne's commitment to absolutism is a function of this relativism.
There is much in custom that is indefensible from the perspective of reason, but the elevation of reason to a criterion against which custom should be judged, and, if not conformable to it, dismissed, is characteristic of a certain period of time. That time would find much to celebrate in Montaigne, on account of his willingness to investigate human nature fearlessly, regardless of religious orthodoxy. The difference between Montaigne and Enlightenment philosophers, however, is that he never drew the imperious conclusion they did, that religious orthodoxy can be dismissed. Montaigne’s work thus resists the modernist presumption that philosophy can replace religion, and that religion is an antiquated relic which vanguard intellectuals know better than to credit.
On the contrary, in ‘On Vanity’ Montaigne writes that the “old theology and earliest philosophy” are best thought of as poetic in nature; yet he requires that we take this earliest material as grist for the mill of our own thinking. We are indebted to it; and the idea that religion (albeit the pagan religion of Homer and Socrates) could be dismissed by rigorous inquiry as anything other than germane, and urgently so, Montaigne would have regarded as disconnected from reality. The idea that we can get beyond our ‘infancy’, being of the self-same flesh as the earliest life and culture, is a delusion characteristic of the kind of religiosity from which the Enlightenment took itself to be a departure, even while mirroring it. Montaigne’s Essays is, by Enlightenment standards, an antiquated survival, of the kind to which the Enlightenment saw itself as superior. Its author’s authenticity, however, has caused the Essays to outlast the Enlightenment view that the role of religion can be confined to the past.
Montaigne’s form of essay-writing influenced later thinkers, many of whom followed suit, including Francis Bacon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. However, all three of these authors wrote philosophical, scientific or novelistic writings in addition to writing about themselves, whereas Montaigne had written about the humanities incidentally in the process of self-disclosure of an unusual kind. Nevertheless, his Essays played its part in the shift away from unexamined Aristotelianism towards the modern sciences, that is, from knowledge gleaned from ancient authority, to knowledge gleaned from experience, and then from experiment.
Montaigne, who mercilessly ridiculed the quack medicine of his day to the amusement of his readers, conceded that he would, at times, take a remedy just to please the doctor. He died at home on September 13, 1592, of quinsy, an illness of the tonsils which today we take for granted can be cured.
© Brad Rappaport 2019
Brad Rappaport is a civil servant in New York City, where he also makes his home.