The modern essay began with Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), a member of the minor French nobility, a Bordeaux vintner, a political official pretty much in spite of himself, who retired from public life at the age of 37 to read, think, and set down his thoughts in some of the best prose ever. He remains the acknowledged master of the form. It is a form that accommodates all sorts of approaches from all sorts of masters: the consummate shrewdness cloaked in blunt efficiency of Francis Bacon, the sonorous cogitation in solemn periods of Samuel Johnson, the rough-hewn majesty of Henry David Thoreau, the languorous but eviscerating drollery of Lytton Strachey, the antic bomb-throwing of Karl Kraus, the magniloquent cerebral torments of Albert Camus. The approach that Montaigne favored is very much in fashion today among practitioners of the so-called familiar essay, who tend to be far less adept than their great forebear: the ramble through the brambles in which one collects every burr that happens to stick to one’s person and then picks them off in no particular order.
Montaigne called his book Essais; the French essayer means to attempt, to try out, and the rather archaic English to essay is cognate. Montaigne was not trying to fix his thoughts in stone, to get things perfectly right once and for all; the Essays is the living record of thoughts on the move—strolling, ambling, stalking, galloping, pausing for reflection, doubling back to reconsider. Montaigne is not known for beginning with a particular end in mind. Detours grow divagations; oxbows sprout sinuosities. You could wind up anywhere from here.
There are 107 essays, ranging in length from mere squibs to a disquisition on religious faith and the inadequacy of reason that amounts to a book on its own. A selection of essay titles suggests the amplitude of his interests, though the writing itself often carries him far from the stated intention: “Of sadness,” “Of liars,” “That to philosophize is to learn to die,” “Of the education of children,” “Of friendship,” “Of cannibals,” “Of the inequality that is between us,” “Of prayers,” “Of drunkenness,” “Of glory,” “Of the greatness of Rome,” “Cowardice, mother of cruelty,” “Of three good women,” “Of repentance,” “Of vanity,” “Of cripples,” “Of physiognomy.” The essays appeared in three volumes and were written over the course of 20 years, from 1572 to 1592; Montaigne was an unrelenting reviser, and modern editions feature superscripts A, B, and C to designate textual variants. The French prose is direct, unadorned, for Montaigne loathed literary frippery; still, it is rather difficult for a less-than-expert American reader, largely because of the antique spelling. Notable English translations include those of John Florio (1603), Charles Cotton (1686), and the excellent recent versions of M.A. Screech and Donald Frame. (It is Frame’s translation that I will use throughout.)
Montaigne’s preeminent interest was in human beings. Inhuman nature did not much concern him, though he wondered whether he was playing with his cat or his cat was playing with him. What interested him most about people was their variety and inexplicability. As he wrote in the first essay in the book, “By diverse means we arrive at the same end,” “Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him.” Accordingly, Montaigne considered his human object, including most especially himself, from every angle. Here he followed Socrates, there the Stoics, somewhere else Pyrrhonian Skeptics, who doubt everything, including their doubt, and their doubt of their doubt. Then again he dismissed all philosophy in favor of unreflecting Roman Catholic orthodoxy, yet he had little to say about Jesus Christ, and one might even gather that he supposed death to end the whole show, or at least that he entertained this un-Christian notion not at all frivolously. Montaigne despised scholarly showboats and pedantic drudges, but he was an exceedingly bookish man who professed to value learning in the service of moral improvement. The sheer love of knowing, however, seemed his real animating passion. Montaigne’s often-stated vocation was to know himself, and to know all the sorts of men there were was essential to his calling, for the world’s variety provided the best measure of his own nature.
About his own nature he didn’t miss a trick. His sexual frankness makes him sound like a 21st-century man or like Geoffrey Chaucer. He prescribed the appropriate heft and delicacy of the male and female private parts, respectively; described his hoodoo cure for a friend’s impotence; noted that he took care not to excite his wife unduly in bed, strictly for her own good; and observed that sometimes his other women went at it half-speed, “with only one buttock.” But his worldliness was not merely earthy; it encompassed political nobility as well. Despite Montaigne’s reputation as the seminal master of the personal essay, he writes often of the most eminent public men and historical matters of the highest moment. Yet in a sense, even these essays are personal: he was intimate with the superb Greek and Roman men of action—Alexander, Epaminondas, Alcibiades, Julius Caesar, Cato the Younger—who were the regular companions of his thought.
