A man for all seasons

Sarah Bakewell’s expert life of Montaigne should bring new admirers into contact with one of history’s most remarkable and enduring inner worlds
June 21, 2010
How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer By Sarah Bakewell (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)

After inheriting his father’s estate in the interior of Aquitaine, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) decided to quit public life as a magistrate in the Bordeaux parlement and devote himself to leisurely study. Instead of leading to the Horatian idyll of self-cultivation he expected, the inactivity and desultory reading led to a nervous breakdown. To steady himself, he began to write.

Since he was neither a military man nor a man of affairs, his only subject matter was himself; so he resolved to try (essayer) to assay himself, his nature, his opinions, his attitudes and reactions, pretending nothing and confessing all. “I am myself the matter of my book” he wrote; and he knew that he was engaged in producing something wholly original by being so. The result is a classic that has been admired, imitated and enjoyed ever since.

A reason for the enduring attraction of Montaigne’s Essays is that they do what all classics do: they illuminate the universal in the particular. In one way this should be a surprise, because Montaigne was a highly individual man and, by his own account, a rather unsuccessful one. He frankly confessed his inabilities and shortcomings, his dislike of business, his yearning for solitude, his regret at being forgetful and not very clever, his physical lacks (he was short and had, he tells us, a small penis). Yet his frankness is refreshing and full of human truth. He found a method of writing suited to the character of his mind—an aleatory, divagatory, exploratory method which meandered along with his thoughts, making his essays unsystematic and random, full of unexpected, entertaining detours.

Sarah Bakewell adopts Montaigne’s own method to give an account of him and his views. Because Montaigne’s great question was Socrates’s question—“how to live?”—she arranges her portrait of him around the answers he offered. The outcome is an instructive journey around Montaigne, exemplifying his charm and the universality of his appeal.

Bakewell rightly treats Montaigne as a contemporary for all times. Scholars, by contrast, like to emphasise the respects in which he was of his epoch, rooting him in the turbulent mixture of Renaissance and Reformation that made it possible for him to write as a pagan in the bitter midst of the 16th century’s wars of religion. His own family was divided between the Protestant and Catholic causes, but, following the example of the Belgian scholar Justus Lipsius, Montaigne retained a scrupulously orthopractic public image as a Catholic, though every indication in his writings tells us that he was a sceptic in religion as in everything else, and had—as Pascal critically noted—a pagan attitude to death as the end of one’s existence. But by allowing him his universality, Bakewell explains how it is that he speaks with equal clarity to his contemporaries at the end of the 16th century, to Voltaire in the 18th, to William Hazlitt (who said of him that he was “the first to have the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man”) in the 19th, and to his readers today.

Familiarly, the key to Montaigne is his scepticism. It is the scepticism of Pyrrho, as recorded by Sextus Empiricus, which teaches that because the arguments for and against any proposition are equally good or bad, one must suspend judgement (a state known as acatalepsia). This open-minded, non-committal, often ambiguous stance suited Montaigne. He accordingly chose as his motto Que sais-je?

Montaigne retired from public life in 1568, the year that he inherited his estate. His nervous breakdown occurred around 1570. He wrote the essays comprising book one in the first half of the 1570s, and the essays of book two in the second half of that decade. They were published in 1580, and became an immediate bestseller. Montaigne then travelled for his health to the spas of Germany and Italy, keeping a journal; and in the late 1580s wrote the essays comprising book three. These are far longer than the book one essays, but suggest a return to the Stoicism of book one—a revised, modified, sceptical Stoicism to be sure, but a form of Stoicism nevertheless, filtered through an even more intensely personal and self-deprecating self-examination. “Others form Man,” he wrote, “I give an account of Man and sketch a picture of a particular one of them who is very badly formed and who [if I could] I would truly make very different from what he is.” The journey to this mature reconciliation with himself came courtesy of his belief that anything viewed from the long perspective of history, or from vantage points quite different from one’s own habitual attitudes, would put everything into perspective, making both enthusiasm and anxiety impossible.

One of the best chapters in Bakewell’s book is the one she entitles “Guard Your Humanity,” describing the horrors of the St Bartholomew’s day massacre of 1572 and the violent sectarian hatreds that both unleashed and followed them. Montaigne’s reaction to them was Stoic detachment, an attitude that made some of his later readers temper their admiration—especially the Romantics of the 19th century, who found him too dispassionate for their commitment to enthusiasm. But those who had learned enough from life to understand the saying “in youth I loved Ovid, in age I love Horace” well understood his point. Bakewell quotes the Austrian author Stefan Zweig as just such a reader; before his suicide in 1942 Zweig listed the general propositions that Montaigne, despite his sceptic acatalepsia, came to assert as convictions, all on the theme of being free: free from vanity, partisanship, ambition, the fear of death.

Although Montaigne assumed the role of detached spectator of the human comedy, and advised having a private “room behind the shop” where one could commune with oneself alone, he also advised conviviality and friendship, and the lifelong love he felt for the friend he lost early in life, Etienne de la Boétie, demonstrates that he understood this in his blood. That is an attractive feature of the man. Even more so is the ingenuousness, modesty and sanity of his account of himself, which is practically a self-portrait of humanity. Bakewell obviously enjoyed her time with Montaigne; she relishes his wry humour, his variety of interests, his puncturing way with pretension, and above all his humanity. Her enjoyment is sure to lead many readers to Montaigne’s text, if they do not already know it. And those who do are certain to appreciate Bakewell’s own empathy and eloquence.

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