Montaigne: A Life, by Philippe Desan, (transl by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal), Princeton University Press, 832 pp, £32.95, ISBN: 978-0691167879
We grasp at everything but clasp nothing but air.
Michel de Montaigne, “On the Cannibals”, Essays
Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.
Michel de Montaigne, “To the Reader”, preamble to Essays
In the end, it wasn’t that difficult to find. From Castillon-la-Bataille take the D936 east towards Bergerac; you can’t miss the turn, they said. (They’d be surprised what we could miss.) But there it was anyway, a large sign instructing us to turn left and then just a kilometre or two up through rising ground amid lush countryside to the tiny village. At the shop attached to the château it was confirmed that the tour would start at eleven, as the website had said. We had arrived in good time to get ahead of any crowd: the next tour wasn’t until the afternoon and we didn’t want to be forced to hang around. As it turned out we were the only ones there and so, when the two young women who were to be our guides to the tower arrived at the starting point at eleven sharp, the proceedings were, as a courtesy, conducted in English rather than French.
The tower is all that remains of the original buildings on the estate acquired by Ramon Eyquem in the late fifteenth century and eventually bequeathed to his great-grandson, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who dropped the family’s inherited surname in favour of the name of their estate, thus signifying his entry into the nobility. There is still a château building today which occupies the same site, but it is not the same as that inhabited by the Eyquems. It was to this tower, Montaigne wrote, that “having been for a long time weary of the slavery of the court and public duties”, he had retired to the company of the muses – in the form of the large collection of books, chiefly classical works, that he had inherited on the death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie. The library was on the third floor of the tower, above a chapel and a bedroom. None of the books remain, but the classical quotations which Montaigne had inscribed on the roof beams have been restored. It was in this upper room that he sequestered himself as much as he could away from all other claims on his time, domestic or business: “Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide!” Though his reading material was serious – some might say heavy – Montaigne insisted that his practices were not always so. He did not so much methodically read his books as fillet them, when he found here and there something to interest or amuse him; occasionally, perhaps, he just stared out at the surrounding landscape or day-dreamed. There was, however, a purpose to his activity: the stories (exempla) and the distilled wisdom he found in the classical authors would find their way into his own Essays, which he worked on and reworked with increasing intensity in the last decade of his life. But he was reading too for his own enjoyment, and this was something he wasn’t inclined to feel guilty about:
If anyone tells me that it is degrading the Muses to use them only as a plaything and a pastime, he does not know, as I do, the value of pleasure, play, and pastime. I would almost say that any other aim is ridiculous. I live from day to day, and, without wishing to be disrespectful, I live only for myself; my purposes go no further.
Like many of Montaigne’s engaging exercises in self-deprecation, we need not quite take this at face value. In his opening apostrophe “To the Reader”, written for the first (1580) edition of the Essays, Montaigne assures us that he has set himself no goal but a domestic and private one. He has written his book not to achieve fame but as a gift for his relatives and friends, so that after his death they may still recognise, and remember him, through his words. It is this assertion of innocence and simplicity that Montaigne’s latest biographer, Philippe Desan, sets out to demolish in some detail in his thoroughly researched and comprehensive new study, originally published in French in 2014 as Montaigne: Une biographie politique.
Montaigne liked to refer to his lands as the estate of his ancestors. They were in fact purchased by his great-grandfather but only seriously taken in hand by his grandson, Pierre Eyquem, Michel’s father. The Eyquem family had made their money trading in preserved fish and dyestuffs. As Montaigne’s admirer Stefan Zweig wrote: “For centuries in Bordeaux, the Eyquem family name has had a beautiful resonance of gold and silver, and doubtless also a slight smell of smoked fish.” This, however, was a smell that Montaigne did not want to have hanging around any longer. If Ramon Eyquem had initiated, at least in embryo, the move from city to country, and from the status of merchant to that of gentleman, Pierre Eyquem, by taking up residence on his estate and participating in the noble profession of arms, brought it further, while Michel completed it: Desan reproduces the page of the almanac in which he had gone back on an earlier handwritten note ‑ “l’an 1495 naquit pierrre eyquem de montaigne mon pere a montaigne [in the year 1495 my father Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne was born at Montaigne]” ‑ to put two firm strokes of his pen through the patronymic. Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne had posthumously become Pierre de Montaigne; the Eyquems, and their mercantile past, were no more. The reek of herring had been driven off; only the wealth remained.
