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The First Egoist

Enda O’Doherty

How to Read Montaigne, by Terence Cave, Granta, 133 pp, £6.99, ISBN: 978-1862079441

On the last day of November 1580, the French landowner and writer Michel de Montaigne arrived with his company and servants in Rome, the ultimate goal of a journey on which he had set out, from his family estate in southwestern France, in the previous June. He was to stay in the city for almost five months, before returning home to take up the public duties which had been thrust upon him by his election, in his absence, as mayor of Bordeaux.

Montaigne approved of travel and took great pleasure in it. A recurrent theme in his writings is his deprecation of the pride and cultural arrogance of his fellow countrymen, their tendency to cling together when abroad and think that whatever is not got up and presented to them in the French way must be outlandish or uncivilised. On such matters he rather attempts to judge as he finds – their linen is rather mean and dirty, their fowls plumper and juicier than ours, their wines light yet refreshing, their manners a little rough but honest etc. Philosophically, following Socrates (and perhaps the Church), he has a tendency to universalism, considering all men his compatriots and being as apt, he says, to embrace a Pole as a Frenchman: “I am scarcely infatuated with the sweetness of my native air.”

For a person of such a temperament, Rome was an ideal place of pilgrimage, the meeting place of all Christian nations. Indeed at the time of his visit its cosmopolitanism was in the process of being further strengthened as the reigning pope, Gregory XIII (Ugo Buoncompagno of Bologna), “built colleges for the Greeks, and for the English, Scots, French, Germans, and Poles … to call to the Church the children of those nations, corrupted by evil opinions”. (He might also at this time have set up a college for the Irish but considered it a more urgent need to provide them, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, with “the sinews of war”; Rome’s Irish College had to wait another generation to be established.)

Montaigne’s experiences in Rome are recorded in his Travel Journal, transcribed partly by an (anonymous) secretary and partly by himself, which he seems to have written only for private use and which was not published until 1774. The journal forms however, in spite of its more limited scope and less polished surface, a useful complement to his main work, the Essais, and reflects in passing many of the themes and enthusiasms more thoroughly worked on there.

His entry into the city on St Andrew’s Day is accompanied by mild foreboding. He has heard that the general of the Franciscans has recently been locked up after a sermon condemning the idleness and pomp of the prelates, a sermon which, he adds, consisted of little more than “some ordinary commonplaces on this subject”. His baggage is subjected to minute scrutiny by the customs officers, who pay particular attention to “the books of certain German doctors of theology against the heretics, because in combating them they made mention of their errors”. A copy of his Essais is taken away for more thorough examination. Over the following weeks the party witnesses two public executions, one for a murder committed at the palace of Signor Giacomo Buoncompagno, Pope Gregory’s son. Montaigne attends the Pope’s Christmas Mass at St Peter’s (“more magnificent than devout”) and a Jewish circumcision. He suffers several recurrences of his painful kidney stone ailment (“he ejected a lot of gravel, and after that a big hard stone, long and smooth, which stopped five or six hours in passing through the penis”). But his condition does not prevent him from noticing the Roman ladies or trying for himself the well known charms of the city’s courtesans:

For the rest, it seemed to him that there was nothing special about the beauty of the women worthy of the preeminence that reputation gives to this city over all the others in the world; and moreover that, as in Paris, the most singular beauty was found among those who put it on sale.

A few days after the Christmas Mass he is accorded an audience with Pope Gregory, a ceremony which centres on kissing the pontiff’s foot and receiving a few words of encouragement or admonishment from him, and which he describes minutely in a tone that stays just on the correct side of amusement. He goes to feasts, visits churches, looks rather forlornly for the remains of the ancient city, receives medicines for his kidney stones from various well-wishers and finally, towards the end of his stay, his Essais are returned to him, “corrected according to the opinion of the learned monks”. He has got off lightly, for his faults are not the gravest: having mentioned some poets who are also heretics; referring continually to “fortune” rather than “God” or “divine providence”; arguing that it is permissible for a youth, if his reason is strong enough, to be allowed some acquaintance with bad habits as well as good ones; contending that execution in capital offences is sufficient in itself and should not be accompanied by torture or mutilation of the body or the corpse.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 to parents Pierre and Antoinette (de Louppes) on the family estate (Montaigne) near Bordeaux, today a small town called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne. In the generations immediately preceding that of the writer, the family had begun moving from the bourgeoisie into the landed class. Michel was later to drop the name Eyquem completely in order to create a virtual genealogical tabula rasa. He liked to refer to Montaigne as the estate of his ancestors; in fact it was purchased by his great-grandfather at the end of his long life but only finally taken in hand by his grandson, Michel’s father, Pierre. The Eyquems were a long-established and rich family in Bordeaux, but their wealth came from trade. As one of Montaigne’s greatest admirers, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, has written: “Depuis des siècles, à Bordeaux, le nom de la famille Eyquem a une belle sonorité d’or et d’argent, et sans doute aussi une légère odeur de poisson fumé.” (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.) If his paternal ancestors’ profitable involvement in the herring export trade produced – in the nostrils of some at least – a smell their descendant did not want to leave hanging around, his maternal ancestors presented another problem, for they too had made their own transformation, with more or less covered tracks, from being Jewish Paçagons from Zaragoza, first to Spanish Lopez de Villanuova and then French Louppes de Villeneuve.