To think seriously is to question relentlessly, and at the center of Montaigne’s thought is the question “Que sçay-je? ” What do I know? It is the silent outcry of a suffering soul alone in the night in need of some consoling certainty; the shrug of a stand-up comedian, in the spirit of the everlasting question “What, me worry?”; the preamble to an inventory of his mental contents, the books he has read, the women he has slept with, the deepest friendship he has enjoyed, the jokes he loves to tell and retell, the times he has nearly died; the cool admission of a thinking man that, when he gets down to it, he knows that he knows nothing.
Alexis de Tocqueville famously eulogized Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century mathematical genius, desperate God-seeker, and fierce critic of Montaigne, for sacrificing his life to intellectual passion: the very intensity with which he thought wore him out and killed him off at 39. Pascal didn’t want to question but to know, that his soul was eternal, that he was bound for salvation, that his terror at the silence of the night sky was groundless. Such spiritual importunity did not suit Montaigne; it was intemperate, he thought. For Montaigne, thinking was anything but a suicidal ordeal. Nature will send ordeals enough your way; it is a serious mistake to turn one of the most agreeable human activities into a do-it-yourself auto-da-fé. The crucial questions for Montaigne were not the Pascalian obsessions of asking why God put me here and where he will send me when I die, but rather, How do I best spend the time I have been given and which men and women do I really love or admire? It was the life of this world that engaged his passions.
And yet there appears to have been a fundamental—even a fundamentalist—religious belief underlying this contented worldliness. In “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” the essay that takes up 139 pages of an 857-page volume and endeavors to demonstrate that human reason cannot fathom divine mystery, Montaigne finds more wisdom in simple piety than in the arrogant self-inflation of classical philosophy. He rips Democritus for proclaiming his capacity “to speak of all things,” scorns Aristotle for prating of the best men as “mortal gods,” lambastes Seneca and Cicero for saying God may have given them life but it is their own merit that made their lives good. And Montaigne settles with a peremptory slap the immemorial rumble between philosophy and poetry. They are both pure invention, contrived to accommodate puny human understanding. There is no form of nonsense that somebody or other has not turned into philosophy; Plato’s heaven-as-an-orchard, for instance, is sheer malarkey. Plato’s defenders might say he invented a puerile heaven for those incapable of philosophy, but Montaigne does not broach that possibility.
Philosophy is not alone in going wrong, however. Simple piety also has its charlatans who exploit men’s wish for a heaven that will deliver what they most want from earthly life. As with Plato, “when Muhammad promises his followers a paradise tapestried, adorned with gold and precious stones, peopled with wenches of surpassing beauty, with rare wines and foods, I can easily see that they are mockers stooping to our folly to honey us and attract us by these ideas and hopes appropriate to our mortal appetites.”
For his own part, Montaigne cleaves to a faith that nonbelievers may well find as preposterous as the Muhammadan jackpot of houris. The elaborate doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, which must be accepted whole, provided him the one secure fixture in a world of intellectual flux that amounts to disorder or madness: “ . . . when [reason] strays however little from the beaten path and deviates or wanders from the way traced and trodden by the Church, immediately it is lost, it grows embarrassed and entangled, whirling round and floating in that vast, troubled, and undulating sea of human opinions, unbridled and aimless.” He stands by the faith into which he was born, largely because he was born into it, and because confusion lurks without: “And since I am not capable of choosing, I accept other people’s choice and stay in the position where God put me.” The argument, however, soon takes another turn: to adhere to the religion of one’s country simply because it is one’s country, as Socrates advised, represents gross spiritual failure. There exists a divine law that must be one’s only guide, and that law has been revealed. But Nature has complicated matters for the truth of revelation. If Nature had clearly laid down a law for all men to follow, Montaigne avers, then all men would be following it. “Let them show me just one law of that sort—I’d like to see it.” Instead, Nature has broadcast human variety and sown consternation. Because Nature does not comply with the revealed truth, conflict over the eternal questions is inevitable. In the absence of a universal natural law, “the eternal foundation of His holy word” and Holy Mother Church are what believers have to believe in. It is really by default that Montaigne convinces himself of this.
