October 16, 2012

Montaigne: A 16th Century Blogger

Michel de Montaigne's library-tower

Someone says the best way to read Montaigne is by sitting under a tree along a small river, as the ancients used to do. Someone else says the only one place in which you can read Montaigne is a library, if possible one of those large 16th or 17th century libraries which adorn abbeys and aristocratic palaces throughout Europe. I personally tend to agree with the second opinion—well, lack of anything better, I think my own small library must be enough… But why in a library? Basically, for two reason.

A portrait of Michel  de Montaigne
(Painting by Thomas de Leu)
The first is that in 1571 Montaigne, at age 38, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and that’s where he wrote his Essays. He had about a thousand books, which was a lot at the time for a private library. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were 57 maxims in Latin and Greek taken from his books. Here are some examples: “O wretched minds of men! O blind hearts! in what darkness of life and in how great dangers is passed this term of life whatever its duration” (Lucretius), “I do not understand” (Sextus Empiricus), “God permits no one but Himself to magnify Himself” (Herodotus ), “Not knowing anything is the sweetest life” (Sophocles), “I shelter where the storm drives me” (Horace), “No one has ever known the truth and no one will know it” (Xenophanes), “What man will account himself great/Whom a chance occasion destroys utterly?” (Euripides), “If any man thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Letter of Paul to the Galatians, 6), “All things are too difficult for man to understand them” (Ecclesiastes, 1).

The second is that, as it is easily understandable, Montaigne was a man of books, and, above all, that his Essays are “a textile of texts, a book made of books,” to put it the way Umberto Eco did (describing his own book) in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose.

Even to those who don’t know much about Montaigne, the above mentioned inscriptions may say a lot about the man in the tower. Now let’s try to look into this subject a bit more thoroughly, but let me say it first: Montaigne is one of my all-time intellectual heroes. Friedrich Nietzsche said of him, “That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.” I fully agree with him. And yet I think that what better reflects my long-lasting relationship with him is what another of Montaigne’s ardent admirers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said of him:

A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the Essays remained to me from my father’s library, when a boy. It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes. I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience. [From "Montaigne; or The Skeptic," in Representative Men.]

That’s exactly what happened to me, except the way I came into possession of the Essays—I bought the two volumes of them at 50% off when I was twenty something in a bookstore in Rome, which is also where, more or less in the same period, I happened to find Emerson’s Representative Men, another source of inspiration throughout my entire life, along with the other books by the same author. That is why when I happen to pass by that place I cannot help but feel the deepest gratitude (and a bit of nostalgia).

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a skeptic, but of a very different sort from the one we are familiar with. In fact, he was not the kind of skeptic who basically believes in nothing, who refuses to take anything on faith, who takes issue with organized religion, and things like these. Yes, he was a man who doubted almost everything, but at the same time he was a good Catholic, one who believed all that the church taught and prescribed without reservation. Strange enough, isn’t it? But, strange as it might seem, that’s perhaps what I like most about him. And yes, I know the saying is, “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas,” but—luckily or unfortunately, depending on the point of view—if we reason philosophically (broadly speaking), we cannot do without them. Shakespeare, who was perhaps Montaigne’s most famous reader and admirer—John Florio’s translation of the Essais became available to him in English in 1603—, knew that very well. At any rate, according to many scholars—but you don’t need to be a genius to come to the same conclusion—, Montaigne’s influence is clearly evident in Hamlet and King Lear, and this both with regard to the language and to the skepticism that characterizes both plays. To say nothing about the whole monologue of The Tempest, which seems cribbed from Florio’s translation of the Essais, as Sarah Bakewell pointed out in her How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Answers.

Yet, as I said before, Montaigne’s skepticism is different from any kind of skepticism we are accustomed to. Take the following passage from the “Apology for Raimond Sebond” (Book the Second, Chapter XII):

It were to do wrong to the divine goodness, did not the universe consent to our belief. The heavens, the earth, the elements, our bodies and our souls,—all things concur to this; we have but to find out the way to use them; they instruct us, if we are capable of instruction. For this world is a sacred temple, into which man is introduced, there to contemplate statues, not the works of a mortal hand, but such as the divine purpose has made the objects of sense; the sun, the stars, the water, and the earth, to represent those that are intelligible to us. "The invisible things of God," says St. Paul, "appear by the creation of the world, his eternal wisdom and divinity being considered by his works."

Quite an interesting statement for a skeptic, isn’t it? And how about the following one?

