Montaigne: What do I know?

The only thing certain is nothing is certain.

I’ll admit that until recently I didn’t know very much about Michel de Montaigne or his Essays.  But in the past month I’ve finished Sarah Bakewell’s highly readable account of his life and ideas, heard last week’s essays on Montaigne broadcast in Radio 3’s The Essay, and read an extract in Saturday’s Guardian from yet another recent book on the French sceptic and humanist.

These days millions of us write about ourselves and broadcast our thoughts – this blog is just one tiny bit of flotsam floating on what Sarah Bakewell describes vividly as ‘the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages and pods’.  Do we owe all this to a man who lived from 1533 to 1592, in a France dominated by bloody and miserable civil wars, who retreated from a life of public service to write, in his library in a tower on his estate, the pieces which he called essais, or ‘tries’ – a term he was the first to use in this way?

Sarah Bakewell’s book – How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer – is the first life of Montaigne in English for 50 years.  But it is also unique in that she threads Montaigne’s life story through a series of chapters each of which poses questions about how we should live and answered in a manner rather like a Montaigne essay.

Bakewell begins by posing the question:Why write about Montaigne?  Her answer is that ‘he is one of the most appealing, likeable writers ever to have lived. … he helped make us the way we are.  Had he not existed, or had his own life gone slightly differently, we too would be a little bit different. … The idea that immersion in one’s inner world can be a sociable act, and that the assertion of what makes us unlike anyone else can bring out the humanity we share with everyone else is something we owe to Michel de Montaigne’.

This idea – writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity – has not existed for ever,  It had to be invented,  And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official and wine grower who lived in the Perigord area of south-western France from 1533 to 1592. Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it.  Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements.  Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events… [rather] he wrote exploratory, free-floating pieces to which he gave simple titles..

He wrote 107 essays with titles such as:

Our feelings reach out beyond us.
Of friendship.
Of cannibals.
Of the custom of wearing clothes.
How we cry and laugh for the same thing.
How our mind hinders itself.
Of cruelty
Of thumbs
Of diversion.
Of coaches.
Of experience.

Together they create a frank self-portrait which is also a mirror, for Montaigne believed that ‘each man bears the entire form of the human condition’, so that by opening his own mind to us, his readers, ours can be revealed to us.  He does this by telling us very ordinary things: that he never sleeps in the daytime and only enjoys sex lying down, that he is fond of eating fish, and that his ears often get itchy inside.  Once, he liked radishes, but he went off them; then he mysteriously went back to liking them again.

Introducing a series on Montaigne published in The Guardian in May 2010, Sarah Bakewell summed up the approach of his ‘philosopher who proposed no theories, put no trust in reason, and showed no desire to convince readers of anything’:

What is it to be a human being, he wondered? Why do other people behave as they do? Why do I behave as I do? He watched his neighbours, his colleagues, even his cat and dog, and looked deeply into himself as well. He tried to record what it felt like to be angry, or exhilarated, or vain, or bad-tempered, or embarrassed, or lustful. Or to drift in and out of consciousness, in a half-dream. Or to feel bored with your responsibilities. Or to love someone. Or to have a brilliant idea while out riding, but forget it before you can get back to write it down – and then feel the lost memory recede further and further the more you hunt for it, only to pop into your head as soon as you give up and think about something else. He was, in short, a brilliant psychologist, but also a moral philosopher in the fullest sense of the word. He did not tell us what we should do, but explored what we actually do.

Whether Montaigne’s highly unusual upbringing had anything to do with his later outlook on life we can’t be certain.  His father basically conducted a pedagogic experiment on the young Michel, having him raised as an infant in the home of a humble peasant in a nearby village.  Then, until he went to school, he was exposed only to Latin.  He acquired an in-depth knowledge of the classics, which perhaps explains why the ceiling of his library was later decorated with favourite quotations from them, including this (from Terence): ‘I am a man and think nothing human is foreign to me’.