The story of Montaigne’s early education is well known. Pierre Montaigne had fought in François I’s military campaigns in Italy and returned with some knowledge of and enthusiasm for Italian humanism, a movement of the mind whose key element was the revival of the study of the Latin and Greek classics. Before being sent away to school at the College of Guyenne in Bordeaux aged six, Montaigne was educated in his own home entirely through the medium of Latin ‑ and not merely educated but kept entirely in a Latin linguistic cocoon into which no French or local dialect was permitted to enter. His father also believed in the virtue of mildness in bringing on and bringing out a child’s mind, a position later endorsed by Montaigne in his writings, though he did feel that the indulgence with which he had been treated when very young might have contributed to his later waywardness, or tendency to please himself. His views on the relationship of teachers to pupils seem curiously modern:
Our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to repeat what has been told us. I should like the tutor to correct this practice, and right from the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, to begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way. I don’t want him to think and talk alone, I want him to listen to his pupil speaking in his turn. Socrates, and later Arcesilaus, first had their disciples speak, and then they spoke to them. The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn [Cicero].
Nothing, he urges, should be forced on the child on the basis of mere authority. Rather let a variety of ideas be set before him: “he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. Only the fools are certain and assured.”
Montaigne’s initial career was as a lawyer or magistrate, first at the Cour des Aides in Périgueux, then at the parlement in Bordeaux. A parlement – there were several in France – was not a parliament as we know it but a court, where appeals were heard and where the king’s ordinances received their local approbation and thus became law. Legal offices were sold: together with all kinds of other profitable state positions they were an important source of revenue to the king. Once bought, they could be handed down as property within a family, or indeed sold on to another family if there was no willing or able inheritor. Justice of course might be for sale too, to a greater or lesser degree. The councillors’ (lawyers’) meagre salaries could be supplemented by what were called épices (literally spices – we might say perks) paid by the contending parties to a case. There was something even for the lawyers’ clerks: an edict in 1545 in Bordeaux forbade the pages and valets of magistrates to “beat or strike anyone, or to extort money, whether for wine or other things, or to play cards or dice on the premises of the aforesaid palace” on pain of being whipped.
In 1570, in an atmosphere of repression and growing anarchy caused by the wars of religion which had begun eight years earlier, Montaigne resigned his position in the parlement. Though others in his family took the Protestant side after the Reformation, he was to remain a Catholic. Southwest France, however, became something of a Protestant stronghold and though Montaigne was respected by his neighbours, not least for his moderation and civility to all parties, in an atmosphere of outrage and reprisal anything might happen. In such circumstances, the two-day ride from the parlement in Bordeaux to his country estate was judged too dangerous to be undertaken frequently.
Though by his nature averse to extreme views and, a fortiori , extreme or cruel actions, Montaigne – in spite of the fact that he was to be employed sporadically throughout his life as a go-between between the king (Henry III) and the Protestant champion Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) – was not particularly hopeful that compromise would produce peace. Rather his experience taught him that concessions to the rebels only gave them advantages; and they would soon want more, for, using a military metaphor which in this case was not just a metaphor, if you begin to give ground to a man who is charging you, you only encourage him to pursue his advance. This was not just a matter of territory or spheres of influence: it was also for Montaigne a question of theology, and on such matters he was not much inclined to split the difference: “We must either submit completely to the authority of our ecclesiastical government or do without it completely. It is not for us to decide what portion of obedience we owe it.”
How is this reconcilable with the view that no doctrine should be forced on us (on a child, he wrote, but surely not on an adult either) on the basis of mere authority? The inescapable first and obvious answer is with great difficulty. It is true that consistency was not a virtue that Montaigne ever claimed.
I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always on apprenticeship and on trial.
It was not, as Montaigne suggests here in that typically light and teasing tone of self-deprecation that was characteristically his, that he was uninterested in truth. It was that he was not interested in – or not hopeful of – trapping it once and for all. For, while it is in our nature to grasp and snatch at everything, too often we grip nothing but air.
The “leaping and gambolling” nature of Montaigne’s mind may be one reason for apparent contradictions in his thought. Philippe Desan, however, persuasively suggests another: his separation of his life, and to some degree his intellectual activity, into two spheres with different practices and rules. These may be understood as being the public and the private, the world of public service and the world of leisure, private life and private study. Montaigne is well known for his critical observations on custom and religion; indeed his flirtations with scepticism and relativism feel quite modern. After he had met and spoken to some native Americans (originating from what is now Brazil) who had been brought to France by sailors he remarked that surely “barbarians are no more marvellous to us than we are to them”: if we find their practices strange, what must they think of ours? The reality, he wrote, is that we are prepared to take for granted almost anything, provided we are accustomed to it, while we find what other societies do outlandish. For
the common notions that we find in credit around us and infused into our soul by our fathers’ seed, these seem to be the universal and natural ones. Whence it comes to pass that what is off the hinges of custom, people believe to be off the hinges of reason: God knows how unreasonably, most of the time.
