Michel De Montaigne (1533-92) put the capital I, the first person, into literature, and while he was at it also invented the essay. When he took up the writing of his Essays, in 1572, Montaigne was the first man to write freely about himself, and not for another two centuries, until Jean Jacques Rousseau, would anyone do so with such unabashed candor again. Chiding Tacitus for undue modesty, Montaigne remarked that “not to dare to talk roundly of yourself betrays a defect of thought.” This, clearly, was not Montaigne’s defect. “I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing else but myself.” That is not quite true; he talks about a great deal else in the Essays. Yet there was something to what he said when he added: “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.”
Inscribed on the tympanum of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the legend, “Know Thyself.” This was the project Montaigne set to work on when in 1570, at the age of thirty-seven, he retired from public life to the tower on his estate in Gascony in which he kept his library of a thousand or so books. Montaigne not only believed in the importance of knowing himself but thought there was scarcely anything better, or even else, worth knowing. “I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero,” he writes in his essay “On Experience,” and in “On Physiognomy” he writes, “I am wandering off the point when I write about anything else, cheating my subject of me.” But the more important point is that he made of the study of himself an epistemology: from knowledge of himself, he believed, all other knowledge flowed.
Had Montaigne not chosen himself for his subject, in time someone else would no doubt have come along to write about himself with the same degree of candor—but not, the great likelihood is, with the same degree of success. What makes Montaigne’s invention of the personal essay so extraordinary is that he not only was its first practitioner but may also have been, to date, its best. He set out the program for the personal essay—loose, digressive, elastic, familiar: “free association, artistically controlled,” is the way Aldous Huxley described Montaigne’s method—and then produced it in a quantity of more than a thousand pages. The impressive, the really quite astonishing thing is that Montaigne never bores on the subject of me; far from wishing him to go on to take up other matters, one is always rather pleased when he returns to it, even about such trivial things as his changing taste for radishes.
Montaigne also had the unteachable, the really quite unexplainable gift of being absolutely a man of his time who, four centuries later, reads pertinently as a man of ours. As D.P. Walker, the distinguished medievalist, has written:
In many ways Montaigne was a startlingly original and independent thinker; but this can only be appreciated if one has some knowledge of relevant contemporary and earlier thought, for the most fundamental of Montaigne’s new ideas and attitudes have become our own unquestioned assumptions.
Among these are the high valuation he placed on what is individual, private, original, and different. Modern, too—or so one would like to think—is his rejection of all dogmatic systems of thought. (How amusing he would have been on Marx and Freud, the two crushing systematizers of the modern era!) Finally, he strikes the modern note in his self-absorption, which, D.P. Walker avers, was entirely radical for its day. Not until Rousseau’s Confessions (1781) was there another work of self-portrayal like the Essays, and Montaigne’s book, though written two centuries earlier, both feels more contemporary and is much wiser.
None of this would have been possible if Montaigne had not been precisely the man he was. “Authors,” he wrote,
communicate themselves to the public by some peculiar mark foreign to themselves; I—the first ever to do so—by my universal being, not as a grammarian, poet or jurisconsult but [as] Michel de Montaigne. If all complain that I talk too much about myself, I complain that they never even think about their own selves.
The American critic Van Wyck Brooks once defined literature as “a great man writing.” The definition fits Montaigne exquisitely. But then Montaigne was himself exquisitely well fitted—by birth, by temperament, by talent—for the kind of writing he did.
Born in 1533 at his family’s chateau between Bordeaux and Périgord, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was, on his father’s side, the son of a long line of successful merchants who only four generations earlier had purchased their title of nobility and with it the name Montaigne. His mother’s was a family of Spanish Jews (named Louppes or Lopez), with connections in Antwerp, who had outwardly accepted Christianity without ever fully dispelling the suspicions of their neighbors. In his excellent biography of Montaigne, the late Donald Frame remarks that most attempts to explain Montaigne’s mind and temper by the 25 percent of Jewish blood that ran in his veins have been properly cautious, as is Frame’s own:
Probably attributable to it in some measure are his deep tolerance in an age when that was not in fashion; a rather detached attitude, typical of the Marranos and natural in them, toward the religion he consistently and very conscientiously practiced [Roman Catholicism]; his tireless curiosity, mainly but not solely intellectual; the cosmopolitanism natural to the member of a far-flung family.