For me, one of the most interesting strands in Montaigne’s essays concern his ideas on humanity and empathy.  Although he liked to describe himself as a Stoic, and is sometimes portrayed as detached from the world, writing in his lonely tower, he had served as magistrate, mayor, diplomat and king’s advisor; he was gregarious, formed deep friendships, and talked to everyone he met on his travels in order to learn more about their lives.  Philosophical detachment was not Montaigne’s way: he had a natural tendency to empathise with others, and to sympathise with them – in the full, original sense of this word, meaning ‘to feel with’. Watching a human or animal in pain, Montaigne felt some of that pain himself.

Three celebrated examples of this empathy in Montaigne – his fascination with imagining the world from different perspectives – come to mind. He lived in a time when Europeans were encountering the peoples of the New World for the first time. He once met a couple of Tupinambá people, who had travelled to Europe from Brazil in a French ship. Through a translator, he asked them what they thought of France. They replied, among other things, that they were amazed to see rich Frenchmen gorging themselves at feasts while their ‘other halves’ – the beggars outside their houses – starved. Europeans were shocked because the Tupinambá – ‘cannibals’ – ate their enemies after a battle, but the Tupinambá were shocked because Europeans found it easy to ignore the suffering of the living. Montaigne looked equitably at both positions.  ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to’, he wrote. ‘This great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognise ourselves from the proper angle’:

I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.

Montaigne lived during the French wars of religion, a period of violence and fear that lasted from 1562 to 1598. His  house stood in the middle of the region of the most intense fighting. And he himself, having tried to negotiate between the warring factions, had made enemies on both sides. One day a neighbour turned up, terrified,on his doorstep.  He had, he said, just been set upon by an enemy about a mile away, and begged to be let in. Montaigne obliged, but then:

Four or five of his soldiers arrived, with the same bearing and fright, in order to be admitted. And then more and more after them, well-equipped and well-armed, until there were twenty-five or thirty of them, pretending to have the enemy at their heels. This mystery was beginning to arouse my suspicion. I was not ignorant of the sort of age in which I lived, how my house might be envied . . . However . . . I abandoned myself to the most natural and simple course, as I do always, and gave orders for them to be let in.

Everyone was invited into Montaigne’s living room, where, unexpectedly, his neighbour suddenly announced his departure.  In his Essays, Montaigne writes that his neighbour  later admitted that it was Montaigne’s demeanour that had defeated his stratagem: ‘He has often said to me since . . . that my face and my frankness wrestled his treachery from him’.  This incident was the subject of an article by Saul Frampton – author of another recent book on Montaigne – in Saturday’s Guardian. He links Montaigne’s insight to experiments which revealed that certain neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fired not only when the monkeys grasped food, but when they saw the experimenter grasp it. These neurons have come to be known as ‘mirror’ or ’empathy’ neurons.

So contemporary neuroscientists seem to have confirmed what Montaigne intuited – that humans have an inbuilt empathetic capacity and that the strength of this capability depends on proximity:

No wisdom is so highly formed as to be able to imagine a cause of grief so vivid and so complete that it will not be increased by the actual presence, when the eyes and ears have a share in it.

But Montaigne went further, rejecting the idea that this capacity is species-dependent. In one of his most famous passages he asks: When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?

Presumption is our natural and original disease. The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch, with animals of the worst condition of the three; and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the heavens under his feet. ‘Tis by the same vanity of imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit. How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals?—from what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.

The key to Montaigne’s outlook was his hatred of cruelty and his visceral rapport with others.  Speaking to the Brazilian Indians, it was their idea of men as halves of one another – Frenchmen feasting while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep – that struck him deeply.  For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things.  Even if animals were less like us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive:

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants.  We owe justice to men and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it.  There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.  […] I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

The TLS reviewer of Sarah Bakewell’s book said it is ‘the most enjoyable introduction to Montaigne in the English language’.  I’ll vouch for that.  She organises her survey of Montaigne’s work into twenty chapters that offer answers to his big question: How to live?  These range from ‘Question everything’ and ‘Be convivial: live with others’ to ‘Guard your humanity’ and ‘Be ordinary and imperfect’.