Such considerations of birth and ancestry may seem trivial enough, but they are worth mentioning for two reasons: first, that they were obviously important to Montaigne and that they made a man justly renowned for his wisdom and good sense act in a way we might now consider foolish (though indeed such manoeuvrings and disguisings have been replicated throughout history by every “good family” that has made a similar transition – which is to say virtually all of them); second, since Montaigne has been posthumously inscribed in (and in some cases made a hero of) the prehistory of modern secular thought, it is worthwhile pointing out some of the ways in which he was not modern, for example, in his inflation of the supposed merits of nobility and what was seen as its essential concomitant, military expertise and valour, over the more enduring and beneficial qualities associated with work, commerce, civilisation and improvement.

Pierre Eyquem owed his ennoblement, in 1519, to his military service in Italy with King François I; his son was also to act, when called on, as a soldier and diplomat. Michel had a high regard for his father and perhaps had him in mind when he wrote: “The proper, the only, the essential, form of nobility in France is the military profession.” Another by-product of Pierre Eyquem’s campaigning abroad, however, was indirectly to leave a more lasting heritage: his encounter with Italian humanism and specifically its theories on the education of children.

After having been nursed for the first three years of his life with a peasant family, the young Michel de Montaigne was returned to the chateau and put in the charge of a tutor, a learned German known as Doctor Horstanus who spoke no French. From this point until he was sent to boarding school in Bordeaux, at the age of six or seven, he was not only educated but lived entirely through Latin. Not a word of French (or local patois) was to be uttered, his father ordered, in the child’s presence: to this end even the family servants were given a rudimentary education in the classical language to preserve the linguistic cocoon being spun around the young master.

Altogether, we Latinized ourselves so much that it overflowed all the way to our villages on every side, where there still remain several Latin names for artisans and tools that have taken root by usage. As for me, I was over six before I understood any more French or Perigordian than Arabic. And without artificial means, without a book, without grammar or precept, without the whip and without tears, I had learned a Latin quite as pure as what my schoolmaster knew, for I could not have contaminated or altered it.

The kindness and indulgence with which the young Michel was educated (one of his teachers holding the theory that it was hazardous for the childish brain to be suddenly torn from sleep he was daily wakened by music) was not without its negative effects, he was later to argue. While it brought out the natural mildness and gentleness of his own character, it also perhaps did not sufficiently challenge his innate laziness or willfulness, leaving him, he felt, too prone in adulthood to follow his own pleasant, wandering course and to avoid onerous tasks.

It might well be countered, however, that it is precisely this unusual, indeed at the time unprecedented, tendency to follow a wandering course (in particular the wandering course of his own mind) that makes for Montaigne’s literary singularity and greatness. In the essay “Of Practice”, he outlines what amounts to both a description and a defence of his particular project in the Essais:

Now as Pliny says, each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up. What I write here is not my teaching, but my study; it is not a lesson for others, but for me.

And yet it should not be held against me if I publish what I write. What is useful to me may also by accident be useful to another … And if I play the fool, it is at my expense and without harm to anyone. For it is a folly that will die with me, and will have no consequences. We have heard of only two or three ancients who opened up this road, and even of them we cannot say whether their manner in the least resembled mine, since we know only their names. No one since has followed their lead. It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.