In the Essays, Montaigne makes only one, insignificant, mention of his mother, while he often refers to Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne, more than once as “the best of all fathers.”
Montaigne was indeed fortunate in his father, who though not learned himself had great regard for learning, who had served as mayor of Bordeaux, and who took great care with his eldest son Michel’s education (Montaigne had four brothers and three sisters). This education was far from conventional. Montaigne’s first tutor was a German who spoke Latin but no French, and so the boy was brought up speaking Latin exclusively until the age of six (his parents and household servants acquired enough Latin to converse with him). When he went off to school he had less luck with Greek and thought himself, as a boy, a lazy and unretentive student. Fortunately, he acquired a love of reading, especially of Latin literature, that would never leave him, even though in later life he regularly demoted the importance of books in his own education.
Little is known about Montaigne’s adolescence and early manhood. It is thought that he studied law in Toulouse. In 1557, at twenty-four, he became a conseiller, or magistrate, at the parlement in Bordeaux. Here he met his dear friend, his soul-mate really, Etienne de La Boétie, of whom he wrote that “his was indeed an ample soul, beautiful from every point of view, a soul of the Ancient mold.” The loneliness from Boétie’s early death is sometimes said to be what caused Montaigne to turn to writing. He married in 1565, and he and his wife subsequently lost all but one of their children, a daughter Léonor.
After the death of his father in 1568, Michel became head of his family and lord over its estates. Complying with a wish of his father’s, he translated Raymond Sebond’s lengthy Natural Theology, which was published in 1569, from Latin into French; his “Apology for Raymond Sebond” would later become the longest of his essays. He resigned from work at the parlement at Bordeaux in 1570, retiring to Montaigne, where, in the tower he used as a study, he soon began the experimental writing that would result in the Essays. He would later, between 1581 and 1585, serve as mayor of Bordeaux, as his father had done before him, and his mature years were spent with his country riven by civil war over the Reformation. It is almost as if Montaigne had acquired just enough experience out of which to write, yet not so much as to despise the role of somewhat distanced observer that is central to the act of writing.
Montaigne’s Essays is, as advertised, a great book. It is also in the category of great large books. (In M.A. Screech’s lucid new translation,1 the text of Montaigne’s Essays runs to 1,269 pages.) I have read in it for years, but have only now for the first time read through it. As in reading other great books of magnitude—The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past—one feels a sadness at coming to its conclusion. One has lived in the close company of an extraordinary man, swayed for weeks to the undulations of his mind, and now, at book’s end, it is over. The Harvard economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron has told of coming to the end of War and Peace with this feeling of sadness so heavy upon him that he paused, sighed, and then turned the novel over and began it again from the beginning.
Montaigne would have appreciated that digression if not necessarily the point. He is himself the most digressive of writers, always ready to tell a story, often from the chronicles of ancient history which he loved—usually to illustrate a point but sometimes, too, just because he thinks it a good story. In his essays he found the form that best fit the shape of his own mind.
“Essay,” it is generally noted, comes from the French verb essayer: to try, to attempt. In bringing up this etymology most people wish to underscore the tentativeness of the form. Such modesty does not at all apply to Montaigne, who, while not out for the last word or seeking to be in any way definitive, nonetheless has fairly larger things in mind than the intellectual equivalent of a stroll around the garden.
Nor are the Essays merely a variety of disquisitions upon what its author happens to think on such subjects as Vanity, Experience, Sadness, Fear, Liars, and the rest, even though such words appear in the titles of his essays. Montaigne’s project was both much more and much less programmatic than this. Better to think of what he wrote not as essays, in the sense we have come to think of the form, but as assays—“’assays,’” as Professor Screech writes in his introduction to his new translation, “of himself by himself.” The critic Erich Auerbach, in his chapter on Montaigne in Mimesis, suggests that the word “essay” as Montaigne used it might be rendered “Tests Upon One’s Self” or “Self-Try-Outs.” On behalf of his own revolutionary endeavor, the quotatious Montaigne cites the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, of whom he remarks that “when Thales reckons that a knowledge of man is very hard to acquire, he is telling him that knowledge of anything else is impossible.” How pleasing it must have been to Montaigne that in his own lifetime the scholar Justus Lipsius called him “the French Thales”!