This observation, however, was a piquant notion to be entertained rather than a guide to how one should live one’s life. Montaigne did not expect Frenchmen to walk naked or abjure property. Custom and tradition, he believed, were how we lived, and they could not be torn up or simply remade at will to new patterns. He was appalled by Protestant attacks on Catholic churches and the destruction of their sacred objects. He was loyal to his king and to his church, and if his eyes were quite open to the failings of prelates, and he was aware of and deprecated the massacres carried out by the Catholic ultras, his unchanging view was that the primary fault for what was happening in France in his lifetime lay with the Protestants, who had unreasonably tried to overturn traditional practices and established order. It might perhaps be permissible to accord them, or indeed anyone, freedom of conscience and the right to pray in their own way, but no more: “Private reason has only a private jurisdiction.”
In this sense Montaigne, sometimes feted as a precursor of liberalism, or at any rate of freethinking, was a conservative – if that is not something of an anachronism: like almost all educated men of his time, he had no great respect for the populace, though he might sometimes feel pity for its sufferings (which indeed, as mayor of Bordeaux, he stirred himself to alleviate). The common people, he observed, were unpredictable, violent, irrational and credulous. He had seen how they could be manipulated by religious demagogues and “politicians” pursuing their own ends and felt that the worst outrages in war were often carried out by “the rabble” and the camp-followers, who cut to pieces the already half-dead, being incapable of any other kind of valour.
The religious wars lasted, with only short breaks, throughout Montaigne’s life and indeed beyond. Even after his announced withdrawal from the world in 1571 he continued to be called upon from time to time to take up public duties. He was summoned back from an extended trip to Italy to serve as Bordeaux’s mayor. After two terms in this office he was later more than once drafted into the role of intermediary, shuttling with peace initiatives between the king and Henry of Navarre, with both of whom he was on good terms. One of the chief obstacles, however, to actually reaching a lasting peace was that this was not a two-sided conflict but a three-sided one, the third party being the ultra-Catholic faction led by Henry of Guise and his family, in alliance with Spain. Any moves Henry III might make to come to an arrangement with Navarre (principally that he would be allowed succeed to the throne – as he eventually did as Henry IV – if he was prepared to give up his Protestantism) were likely to be strongly contested by the Guises. And so Montaigne’s interventions – and the prospect of political honours and a political career that might have attended their success – never really came to anything.
What kind of negotiator would Montaigne have made? His own opinion seems to have been that he was quite good at it: his frankness in particular he saw as an asset, though it must be said that frankness is not a quality that is always prized in diplomacy. Certainly he was good enough, or trusted enough, to be asked on several occasions to volunteer his services again in spite of earlier “failures”. Yet there remains a suspicion that the character traits that became evident in his writing, particularly in its late phase ‑ its “leaping and gambolling” quality ‑ may not always have been absent from his conversation. Desan suggests that frankness in speech could be seen as a close cousin of the noble virtue of nonchalance, or in Italian sprezzatura (as celebrated by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier). “A man must be a little mad,” Montaigne wrote, “if he does not want to be even more stupid.” An appealing notion, but one wonders if the discreet and sober men of policy who were accustomed to conduct state business with great care always agreed. The Spanish ambassador in Paris, Bernardino de Mendoza, considered Montaigne “a man of understanding”, but “somewhat addlepated”.
It is the major part of Philippe Desan’s thesis that the conventional image we have of Montaigne, which is largely the one supplied by himself, should be taken with a large pinch of salt. His study gives a detailed account of his subject’s non-literary activities– which he argues took up a lot more time than the literary ones ‑ and seeks to demonstrate that many if not all of the significant decisions in his life were taken with a view to the furtherance of his somewhat stuttering political career. This of course is not necessarily a discreditable thing in itself, though Desan’s accounts often seem to make it so. There is no doubting Desan’s knowledge of Montaigne and his historical milieu: in the comprehensive bibliography about thirty of the published works cited are his own. One sometimes wonders, however, if he has been living with his subject for too long. When we switch for a moment from his version of the life to that directly on offer through the Essays and are immediately taken by Montaigne’s brio, charm and hospitality our pleasure can still be destabilised by the ghostly presence of our biographer hovering behind his back, frantically signalling at each new assertion and mouthing “It’s not true! Don’t believe him!” like the disenchanted wife in a marriage gone sour.
One of the most fascinating parts of Desan’s account comes towards the end of his book in his relation of the publishing history of the Essays and their publishing afterlife. If the interpretation offered of Montaigne’s supposed motives at various points in his career is not always completely convincing in detail, and at time appears a little forced, still, Desan’s overall thesis has a lot to recommend it: Montaigne did not set out to be a writer; indeed in the earlier parts of his life he seemed more concerned to be “a success”, an ambition which might involve financial security, enhanced reputation, advancement in more elevated social circles, and, above all, the securing of an undisputed perch in the (minor) nobility. But as these ambitions (apart from the last one, which was certainly achieved) came to seem either insubstantial, ephemeral or only attainable at too high a price, he turned his attention increasingly towards his book.