Our outward and inward structure is full of imperfection; but there is nothing useless in nature, not even inutility itself; nothing has insinuated itself into this universe that has not therein some fit and proper place. [Book the Third, Chapter I]

This, of course, also echoes the great Renaissance philosophical architectures, according to which the universe is a vast and wonderful chain of relationships, from the stars to plants, to rocks, and to men. But this is no surprise, because Montaigne is, in a sense, the epitome of a Renaissance man, along with Marsilio Ficino and Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, while in another sense, because of his skepticism, he takes a step beyond—otherwise why the 19th century American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson would have been such an admirer of him?

Yet, apart from his sui generis skepticism, what also amazes me about Montaigne is the way he writes about himself. Here is what he says about his being a writer:

I am not at all ambitious that any one should love and esteem me more dead than living. The humour of Tiberius is ridiculous, but yet common, who was more solicitous to extend his renown to posterity than to render himself acceptable to men of his own time. If I were one of those to whom the world could owe commendation, I would give out of it one-half to have the other in hand; let their praises come quick and crowding about me, more thick than long, more full than durable; and let them cease, in God's name, with my own knowledge of them, and when the sweet sound can no longer pierce my ears. It were an idle humour to essay, now that I am about to forsake the commerce of men, to offer myself to them by a new recommendation. I make no account of the goods I could not employ in the service of my life. Such as I am, I will be elsewhere than in paper: my art and industry have been ever directed to render myself good for something; my studies, to teach me to do, and not to write. I have made it my whole business to frame my life: this has been my trade and my work; I am less a writer of books than anything else. [Book the Second, Chapter XXXVIII, “To Madame De Duras”]

But perhaps the greatest secret of his success—and the main reason why this 16th century writer is still alive and well—is that, as William Hazlitt put it, “In taking up his pen, he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” In his Essays, says Sarah Bakewell,

[H]e wrote as if he were chatting to his readers: just two friends, whiling away an afternoon in conversation. Montaigne raised questions rather than giving answers. He wrote about whatever caught his eye: war, psychology, animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, vanity, glory, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt. Most of all, he wrote about himself and was amazed at the variety he found within. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he said. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” His writing followed the same wayward path.

In other words, we may well say that he was a blogger before blogs existed, a 16th century blogger! Perhaps even more enlightening in this regard is the following passage from Book the First, Chapter L:

The judgment is an utensil proper for all subjects, and will have an oar in everything: which is the reason, that in these Essays I take hold of all occasions where, though it happen to be a subject I do not very well understand, I try, however, sounding it at a distance, and finding it too deep for my stature, I keep me on the shore; and this knowledge that a man can proceed no further, is one effect of its virtue, yes, one of those of which it is most proud. One while in an idle and frivolous subject, I try to find out matter whereof to compose a body, and then to prop and support it; another while, I employ it in a noble subject, one that has been tossed and tumbled by a thousand hands, wherein a man can scarce possibly introduce anything of his own, the way being so beaten on every side that he must of necessity walk in the steps of another: in such a case, 'tis the work of the judgment to take the way that seems best, and of a thousand paths, to determine that this or that is the best. I leave the choice of my arguments to fortune, and take that she first presents to me; they are all alike to me, I never design to go through any of them; for I never see all of anything: neither do they who so largely promise to show it others. Of a hundred members and faces that everything has, I take one, one while to look it over only, another while to ripple up the skin, and sometimes to pinch it to the bones: I give a stab, not so wide but as deep as I can, and am for the most part tempted to take it in hand by some new light I discover in it. Did I know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to the bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here one word and there another, patterns cut from several pieces and scattered without design and without engaging myself too far, I am not responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject, without varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance.

Let us be inspired by Montaigne, and continue to further the good work which he began!


  1. William Hazlitt also said that the great merit of Montaigne was that "he may be said to have been the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man." I've always loved him. Thanks for such an excellent post!

  2. A humanist whose views are timeless. There's great comfort and reassurance in his respect for nature, which doesn't necessarily signify a divorce from religion, but rather reinforces the idea of a fabulous universal creation that cannot possibly have come about by chance. This also reflects the views of Thomas More.

    Your article has inspired me to want to read more of Montaigne. Thank you Rob.

  3. Thank you, Rob, for introduing me to Montaigne. The name resonates somewhere in my brain, but I have little knowledge of him. I am so impressed by the snapshot of Montaigne that you've provided here. I also liked that you shared Sophocles maxim, "Not knowing anything is the sweetest life." There is such joy in discovering.Now I have to read some Montaigne. My pile of books to read gets higher and higher.