What Montaigne is after in his essays is a method of discovering the meaning of such truths as he thinks available to man by studying the man he knows better than any other—himself. Sounds, in theory, easy enough. In practice, of course, it isn’t. To acquire larger truths about the world by looking into one’s heart is only possible if one is able to command an impressive honesty. Many other things are more likely to command us: bias, self-deceit, vanity, to name only three from a probably endless list. In the very first of the essays in his book, Montaigne avers that “man is indeed miraculously vain, various, and wandering”—and that, you might say, ain’t a hundredth of it.
To italicize the difficulty of his venture, Montaigne writes in his brief essay “On Lying” that upon retiring to his estates, he had hoped to let his mind play upon itself, “calmly thinking of itself.” As it turned out, nothing of the kind happened. Instead, his idleness resulted in his being visited by so “many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities” that he began to keep a record of them, “hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” Writing, for him, began as a form of self-administered therapy.
From this failure—a failure that nearly resulted in a nervous breakdown—Montaigne came to discover his form. “Where I seek myself I cannot find myself,” he writes; “I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment.” He began, in his early essays, to consider the thought of the ancient writers, occasionally touching on his own thoughts and experiences. Soon his essays began to feature these thoughts and that experience. His models were Seneca and Plutarch, whom he quotes perhaps more than any other writers. (He claimed the Essays were “built entirely of [Seneca and Plutarch’s] spoils.”) The discrete essays—some 107 of them—are in some ways perhaps better thought of as chapters; they range considerably in length, from a single page to nearly 200 pages. Montaigne called them “this confused medley of mine,” and he found other self-denigrating ways of referring to them, not least vividly as “des excréments d’un viel esprit” (“the droppings of an ancient spirit”), “grotesques and monstrous bodies, pieced together of divers members without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or proportion other than accident.” In fact, the Essays are a running chronicle of the mind of Michel de Montaigne. In his view he never loses the thread of his thought, even if his reader may, and he holds that, though he may seem to contradict himself, “I never contradict the truth.”
If Ever the maxim about the style being the man applied to a writer, it applied to Montaigne. Erich Auerbach remarks that, after reading a good deal of Montaigne, he thought he “could hear him speak and see his gestures.” And Montaigne evidently wrote as he spoke, and spoke as he felt—directly, candidly, straightforwardly:
The speech I love is a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth; a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty and well-combed as vehement and brusque . . . rather difficult than boring, remote from affectation, irregular, disconnected, and bold; each bit making a body in itself; not pedantic, not monkish, not lawyer-like, but rather soldierly.
Montaigne’s was a style at once ironic, playful, metaphoric, slangy, image-laden, self-deprecatory, commonsensical, and never abstract. “His is not an incapacity for abstractions,” Donald Frame writes, “but a happy incapacity for expressing it other than concretely.” He could ramble, his sentences could be overly elaborate, but always he strove to mesh substance to style, thought to form. He preferred not to be praised for his style, lest style seem to obscure his content. Content was his chief concern, for he felt that the contents of his book and of his mind were “consubstantial.” “How I would hate the reputation of being clever at writing but stupid at everything else,” he notes. Yet style is the preservative of literature, and Montaigne’s is the style of a man you trust. “He was the frankest and honestest of writers,” wrote Emerson, who added that he did not know any book “that seems less written.”
“I think I am an ordinary sort of man,” Montaigne writes, “except in considering myself to be one.” The Essays demonstrate how extraordinary an ordinary sort of man can be. As the book progresses, ordinariness becomes a kind of virtue, for to be ordinary, by which he means human, is high praise from Montaigne. He has his own little pantheon of heroes—Homer, Alexander the Great, the Theban general Epaminondas, and above all Socrates (revered for his naturalness) occupying prominent places in it. Yet his is chiefly a comic view of life—no matter how high the throne, Montaigne notes, even a king sits upon his arse—if a comic view that, somehow, does not deprive men of their dignity. He laughs at other men by laughing first at himself.