Montaigne wrote in 1571, in connection with his supposed retirement to his library, that he had been “for a long time weary of the court”. Desan certainly demonstrates with a reasonable degree of probability that this is likely to have been an exaggeration and that he did not indeed discount the prospect of political advancement until well into his last decade, when he returned to the task of revising, and rewriting, his Essays with great diligence and energy.
Montaigne died in 1592. For his last few years he had mostly been confined to bed, suffering increasingly from the effects of the kidney stones that had plagued him all his life, as they had his father. In 1588 he had been written to by a young admirer from Picardy, one Marie de Gournay. He met her and their relationship blossomed. She was to become his adopted daughter (fille d’alliance) and very probably more than that (“Her lavish affection apparently did not displease Montaigne”). After his death she worked tirelessly to advance his reputation further, acting, in many new editions, as his editor, by Desan’s account a skilled and scrupulous one. Marie de Gournay enjoyed a long life, making her own intellectual contribution in a 1622 work, Égalite des hommes et des femmes, a then rather unusual proposition with which it seems her adoptive father agreed –in principle at least.
Montaigne’s 1580 edition of his Essays had been confiscated when he entered Rome during his Italian visit, but it was censured only lightly. Almost one hundred years later, however, the entire work was placed on the Holy See’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This struck many learned men as something of a pity, since, though it was undeniable that Montaigne was sometimes inclined to say quite odd things, and he was certainly far too outspoken and explicit about the ways of the body, still his work contained an enormous amount of wisdom, wisdom which could well be useful in the formation of young minds. The solution was to produce a bowdlerised version, “the moralized Montaigne”, a miscellany of wise observations with nothing to discommode anyone known as Pensées de Montaigne propres à former l’esprit et les moeurs. And it was not just that the original Montaigne was often rude: sometimes you couldn’t make him out either:
Thus we have thought it good to draw and pluck many good things from a work in which these good things are spoiled by the bad, and almost always, at least, suffocated, as it were by a great deal of jumble. In this way, in addition to the current taste for detached thoughts, every reader will find, without effort on his part, all ready and all chosen, what we have thought might either please or instruct him.
Montaigne himself was a serial doubter: should we feel envious or sorry for these later admirers who were so confident of their ability to distinguish between the good and the bad in his work?
Arguably, the tradition of picking “the best bits” from Montaigne has persisted (except of course that the racy passages can now be considered among the best). A beautifully produced small selection appeared from Notting Hill Editions in 2016 with an introduction by Tim Parks. Philippe Desan’s biography, perhaps bravely, sets itself against this tradition. Ben Jonson, a contemporary, with great foresight wrote of his friend and rival Shakespeare that “he was not for an age but for all time”. And this is generally how we regard authors who have entered the national pantheon or the European canon. Desan is not particularly interested in this aspect of literary figures. Leaving on one side Montaigne’s aesthetic qualities, he wishes to reinsert him in the history of his time and, to use a sociological term made popular by Pierre Bourdieu, his own habitus. “Universality,” he writes, “demands the erasure of temporality, and in the case of Montaigne we have to recognise that the author saw to it that all that remained was the famous literary portrait of himself.”
In his rather austere study, Desan has no doubt performed a useful function in his excavation of Montaigne’s “life and times”, the practices of the milieux in which he worked and in his demonstration that the author’s own version of himself need not be taken entirely on trust. But in so doing he runs the risk of telling us in some detail all the things about Montaigne that we feel we had no particular need to know. Perhaps, in the end, whether it is entirely accurate or not, it is the literary self-portrait that we will continue to cherish, his exploration of what Erich Auerbach in Mimesis called “his own domain … the play between me and me, between Montaigne the writer and Montaigne the subject of this writer”. Of course there is a certain egoism at work here, as was indeed recognised a long time ago. As his contemporary Étienne Pasquier (1529-1615) observed: “While he pretends to disdain himself, I never read an author who esteemed himself more than he.”
And thus, I suppose, it is just about possible not to like Montaigne. I nevertheless persist in thinking that one would have to be a very sour person indeed to resist the charm of a man who introduces his magnum opus to his readers thus:
I cannot keep a record of my life by my actions; fortune places them too low. I keep it by my thoughts. Thus I knew a gentleman who gave knowledge of his life only by the workings of his belly; you would see on display at his home a row of chamber pots, seven or eight days’ worth. That was his study, his conversation; all other talk stank in his nostrils.
Here you have, a little more decently, some excrements of an aged mind, now hard, now loose, and always undigested. And when shall I make an end of describing the continual agitation and changes of my thoughts, whatever subject they light on, since Diomedes filled six thousand books with the sole subject of grammar?
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.