As Terence Cave writes in his excellent introduction to Montaigne’s work and method, it is difficult for the modern reader to appreciate the novelty of this literary enterprise: “Speaking exclusively with one’s own voice is what nearly everyone tries to do nowadays; in the sixteenth century virtually no one did, so that even the formulation of the idea is historically interesting.” Montaigne’s book was a considerable success even within his own lifetime (Shakespeare read it in the translation by the Italian Protestant refugee John Florio) but the welcome it received from his contemporaries may well have been strikingly different from its reception by succeeding generations. It would at the time of its publication have been seen primarily as a miscellany or “commonplace book”, a popular genre in which the author jots down and rearranges gobbets of the accumulated wisdom of the best writers, ancient and modern (though it does contain one long, sustained philosophical essay, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond”). Montaigne indeed relies heavily on his favourite classical authors, notably Seneca, Plutarch, Horace and Cicero. It would scarcely be controversial however to say that most twenty-first century readers will often find this aspect of the Essais (where the author recycles ancient wisdom and eloquence) less engaging than the passages where he appears to newly mint his own, particularly in his frequent forays into introspection and self-examination.

Cave also points to the semantic pitfall inherent in the word “essay”, the normal English translation of the French “essai”:

The French word means ‘test’ or ‘trial’, and in the sixteenth century it was not used to designate an established genre; the individual titled pieces of which the volume is made up are called ‘chapters’, not essays. The title Essais denotes not the literary genre to which the work belongs but the mode of thinking and writing it embodies. Drawing on the whole semantic field from which the word comes, Montaigne speaks of his written thoughts as ‘trials’, ‘attempts’, ‘soundings’; one often finds the verb too, especially in the reflexive form ‘I try myself out’ (‘je m’essaye’).

It is misleading to conceive of Montaigne’s essais as essays in the English manner, particularly given the sense the word began to accrue after Charles Lamb put his stamp on the genre. Montaigne’s mode of thinking, Cave writes, is more “loose-weave”, more exploratory, full of sudden twists and turns and leading down byways to outcomes that are often unexpected. It is inimical to decorum and often subject to sudden shifts of register, to wryness and humour. There is this, for example, on courtship and sexual relations:

I like the love-making of the Spaniards and Italians, more respectful and timid, more mannered and veiled. I don’t know who it was in ancient times who wanted his throat as long as a crane’s neck so as to relish longer what he swallowed. That wish is more appropriate in this quick and precipitate pleasure, especially for natures such as mine, for I have the failing of being too sudden. In order to arrest its flight and prolong it in preambles, everything among them serves as a favor and a recompense: a glance, a bow, a word, a sign. If a man could dine off the steam of a roast, wouldn’t that be a fine saving?

Or this, on pleasure and the ageing process:

The discomforts of old age, which need some support and refreshment, might reasonably make me wish to be a better drinker; for drinking is almost the last pleasure that the years steal from us. Natural liveliness, good fellows say, first starts in the feet: this is true of children. From there it rises to the middle region, where it plants itself for a long time, and produces there, in my opinion, the only true pleasures of bodily life; the other pleasures are asleep by comparison. Toward the end, like a vapor that rises upward and is exhaled, it arrives at the gullet, where it makes its last stop.

It is not however just in his manner but also in his matter that Montaigne is unconventional and “free-thinking”. Though he escaped from Rome in 1581 with only minor criticisms of his Essais (what he should do about them was left to his own conscience) his work met with a harsher response in the more robust ideological climate of the following century when it was finally clear how strong and enduring the challenge to Catholic orthodoxy in Europe had become. Montaigne’s whole work was proscribed by the Spanish Index of 1640 and the Roman Index of 1676. This posthumous “excommunication” was eventually to have the effect of placing him in the intellectual company of the libertins (free-thinkers) and philosophes of the eighteenth century Enlightenment as a rationalist, sceptic or cultural relativist in the manner of Montesquieu or Voltaire.

There are indeed some reasons for placing Montaigne within (or at the beginning of) that tradition, but there are also important distinctions to be made. First, there is what we might call his humanity, his abhorrence of unnecessary violence and cruelty, which can easily be read – though not without some cultural presumption – as a form of modernity. His prescriptions for the use of only humane and creative methods in the education of children anticipate, as Stefan Zweig pointed out, the ideas of some of the leading twentieth century reformers in this field (though they in fact derive from sixteenth century Italian models). He was greatly angered by any kind of casual cruelty, particularly by the sight of children deliberately hurting dogs or cats for their amusement – even worse if they were indulged in this viciousness by their parents. As for himself, “I do not see a chicken’s neck wrung without distress, and I cannot bear to hear the scream of a hare in the teeth of my dogs”; but of course he still ate roast chicken and went hunting. He deplored the effects of war, in particular civil war, and argued for as much leniency and humanity in its prosecution as possible. But he was a soldier and served properly constitued authority, and leniency was not always possible.