“Everyone recognizes me in my book,” Montaigne writes, “and my book in me.” Quite as interestingly, everyone recognizes himself in Montaigne. The temptation in reading him is to discover oneself in him—and, of course, to admire him (and oneself) correspondingly. Even Flaubert, who felt little commonality with anyone, felt much in common with Montaigne, whom he claimed to regard as a foster father. Emerson said of the Essays that “it seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.” André Gide remarked of Montaigne that “it seems to me that he is myself.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing to Sir Frederick Pollock, noted: “I told you I believe that late in life I have discovered Montaigne and have read him with enormous delight. The beast knows a lot of things that I fondly hoped had been reserved for me.”
Of the two great categories of writers—those who tell us things we do not know and those who formulate those things that have always been in our hearts but which we have had neither the time nor more likely the wit to formulate on our own—Montaigne is foremost among the latter. He claimed for self-knowledge that from it he could understand other men, but it turns out that it works quite well the other way around, so that from our knowledge of him we can learn about ourselves. Along with formulating our own thoughts for us, what makes Montaigne seem so close to us, his readers, is his gift for intimacy. This man who has looked into his own heart has in the course of doing so looked into ours, and reverberations from our own life sound on his nearly every page.
Montaigne speaks to us because he speaks for us. He claims that, for him, “there is no savor without communication.” But to whom, in his Essays, did Montaigne think he was communicating? When the first two of the ultimately three books of the Essays were published in 1580, they were a commercial success if not quite a best-seller. Yet, pleased though he was with this success, Montaigne nonetheless continued to write chiefly for himself. His essays were above all a form of self-discovery. Montaigne says literally up front, in his opening note to the reader, what he is about:
You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted, a book which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private family one. I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design. . . . If my design had been to seek the favor of the world I would have decked myself out better and presented myself in a studied gait. 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. Here, drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows: for had I found myself among those peoples who are said still to live under the sweet liberty of Nature’s primal laws, I can assure you that I would most willingly have portrayed myself whole, and wholly naked.
After this note, Michel de Montaigne began writing the most personal book in the history of the world.
To write a personal book, it is best to have a personality—and, to go along with it, the impersonality required by the highest art to set it out properly. “The essays,” Virginia Woolf wrote of Montaigne’s book, “are an attempt to communicate a soul.” Here is a task that requires candor, lucidity, honesty, persistence. For as Virginia Woolf also wrote, apropos not of Montaigne but of all personal essayists of whom he remains the father: “Far beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself.” Discovering who exactly he was is part of the motive behind Montaigne’s book. When he said that the study of himself was his metaphysics and his physics, he meant that subjective truth was sufficient for him. “I do not see the whole of anything,” he writes. “Nor do those who promise to show it to us.”
Intellectual method was of little use to Montaigne. In logic he found crippling, even laughable, limitations—for logic, as he puts it, provides no consolation for gout. Even the senses cannot be counted upon. This notion is at the center of the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” the longest essay in Montaigne’s book and the only one with a directly polemical intent. In that essay, Montaigne sets out after rationalism, whose chief internal danger he views as establishing the belief in men that they can achieve universal truth outside religion, through the sheer power of their reasoning. Montaigne mocks the attempt. Jacob Zeitlin, in a brilliant introductory commentary to his 1934-36 translation of the Essays, characterizes the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” as an “exercise of the rational process to degrade the principle of reason.” It is in the “Apology” that Montaigne writes, “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?” This may seem a trivial enough question but is in fact the nub of the matter, asking, in the most particular and concrete terms, how do we know anything? “There is a plague on man: his opinion that he knows something.”
Owing to this essay, Montaigne was thought to be hostage to Pyrrhonism, named after the founder of Greek skepticism. Pyrrhonians doubted the efficacy even of doubt itself. Montaigne writes of them: “If you can picture an endless confession of ignorance, or a power of judgment which never, never inclines to one side or the other, then you can conceive what Pyrrhonism is.” Behind the polemic in the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” is Montaigne’s concern that men will make the horrendously arrogant mistake of believing that they are in control of their own destinies. “So long as man thinks he has means and powers deriving from himself he will never acknowledge what he owes to his Master.” It is in the “Apology” that he writes, “In truth we are but nothing.”
