Michel de Montaigne ranks among the wisest and most urbane figures in literary history. In an age of intolerance, religious fanaticism, and warring dynasties, his was a voice that cried out for understanding and moderation. He had the good sense not to get too involved in politics, and found his chateau’s library a more congenial place for his survival than the exhausting intrigues of court life or the crash and rattle of the battlefield; and yet, more than his contemporaries, he was able to cast his influence down through the centuries as a paragon of rationalism.
He was born in 1533 in the Aquitaine region of France. His father was unusual for his day in having pronounced libertarian views on education: learning, he believed, should happen through seeing, doing, touching, and experiencing, rather than by rote memorization and physical discipline. The infant Montaigne was provided with an attendant who spoke to him only in Latin, so that he would learn the language in a natural way as if it were still a living tongue. In this way, Montaigne says, he was able to acquire a command of the old language as few others could, and “without books, rules, or grammar, without whipping or whining.” His love of the classical authors is evident on every page of the Essays, which he generously packs with quotations and allusions.
Montaigne’s family chateau
The ancient authors are better than the moderns, he held, because they focused on character and moral development as much as on knowledge. Yet he never allowed himself to become an introverted bookworm; he believed in the Renaissance concept of the well-rounded man. Training in physical hardships and combative sport was just as essential, he believed, as time in contemplative study.
In 1568 Montaigne inherited his father’s estate as his eldest son, and Montaigne found the perfect opportunity to withdraw from the strife and conflict of the legal profession (to which he reluctantly belonged) and devote his hours to contemplation and study. His library contained over one thousand volumes bound in sumptuous hand-tooled leather, at that time a huge number for a private man to own. France at the time was wracked by religious conflict and extreme violence between Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants): “I have a thousand times gone to bed…imagining I should, the very same night, have been either betrayed or slain in my bed.”
His masterwork, the Essays, was written over several years beginning in 1570, and finally appeared in print in 1580. It is among the supreme achievements of European literature. His favorite authors were Seneca, Plutarch, St. Augustine, Lucretius, and Martial. He calls these volumes “meas delicias” (my delights), but never allows his admiration of them to turn into slavish paraphrasing. Through all his quotes and digressions, his voice remains uniquely his own. No one had quite written any literary composition quite like the Essays. He wanders from one subject to another, touching on hundreds, yet he apologizes for not discussing more. Through this jungle of genial discourse, a philosophy emerges that is characterized by tolerance, philosophical skepticism, humanity, and classical restraint.
The ceiling of Montaigne’s study, inscribed with his favorite literary quotations
He proposes to examine himself. “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) he took as his motto, in the sense that he began with doubting all that he believed to be inherited knowledge. He seems to have become disillusioned with Christianity’s doctrinal certainties, after seeing the bloodlust with which warring sects consumed each other in his day. And yet he maintained a fond preference for Catholic ritual and pageantry. Of all the ancient philosophical schools, he thought Stoicism the best, and retained Stoic leanings throughout his Essays; yet he also found much wisdom and wonder in Lucretius, and finally espoused an almost Enlightenment belief in an abstract “Nature” as a substitute for an all-powerful God.
The best education, he thought, was one modeled on the classical Muses, emphasizing character and a well-rounded focus on masculine virtue. Moderation in all things should be the rule. Even too much virtue can be a bad thing. Travel is a critical part of an education, as long as we have the open mind to process what we are actually seeing. “It was told to Socrates that a certain man had been not much improved by travel. ‘I believe it well, said he, ‘for he carried himself with him.’” The peoples and customs of the world can teach us humility, for “so many strange humors, sundry sects…diverse opinions, different laws, and fantastical customs teach us to judge rightly of ours.” The reading of history, he thought, was also critical to an understanding of mankind and ourselves.
Like the ancients, Montaigne valued friendship more highly than amorous love between man and woman. He was deeply affected by the death of one of his close friends. To him, sexual infatuation with women was nothing “other than a tickling delight of emptying one’s seminal vessels, as is the pleasure which nature gives us to discharge other parts.” Marriage should by no means be based on erotic ecstasy. “I see no marriages fail sooner, or more troubled, than such as are concluded for beauty’s sake, or huddled up for amorous desires.” Most successful marriages eventually evolve into some form of non-erotic companionship with the passing of years. Yet Montaigne never darkened the pages of his Essays with a harsh word against women or his wife who had borne him six children; he seems to have married with no expectation that a woman could provide him serious intellectual stimulation (thereby, presumably, sparing himself much disappointment).
Physical health is the highest good. Care and maintenance of our corporal selves is the sine qua non of a productive life. All knowledge begins with our physical senses, yet we cannot trust reason. Reason, more often than not, may only be our inner desires masquerading as rationality. A healthy skepticism seems the soundest course: considering the multitude of ideas, creeds, beliefs, and laws in the world, how can we be certain that ours is best?
Fretting about the variability of doctrines, and the relativity of morals and creeds, is of no use either. “Men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, not by the things themselves.” Yet just because morals may be relative, that does not mean they are worthless. Every time and place needs its own orthodoxy, its own way of interpreting the inexplicable cosmos.
The Massacre of St. Bartholomew: an example of the intolerance and fanaticism of Montaigne’s day
In the end, we do well simply to accept the creed of our time and place. Flitting about from one religion to another does little good, since all religions are attempts to explain the unexplainable; and more good can come by losing oneself soothing religious ritual than all the pointless debates of the philosophers, which in the end lead us only to a paralysis of uncertainty.
What makes the Essays one of the most enjoyable of the great works is the reader’s sense of having a direct connection with a civilized and urbane gentleman. He is without doubt the most civilized Frenchman of his age, and perhaps any other age. In Montaigne, there is no bombast, no windy declamations, no tiresome or shop-worn pontifications, and no narrow-minded bigotry. There is only the expansive spirit of man who wishes to know himself and his place in the universe, and is unafraid to expose himself for all the world to see.
He had the courage to embrace his foibles and fooleries, and refused to let his judgment of any man be clouded by the fogs of race, religion, or creed. In an age that produced religious censorship, arbitrary justice, and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, his voice was among the wisest and most profound. We have rarely seen his kind since.
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