Montaigne does not take up fire and sword in the name of his faith, as many of his countrymen did during his lifetime. He clearly deplores religious murderousness, yet he is not exactly an ideal spokesman for universal tolerance and brotherhood. In the essay “Of husbanding your will,” he writes about the “phantasms and dreams” that moved the men of his time to follow malignant spiritual and secular leaders into an earthly hell, and he compares these delusions to “the monkey tricks” of Apollonius, who claimed to understand animal language, and to Muhammad. Condemning your co-religionists for mad sectarian violence does not mean believing your faith any less true; nor does it necessarily mean believing another faith to be even respectable, much less as worthy of devotion as your own. Montaigne’s religious sentiments are not the sort that pleases current liberal opinion; they are better left out of the picture or smudged discreetly.
Sarah Bakewell’s recent biography, How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press, 389 pages), is as good a book about Montaigne as one can hope for from an author pleasing to current liberal opinion. The 20 chapter headings suggest answers from Montaigne’s recorded experience to the question in her book’s title, which is really of a piece with, What do I know? How do I live? Don’t worry about death. Pay attention. Survive love and loss. Be convivial. Live temperately. Guard your humanity. See the world. Philosophize only by accident. Be ordinary and imperfect. Let life be its own answer.
This list sounds like a compendium of the most banal and wearisome 21st-century liberal nostrums, and it is sadly true that what Bakewell most admires about Montaigne is his common ground with modern progressive thinking. Leonard Woolf’s hailing Montaigne as the discoverer of how cruel human cruelty is, Virginia Woolf’s loving him for understanding that life’s only purpose is life itself: these are Bakewell’s touchstones of Montaigne’s excellence. As she writes: “The twenty-first century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life, and, in its most troubled moments so far, it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment, and his subtle understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in confrontation and conflict. It needs his conviction that no vision of heaven, no imagined Apocalypse, and no perfectionist fantasy can ever outweigh the tiniest of selves in the real world.”
The author is plainly admiring her own even-handedness here. Every religious believer who holds his faith to be singularly true, every patriot who is willing to fight for his country’s freedom, or even for other countries’ freedom, stands guilty before her, and presumably before Montaigne. It would supposedly detract from the spirit of Montaigne to place the blame for current political and religious monstrosity squarely where it belongs.
One regrets that Bakewell plays this angle with Montaigne. In spite of her determination to use him as a club with which to beat contemporary partisans, she has written a book elegant in style and fascinating in many respects, especially in its account of Montaigne’s reputation in previous centuries. And it is not untrue that Montaigne did anticipate modern liberalism in certain ways. But he was more complicated and more interesting than Bakewell will allow. He bites sometimes, while she would prefer he gum you into peaceable submission.
Bakewell acknowledges Montaigne’s fideism—his subscription to Catholicism on unreasoning faith—but she suggests that he was not really serious about it. She prefers to emphasize his distaste for the civil wars of religion, whose abominations she details with grisly vividness. She notes that Montaigne could be the descendant, on his mother’s side, of Jewish refugees from Spain who were compelled to convert to Christianity; but there is no proof of his having had Jewish blood, Bakewell goes on, and no indication that he might have thought he had. It is hard to say whether this speculative throwaway is a biographer’s due diligence or another gesture in the direction of Montaigne’s incomparably full humanity, as though it would be richer if he had not been an ordinary French Catholic with somewhat exceptionable Catholic beliefs. And as for Montaigne’s opinion of Muhammad, she knows better than to even mention that.