Such utterances would lead one to think Montaigne a seriously religious man, even though Sainte-Beuve believed that, in writing an “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” he was attempting covertly to attack Christianity. From the Essays we have Montaigne’s claim that he believes in the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church and that he believes it on the authority of the Scriptures. “The more we refer ourselves to God,” he writes, “commit ourselves to Him and reject ourselves, the greater we are worth.” He adds: “Socrates’ verdict—and mine as well—is that the best judgment you can make about the heavens is not to make any at all.” Aristotle, Plato, even the otherwise inevitably sensible Plutarch he finds foolish on the subject of what happens to the soul after death. How should a simpler man, a man like Montaigne (or you and me), know better than they? Outwardly conventional in his religious views and practice, Montaigne appears to have rested in his own version of fideism, or faith based on a deep skepticism about all human knowledge.
Religion as the complicated relations, fueled by faith, between men and God is a subject Montaigne is content to leave alone. Only man’s debt to God, which is total, is acknowledged. “But there can be no first principles,” he avers, “unless God has revealed them; all the rest—beginning, middle, and end—is dream and vapors.” Quotatious though he is, Montaigne rarely quotes Scripture. Here, as in many another realm, the question he had had engraved on a medal, Que scay-je? (What do I know?), which might serve as the motto for the Essays, applies most of all. He is instead keen on how to achieve the maximum contentment out of a life down upon which vicissitudes of every sort rain—how to find order and such happiness as is available here on earth.
No Small problem, this, not least because of the changeability that Montaigne finds in himself and, by extension, in human nature. As with his own nature, so with the world at large, everything seems mutable. “For all we know,” he remarks of the leading theories of planetary rotation of his day, “in a thousand years’ time another opinion will overthrow both.” As with knowledge, so with thought:
Once you start digging down into a piece of writing there is simply no slant or meaning—straight, bitter, sweet, or bent—which the human mind cannot find there.
Not even the truth that the senses convey can be trusted: “The senses deceive the intellect; it deceives them in their turn. (Love someone and she seems more beautiful than she is.)” With theories, opinion, custom, knowledge, even our senses forever changing, Montaigne concludes that he “would rather be guided by results than by reason—for [the two] are always clashing.” He reminds his readers of the ideal, much admired by Aristotle and by the Pyrrhonists, of being “astonished by nothing.” In the end, Montaigne concludes, only God is. Only God and, one might add, Michel de Montaigne.
This last-named fellow, despite his many protestations about his shortcomings, is far from negligible. For if we cannot trust either knowledge or our senses, and if we can only by our best lights be obedient to but cannot hope to fathom the design of God, what guidance do we then turn to in the hope of living our lives with a modicum of decency, dignity, and contentment? The short answer, for Montaigne, is to understand experience rightly and to quest for understanding human nature, with the additional proviso that “there is no end in our inquiries; our end is in the other world.” Yet the short answer is less impressive than the long. The long answer is the Essays. In fact, Montaigne claims not to be in the business of supplying answers at all. “Je n’enseigne pas, je raconte” (“I do not teach, I tell”), he writes. But, as with most people who claim not to teach, especially writers, he lies.
If Montaigne does teach, he does not preach. Very little self-righteousness pops up in the pages of the Essays. He was well aware of the traps implicit in writing about himself: “Condemn yourself and you are always believed; praise yourself and you never are.” The author of the Essays, unlike so many writers, ancient and modern, never implies that he is the sole repository of virtue, even while freely criticizing his age. His modesty seems suitable, his humility genuine, and if both cannot always be entirely believed, for Montaigne had a delicate ironic touch, neither is ever overdone. (“Don’t be so humble,” Golda Meir is alleged to have said as Prime Minister of Israel to a member of her cabinet, “you’re not that great.”) As with any book of this length, there are longueurs in the Essays, and Montaigne can sometimes disappoint on a subject he proposes to take up by dissipating it through excessive quotation and digression. But his greatness lies in his temperament.