Bakewell presents Montaigne as a falling in the tradition of Pyrrhonian Scepticism, which refines Socrates’ claim ‘all I know is that I know nothing’ by adding the words ‘and I’m not even sure about that‘, which seems a pretty fair way to proceed in the world. Other thoughts of his are equally thought-provoking:

Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.

I enter into discussion and argument with great freedom and ease, inasmuch as opinion finds me in a bad soil to penetrate and take deep root in. No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers to my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and so extravagant that it does not seem to me quite suitable to the production of the human mind.

Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.

Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.

No man is a hero to his own valet.

For Montaigne, it was always life that mattered.  In his last essay, he gave perhaps his best answer to the question, How to live? –

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

Something Zen there, perhaps.

Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, ‘Que sais-je?’ (‘What do I know?’). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne’s attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne

Sarah Bakewell was one of those on radio 3 last week presenting their essays on Montaigne.  Others included Theodore Zeldin – who spoke mainly about his internet project, inspired by Montaigne, which encourages people to write brief self-portraits describing their lives, experiences, attitudes and values, with the aim of establishing  lines of communication with others all over the world – and Jonathan Bate, who explored Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare.

The first edition of the Essays was published in 1580. They were translated into English in 1603, by the linguist and lexicographer John Florio, tutor of Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton. Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin, a true European who spoke French and German as well as Italian and English. It is possible that he and Shakespeare were friends.

We know for certain, Jonathan Bate argued, that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne’s essays, and Montaigne’s influence can be discerned  in the language and scepticism of The Tempest and King Lear:

It is abundantly clear from Shakespeare’s linguistic borrowings, via John Florio’s English translation of Montaigne (1603), that the Frenchman’s essays shaped much of his most profound thinking – in King Lear and The Tempest especially – about knowledge and scepticism, nature and nurture, emotion and reason, and the centrality of sexual desire to human experience.

The self-probing, deeply sceptical, often melancholy personality that the Essays reveal seems also to anticipate Hamlet.  But that play was written before Florio’s translation appeared, and though some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare may have read it in manuscript, Bate thought this unlikely. The similarities, Bate argued, are due to the similar outlooks of the two men.

But there’s no question whatever that Shakespeare was reading Montaigne as he wrote The Tempest. The clearest evidence is in Gonzalo’s description, in Act Two, Scene One, of his ideal commonwealth. In his essay ‘Of Cannibals’, Montaigne wrote:

It is a nation that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but of common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of among them.

Gonzalo’s words, imagining the commonwealth that he would establish if he ‘had plantation’ of Propero’s island are Shakespeare’s adaptation of Montaigne:

I’th’commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty – […]

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

Finally, Bate recalled another of Montaigne’s famous aphorisms.  Montaigne rejected as foolish those who fear death and so try not to think about it.  A wise man thinks about it all the time, but gets on with his life:

The end of our career is death.  It is the necessary object of our aim.  If it affright us, how is it possible that we should step one foot further without any ague?  Let us learn to stand and combat her with the resolute mind… A man should ever be ready-booted to take his journey. … Let death seize upon me while I am setting my cabbages, careless of her dart but more of my unperfect garden.

Postscript: in a review of several new books on Montaigne, Anthony Gottlieb wrote in the New York Times:

Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” Bacon’s compositions tend to drive at a single conclusion, but Johnson’s “sally” is a nice fit for Montaigne’s meandering collection of thoughts, and those of his more whimsical descendants. […]

It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”). […]

Somewhat like a link-infested blog post, Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations, and can sometimes read almost as an anthology. His “links” are mainly classical, most often to Plato, Cicero and Seneca. Modern readers may find all these insertions distracting — there is, as it were, too much to click on — but some may be thankful for a fragmentary yet mostly reliable classical education on the cheap. (Montaigne should not, however, have credited Aristotle with the maxim, “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” The real source of this unromantic advice is unknown.) […]

Montaigne can evidently still evince strong affection from authors after nearly half a millennium. So artful is Bakewell’s account of him that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration. But it’s not so clear that Montaigne’s often chaotic essays are all that digestible today unless one has a good guide to his life and context, like Bakewell’s close to hand.


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