The French thinker was desperate that everyone stop arguing so violentlyby Sameer Rahim / December 29, 2016 / Leave a comment
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was one of the most extraordinary and unusual thinkers of the Renaissance. A French aristocrat who spent most of his time in his library tower, he is famous for inventing the essay but as Tim Parks explains that undersells how interesting he is. Parks, a novelist and critic, has edited a new selection of Montaigne’s works, “Drawn from Life: Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne” (Notting Hill). He spoke to Prospect about the Frenchman’s illuminating inconsistencies and what they might teach us about getting along in a turbulent age.
Sameer Rahim: Why read Montaigne now?
Tim Parks: Before doing these essays, I only had a very marginal knowledge of Montaigne. Going back and reading them is an extraordinary experience. The first feeling is that you have a very intimate voice—surprisingly intimate given the period it was written in. We always associate books from 400 to 500 years ago with something formal, but they’re extremely intimate.
You recognise what he’s talking about: he has a genuinely different way of looking at things and feelings that is really quite exciting. It has implications for the way you see yourself, so one reads Montaigne for the reasons one might read an excellent self-help book (if they exist—presumably they do), to get this wholly different perspective. What on earth can progress mean when we see Montaigne producing a level of thought that seems ahead of what we read today?
SR: Montaigne’s often thought to have invented the essay, but a reader coming to this collection will find his works are very different to what you find in Francis Bacon or Samuel Johnson.
TP: Montaigne doesn’t need us to say he invented this or that form. His essays are nothing like what we’d think of as a normal essay. They appear, at first glance, extraordinarily unfocused. That’s because his subject is really always the same: how to set your mind to deal with what’s out there, and how to defend yourself against everything that’s going to make life difficult for you. It seems to me that it’s an essentially phobic approach—approaching life being aware of how dangerous it is and how exciting it is. But to talk about inventing the essay—who cares? No, it’s a completely individual voice. If you come to British essayists it’s a very different kettle of fish in terms of metaphysics.
These days almost nobody reads any work that comes out of Latin—I don’t know anybody who reads Cicero or Propertius. And here you’ve got a guy who had read pretty much everything—vast amounts of literature and history that we’ve forgotten. And he’s handling it with ease, saying that there’s no norm, and that life can manifest itself in endless different ways. I shouldn’t allow contemporary conventions to tell me that life must be lived in a certain way. He’s handling all of this comically and with pathos, so it’s a huge pleasure to read. All this classical culture was lost to us with the switch to vernacular, which Montaigne was part of [he wrote in French, not Latin] and also with the Christian tradition.
SR: I was struck by what you wrote in the introduction about Pascal’s attitude to Montaigne—he has this love-hate relationship with him. He sees there’s something going on, but it’s too diffuse for him to accept.
TP: Montaigne’s position is conservative in the sense that he’s not looking to push life to extremes and achieve great progress, whereas Pascal’s already in a much more modern, and very Christian, vein of wanting the absolute truth and a scientific movement towards progress. There’s clearly a very intimate alliance between science and Christianity, despite the superficial quarrel over little questions like whether God exists, that’s absolutely nothing compared with questions over how to handle life. So I think Montaigne is extremely dangerous to a certain mindset. Pascal realises—and how could you not realise reading Montaigne—that he was someone of immense wisdom and Pascal just finds it infuriating.
Montaigne doesn’t believe that there’s any absolute truth to be had, and he clearly doesn’t believe that there’s any useful formula for saving your soul, or for making the world a better place on a large-scale political level.
SR: It’s very striking reading his essay “On the Cannibals” where there almost seems to be a cultural relativism. He says “every man calls barbarous that which he is not accustomed to.”