By temperament I mean that the elements of Montaigne’s character, the humors as the medievals would say, were wonderfully well mixed in him. It is the complexity of his character, which he seems not only never to wish to hide but increasingly to divulge, that wins us to him. “I describe myself standing up and lying down, from the front and back, from right and left, and with all my inborn complexities.” He could make a joke, he could take a blow, he could live with paradox. To his mind, “Good Luck and Bad Luck are two sovereign powers. There is no wisdom in thinking that the role of Fortune can be played by human wisdom.”
Part of the seductiveness of Montaigne’s thinking lies in his understanding of both the limitations of, and at the same time the need for, wisdom. Nowhere is this better brought out than in his writing about the body. Montaigne distrusted saints and disliked fanatics because they pretended to despise the body. “Aristippus championed only the body, as though we had no soul,” he writes, “Zeno championed only the soul, as though we had no body. Both were flawed.” Montaigne, on the contrary, thought the chances for contentment were greatly lessened until the body and soul could be somehow aligned; until such time, the human being was incomplete. He writes openly about his bodily appetites and functions—about food, sex, illness, defecation, death. To separate mind and body, as most systems of thought tend to do, seemed to Montaigne an error of the first magnitude. “May Philosophy’s followers, faced with breaking their wife’s hymen, be no more erect, muscular, nor succulent than her arguments are!” Part of Montaigne’s all-roundedness has to do with his considering everything about life worth considering:
It is an error to reckon some functions to be less worthy because they are necessities. They will never beat it out of my head that the marriage of Pleasure to Necessity . . . is a most suitable match.
For Montaigne what was finally of interest were the complexities of morality and the conundrum of human nature. Because he sensed that the universities of his day—as in ours—contributed little to either of these matters, he referred to them as “yap shops” and allowed that if he had a son he would prefer he get along with artisans rather than with scholars. Artificialities came more and more to put Montaigne off; life was too brief to piffle it away on falsities, not least on false learning.
At the beginning of the Essays Montaigne is much taken up with the idea of death. One of the early essays carries the title “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die”; and later he will write that “dying is without doubt the most noteworthy action in a man’s life.” But the closer he came to dying himself, the more he was convinced that the great feat was to savor life’s pleasures. “It is my conviction that what makes for human happiness is not, as Antithenes said, dying happily but living happily,” he writes in “On Repenting.” And in “On Experience,” the final essay in the book, he observes: “It is an accomplishment, absolute and as it were God-like, to know how to enjoy our being as we ought.”
Montaigne’s illness—he developed kidney stones in his mid-forties, an illness that killed his father at the age of sixty-seven and would cause his own death at fifty-nine—may have changed his attitudes toward death. He no longer believed, with Seneca, that life was only worthwhile once one could bring oneself to despise it, on the Stoical grounds that nothing is worth having that one fears losing. The “stone,” as he sometimes refers to it, gave him anguish and horrendous pain. (Imagine the excruciation of having kidney stones in 1577 and the hideous attempts at cure.) “I am wrestling with the worst of all illnesses,” Montaigne writes, “the most unpredictable, the most fatal, and the most uncurable.” The stone “unlechered” him, sent him on the road seeking remedies, made him realize afresh the hopelessness of professional knowledge when up against the discordant strength of nature—and, somehow, made him, a man whose full-time task was observing and reporting on himself (“I am loath even to have thoughts that I cannot publish”), even more intelligent.
He reports the pain vividly—talking about “the stubborn nature of my stones, especially when in my prick,” in Screech’s unbuttoned translation—without quite complaining about it. “Anyone who is afraid of suffering,” he writes, “suffers already of being afraid.” Perhaps the stone had the contradictory effect of simultaneously reminding him of the sweetness of life and reconciling him to death. Such, at any rate, he leads one to believe when he writes:
If I had to live again, I would live as I have done; I neither regret the past nor fear the future. And unless I deceive myself, things within have gone much the same as those without. One of my greatest obligations to my lot is that the course of my physical state has brought each thing in due season. I have known the blade, the blossom, and the fruit; and I now know their withering. Happily so, since naturally so. I can bear more patiently the ills that I have since they come in due season, and since they also make me recall with more gratitude the long-lasting happiness of my former life.
