Montaigne, a Most Curious Writer

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne, born in 1533 in Bordeaux, invented the literary form of the essay. As such, he can be considered the father of all columnists and blogger-essayists, moi included.

Prior to reading Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 book How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, I knew little about him. I cannot recall reading one essay in its entirety (an oversight now being rectified). If pressed, I would have said he was an author of epigrams that occasionally bubbled up in my reading. A sampling:
● “Doctors are lucky: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures.”
● “For the intimate companionship of my table I choose the agreeable not the wise; in my bed, beauty comes before virtue.”
● “Death is not one of our social engagements: it is a scene with one character.”

His childhood education was unusual in the extreme, or perhaps I should say in extremis, even for a well-off family in the Renaissance. Latin was not only his first language; it was the only one his father allowed him to speak for his first six years. That intellectual foundation goes some way toward explaining his lifelong love of classical authors. Many of his essays are a commentary on them, having the flavor of a congenial discourse aided by a bottle of good wine.

Wine would never have been far away since his family owned vast vineyards. Oenophiles will recognize the label, Château d’Yquem, a superior French sweet wine still being produced today.

Bakewell’s book is as much literary criticism and social history as biography. She organizes the book’s 20 chapters around various answers Montaigne gave to the core question he was always chasing: How to live? The answers run from “Don’t worry about death (chapter one) to “Let life be its own answer (chapter 20).

Each age has found the Essays relevant to its particular challenges. Perhaps they are capacious enough to enable each era to find there what it wants to find. As for our own fraught time, “The 21st century has everything to gain from a Montaignean sense of life,” Bakewell writes, “and, in its most troubled moments so far [Bakewell wrote this eight years ago], it has been sorely in need of a Montaignean politics. It could use his sense of moderation, his love of sociability and courtesy, his suspension of judgment. . . It is unthinkable to Montaigne that one could ever ‘gratify heaven and nature by committing massacre and homicide, a belief universally embraced in all religions.’”

How to Live introduces us to Montaigne’s readers over the centuries. Descartes and Pascal found fault with the essays; Voltaire defended them. Bakewell argues that Shakespeare (just one generation younger than Montaigne) was influenced by the writer across the Channel. To be or not to be is certainly a question Montaigne would have welcomed. The Essays are slippery critters. T.S. Eliot said that of all authors Montaigne was 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.” Montaigne cautioned readers that nothing he wrote about himself was likely to apply for much longer than it took the ink that captured his thoughts to dry.

Free-range was how the 16th century nobleman, public official and wine-grower wrote, daring his pen to keep up with his thoughts. His limitless curiosity compelled him to explore as many corners of humanity as he could. Adam Gopnik has described the essays’ tone as that of “a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back.” The essays meander around and through his tastes in wine and food, immolations in India, cannibalism in the New World, childhood memories, how his dog’s ears twitch when it is dreaming, the unruliness of penises, as well as the horror of Frances’s religious wars in the 16th century – conflicts that killed more than a million people, directly or by disease.

Death was never far from Montaigne’s thoughts. Classical authors, whom Montaigne knew well, often dwelled on mortality. Cicero captured this preoccupation with his “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” Montaigne would go on to borrow that claim for a chapter title in his Essays.

His classical Renaissance education immersed Montaigne in the Stoic and Epicurean schools of philosophy. Stoics were keen on pitiless mental rehearsals of the things they dreaded most. Epicureans preferred to concentrate on the positive. Bakewell likens a stoic to a man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites an opponent to punch them. The Epicurean avoids punches and when calamity looms, prefers to step out of the way. Montaigne would employ both strategies, though his instincts favored the Epicurean approach.

Amor fati – love of fate – is a key principle for the Stoics that Montaigne examines. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised: “Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.” Bakewell tells us that Montaigne found this trick easy; it came to him by nature. “If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived,” Montaigne wrote.

While I enjoyed How to Live, it did not excite me quite as much as it did Anthony Bourdain, the television celebrity chef, bon vivant and world hopscotcher. After reading Bakewell’s book, Bourdain had tattooed on his forearm, in ancient Greek, the Montaigne maxim “I suspend judgment.” Had any such impulse visited me it would have been foreclosed by my private maxim, “I suspend tattoos.”

If I’ve made you curious about the most idiosyncratic thinker and writer of the Renaissance, then go find a copy of How to Live and let Sarah Bakewell lead you through the remarkable life and times of Michel de Montaigne.

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