TP: Yes, you can see he’s bringing in the exotic stuff from the past to remind us of the range of human experience. I don’t think you could say that he’s condoning cannibalism, but he’s pointing out that French culture in his period is hardly superior, with the endless killings that were going on. You’d have to say the same of our times today. There’s a huge contradiction in our imagination of the superiority of our own culture. We imagine that we’re living in a good time, and Montaigne is always eager to undermine that. He’s not saying “let’s get rid of it all,” he’s not a revolutionary, but he’s saying “let’s be a bit more relaxed about some deviations.” Montaigne was desperate that everyone stop arguing so violently. He wanted to take the emotion out of political debate, he wanted make it more reasonable. He reminds us that people who voted for Brexit or Trump might actually be in good faith, and they might actually not be stupid. And anyway, you’re going to have to live with them, so it’s pointless closing yourself in an area where you imagine you’re the only person who’s right.
SR: I’ve always found it amusing that he was taken out of his tower library and became the mayor of Bordeaux. I wonder what kind of political leader he was?
TP: His father had been mayor but he didn’t want to do the job. He said to them, “you’re going to have to take me for who I am, don’t expect me to be working long days for you.” He said things that if you said today you’d be fired immediately. But he did fairly well; people liked him and they insisted on re-electing him because he was a safe pair of hands. He wasn’t looking for trouble. Obviously there were things like the plague and various wars, but he basically tried to keep the town out of them as far as possible.
SR: He often praised inconstancy or enacted it within his own essays. It seems to be the opposite of our desire for consistency in human character. He has a fascinating essay where he talks about the idea that someone behaves in one way, then they suddenly behave in a different way, but that we shouldn’t be surprised by that. Even Nero wept when he condemned someone to death.
TP: He resists any notion of heroism and sainthood. So he says there may have occasionally been people who were totally constant and had integrity, but they’re really one in a billion—so you can forget it. Don’t ruin your life trying to be that figure. He’s also entirely against system, and the whole idea that one needs to have the same opinion all one’s life. Having said that, he greatly admires loyalty in friends, he greatly admires keeping promises. So you can’t even pin him down to his inconstancy.
It’s easier to think about him if you remember the fundamentalism that was raging around him, with Protestant fundamentalism on one side, and Catholic fundamentalism on the other. He’s constantly saying “none of these positions is going to be totally right, so there’s no great advantage in saying the same thing all the time.” It reminds me of Mark Twain’s saying—“never trust a man who only knows one way to spell a word.” What’s wonderful is to read Montaigne and realise he’s doing it without you knowing. In some of the essays you’re reading opinions which seem completely acceptable: but they’re exactly the opposite of the opinions you were reading 15 minutes ago. He’s definitely doing it on purpose, and it’s both a joke and not a joke. That’s what drove Pascal mad about it. Pascal couldn’t see where to put his scalpel between the two opinions.
SR: The only way to centre him is his physicality, the body. He talks about his gallstones, his illnesses, his bad memory, which is related to his inconstancy.
TP: Yes, the physical body is of its nature inconstant. The physical body reminds you you’re not in control. If you think you’re free and independent, then just remember when you need to go for a shit, because then you’re not calling the tune. Then you’re going to find you’ve got an erection when you least expect it.
SR: He’s fascinated by impotence isn’t he, and the psychological cures for it.
TP: He’s clear that he’s been through some of that stuff, and again it’s the whole question of loss of control. One of the things he’s doing is enjoying an immense freedom and allowing himself to talk about everything. In that regard the text is pretty new. In the past that may have happened in letters, but it’s hard to think of such a vast text that takes on everything that can happen to you.
SR: Final thoughts?
Freedom is infinitely linked to questions of fear. When we’re afraid of something, one becomes a prisoner and can no longer be free. He makes that clear. When you’re in service of a master and you’re worried about his opinion, you’re not free. When you’re worried about the war and have to go and be a soldier, you’re no longer free. So the freedom to live one’s life as one would like is a huge issue. If you become a fundamentalist you lose your freedom as well, you have to stick to the same rigid opinion even when it doesn’t suit you. He’s talking about having the freedom to admit that my opinion has changed, or that I can’t actually arrive at a clear opinion on a subject.
This interview has been edited for clarity