Like most liberals, and especially the liberal intellectual women who model themselves after Virginia Woolf, Bakewell far prefers the gentle ardors of private life to the dangerous inflammations of public life. Accordingly, she makes Montaigne out to be of a similar temper, and thus misrepresents his nature so that he would scarcely recognize himself. She mentions Alexander the Great three times, and twice it is to register his brutality or that of his soldiers. But while Montaigne did indeed record these barbaric actions, they are hardly the whole story. In “By diverse means we arrive at the same end,” Montaigne prefaces his account of Alexander’s savage rage against a foe that fought on too long by commending the supreme conqueror as “the bravest of men and one very gracious to the vanquished.” Admittedly, Bakewell could have also mentioned that essay’s final paragraph, which relates Alexander’s merciless slaughter of 6,000 Theban soldiers and the enslavement of 30,000 civilians. But even if she had, that would not have overridden Montaigne’s esteem for Alexander. In “Of the most outstanding men,” Alexander stands beside Homer and Epaminondas as the very best of the best. Alexander’s subjugation of “all the habitable earth” was “the utmost achievement of human nature.” As for certain instances of extravagant cruelty on his part, they are rationalized as unavoidable in so momentous an enterprise: “But it is impossible to conduct such great movements according to the rules of justice; such men require to be judged in gross, by the master purpose of their actions.”
Still, one must confess that it is not Alexander but the Theban general and statesman Epaminondas who is the finest man in Montaigne’s eyes. “In this man innocence is a key quality, sovereign, constant, uniform, incorruptible. In comparison, it appears in Alexander as subordinate, uncertain, streaky, soft, and accidental.” The “exceeding goodness” even of the man remarkable at war singles him out for unique reverence.
But then there is “Of evil means employed to a good end,” in which Montaigne extols the civic benefits of slaughter as a spectator sport. The sight of gladiatorial combat endowed the Roman people with souls of warlike steel: “It was in truth an admirable example, and very fruitful for the education of the people, to see every day before their eyes a hundred, two hundred, even a thousand pairs of men, armed against one another, hack each other to pieces with such extreme firmness of courage that they were observed never to let slip a word of weakness or commiseration, never to turn their back or make even a cowardly movement to avoid their adversary’s blow, but rather to extend their neck to his sword and offer themselves to the blow.” To see how far Montaigne goes in his admiration for martial nerve and ambition is disconcerting, to say the least, and not only for progressive ladies of exquisite sensibility. Pagan valor gets a lot more play in the Essays than does Christian virtue. Plutarch is Montaigne’s gospel. Montaigne’s admiration for the great political men of classical antiquity is consuming.
It would be wrong, however, to think that Montaigne scants the everyday or ignores his inner life. His concluding essay, “Of experience,” offers his most detailed portrait of his idiosyncrasies. “And I cannot, without an effort, sleep by day, or eat between meals, or breakfast, or go to bed without a long interval, of about three full hours, after supper, or make a child except before going to sleep, or make one standing up, or endure my sweat, or quench my thirst with pure water or pure wine, or remain bareheaded for long, or have my hair cut after dinner; and I would feel as uncomfortable without my gloves as without my shirt, or without washing when I leave the table or get up in the morning, or without canopy or curtains for my bed, as I would be without really necessary things.” He wants the reader to know of his fondness for oysters and melons, his wandering attention during sermons, the quickness of his step, the regularity of his bowel movements, his dislike of smoke and dust, the greed at table that makes him bite his tongue or even his fingers, the terrible pain of his kidney stones, the fortitude with which he endures the pain, the equanimity with which he faces death. “But you do not die of being sick, you die of being alive. Death kills you well enough without the help of illness.” So à la vie comme à la vie: “When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.” There is no need for Plato’s heaven; this world will do just fine. Passages such as these make Montaigne seem the sanest man ever, the paragon of simple good sense.
Yet sanity can be overrated; simple good sense, too, has its limitations and even its dogmatisms. There ought to be a place among the best men for celestial navigators such as Pascal, maybe even Swedenborg and Blake, or for that matter certainly Moses and Jesus. How to live? What do I know? There is a species of wisdom in spending one’s life asking these questions and not expecting to get firm answers. Yet a serious man must also be able to say, This I know, This is how I live; and speculations about or intimations of a world beyond this one could have something to do with it. There may be a profound connection between Montaigne’s professed religious belief and his willingness to entertain all manner of thoughts and feelings, to test their meaning specifically for him. Montaigne’s anchor in Catholic orthodoxy permitted his mind to rove wherever it would yet never become unloosed from the confidence of faith. Perhaps he never troubled himself much about heaven as Pascal did because for him that was solid ground. It was this earthly world that shone for him like a gem of innumerable facets, and that he turned this way and that, catching the light from every direction, recording every glint and flash, seeing it all in a fashion uniquely his own, with a genius no essayist since has been able to equal.