The novelist, dramatist, poet has the advantage over the essayist, autobiographer, philosopher of not having his life called into question—at least not decisively so. And even when it is called into question, the imaginative writer is freed from his ultimate responsibility for that life’s not coming close to matching his art in its pretensions. Think only of Tolstoy, who lived with such clownish complications in his domestic life. Think of Baudelaire, a most unpleasant man generally. It is a great blessing that we do not know more about Shakespeare than we now do, but even if it were revealed that he was, say, a cannibal, we should probably not value the plays much less than we now do. But for the “non-imaginative” writer, the writer who writes not out of his imagination but out of his direct experience, the life is held up next to the work, and quite fairly so. As Montaigne himself puts it: “I never read an author, especially one treating of virtue and duty, without curiously inquiring what sort of man he was.”
Montaigne himself passes this test not because of his purity, his goodness, his spirituality, but because of his honesty. He describes himself, and through himself men generally, not as they ought to be but as they are—and the picture seems accurate and just and true. Cosmetics are not employed. “I find that the best of the goodness in me,” he writes, “has some vicious stain.” And toward the end of the Essays, when he begins to write in the first-person plural—je becoming nous—he notes: “Yet within ourselves we are somehow double creatures, with the result that what we believe we do not believe, what we condemn we cannot rid ourselves of.”
Montaigne regularly reports his shortcomings—his want of ambition, his laziness, his ineptitude at managing his estates, his wretched memory, his emotional distance from others. “If others were to look attentively into themselves, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of emptiness and tomfoolery.” Yet when he says such things you do not feel the touch of con, of someone working you up to like him for admirably admitting to his weaknesses. No, it is his good sense, his psychological penetration, his general bonhomie that wins one to Montaigne. In him religion never descends into piety, conservatism (he thought change in institutions an opening to tyrants) into meanness, skepticism into nihilism. Above all, he understood that “the world is involved in hundreds of questions where both the for and against are false.” Montaigne perhaps alone of men famous in history or literature came closest to living the golden mean:
Greatness of soul [he writes] consists not so much in striving upward and forward as in knowing how to find one’s place and to draw the line. Whatever is adequate it regards as ample; it shows its sublime quality by preferring the moderate to the outstanding. Nothing is so beautiful, so right, as acting as a man should; nor is any learning so arduous as knowing how to live this life naturally and well. And the most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.
A mark of a great, of a world-historical writer is that his work not only translates across national boundaries but across time. Montaigne has met this mark. Each age has found its different lessons in the Essays, from the Enlightenment to our own. In our day, perhaps the most important lesson Montaigne has to teach is the need to regard all systems, all general ideas, all “isms” with extreme and comic dubiety. Montaigne was a writer who loved life, and it is in the name of the love of life, which is only another name for the love of reality, that Montaigne’s hardy skepticism makes most sense in our own day, when concepts are created almost hourly and when, as Ortega once remarked, to create a concept is to invite reality to leave the room. Part of the splendor of Montaigne, and part of the pleasure of reading him, is that he is always inviting reality back in.
“Between you and me,” Montaigne writes, “I have always found two things to be in singular harmony: supercelestial opinions and subterranean morals.” What for Montaigne needs to be in harmony are opinions and morals, work and life. What his extraordinary exercise in self-analysis and self-portraiture is in the end about is the disciplining of the moral faculties through rigorous and profound introspection, so that such harmonious order prevails. No artist effectively teaches morality; the best he can hope to do is teach what morality is about. This Montaigne does supremely.
By being a man on whom not much was lost, by studying the complex variousness of human nature through looking first into his own soul, by carefully considering his experience of the world, by not asking the impossible of himself and being suspicious of those who asked it of others, by understanding that man’s problem on earth is to attain such wisdom as will help him live a fit and reasonably happy life, Montaigne, for those who read him more than four centuries after he wrote, continues to lessen life’s terror and to add to its pleasure. More than this no writer can hope to do, and none has done it better than Michel de Montaigne.
1 Allen Lane, Penguin Press, $60.00.