Montaigne certainly anticipates eighteenth century French thinkers (particularly Montesquieu and Voltaire) in his questioning of the value given to custom and convention, a questioning that was eventually to lead to what we now call cultural relativism. The sixteenth century discovered not just the New World but also its inhabitants, and if the latter almost always fared miserably at the hands of their conquerors their cultures were not universally judged to be primitive or worthless. Montaigne met some native Americans (probably “Brazilians”) at Rouen in 1562 and writes in an almost wholly laudatory fashion of what he was told of their culture in his chapter “On Cannibals”. Elsewhere he reminded his readers that “barbarians are no more marvellous to us than we are to them” and suggested they might scutinise more closely their notions of what is and is not normal, what is and is not civilised. 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 tendency towards iconoclasm had its dangers, and Montaigne was well aware of them. (Iconoclasm, after all, was not just a metaphor in the sixteenth century.) “The laws of conscience,” he wrote, “which we say are born of nature, are born of customs.” It has been assumed by some later (non-contemporary) readers of Montaigne that he was at heart a radical sceptic and that if he adhered outwardly to the forms of his religion then this was largely a matter of show and circumspection. Such an interpretation is not impossible but requires us to believe that he is at points deliberately lying to us. Certainly he was not an overly religious man: his interests lie in the world, in humanity, in himself. Neither the Old nor New Testaments seem to figure greatly in the reading in which he delights and which he passes on transformed in the Essais. Nevertheless, on several occasions throughout his work he quite specifically affirms his faith and argues that religion and doctrine are matters that should be exempted from the restless questioning that can be applied to other areas of experience, for reasons of human incompetence in this field:

Is there any opinion so bizarre – I leave aside the gross impostures of religions, with which so many great nations and so many able men have been seen to be besotted, for since this matter is beyond the scope of our human reason, [my italics] it is more excusable for anyone who is not extraordinarily enlightened by divine favor to be lost in it; but of other opinions is there any so strange – that habit has not planted and established it by law in the regions where she saw fit to do so?

Whether Montaigne’s apparent view that religious doctrine was a sphere best exempted from human questioning stemmed from genuine conviction or from prudence it was certainly strengthened by his personal experience of the destruction wrought by the wars of religion which racked France between 1562 and 1598. Montaigne came from a part of the country in which Protestantism was firmly entrenched; indeed three of his siblings embraced the reformed (Calvinist) faith. He himself adhered strongly to Catholicism, though his connections with the other camp enabled him to be used as an intermediary and negotiator.

There was no doubt, however, in his mind about who should bear the primary blame for the death and destruction the religious wars unleashed. “Private reason,” Montaigne argued, “has only a private jurisdiction.” If someone wishes to dissent from the established doctrines and forms of religion, let him do so (and indeed let him be quietly tolerated in that dissent). If, however, he wishes to establish his dissent as the new orthodoxy he must be put down, for surely “it takes a lot of self-love and presumption to have such esteem for one’s own opinions that to establish them one must overthrow the public peace”. In resisting such presumption, he argued, it may well be necessary to employ some severity.

And when you resist the growth of an innovation that has come to introduce itself by violence, it is a dangerous obligation and a handicap to keep yourself in check and within the rules, in all matters and places, against those who are free as air, to whom everything is permissible that can advance their plan, who have neither law nor order except to follow their advantage.

Montaigne’s military participation in the religious wars does not seem to have been on a grand scale – which does not mean he was not in danger – but his diplomatic activity was certainly significant, particularly in the endgame negotiations between the Catholic party and Henry of Navarre, whose eventual (re)conversion to the majority religion and accession to the throne as Henri IV (“Paris is worth a Mass”) were to pave the way for the religious settlement of the Edict of Nantes (1598).

In 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, Montaigne announced to the world (though primarily to himself) his retirement from public life, a retirement that in the event was to prove only temporary and partial. From now on, he wrote, “having been for a long time weary of the slavery of the court and public duties, but still healthy, [he] retreated to the bosom of the learned virgins [the Muses]. There he would live at peace and in security … He dedicated this dwelling and secret place, his sweet ancestral inheritance, to his own liberty, tranquility and leisure.” The secret place in question was a tower house on his estate (still standing) where he installed his large library, had the roof beams inscribed with maxims in Latin and Greek and had struck for himself a medal bearing the famous inscription Que sais-je? (What do I know?). In the top room of the tower he closed out business if not the world, read his books and wrote and revised his Essais, in which he was to explore not just the question Que sais-je? but the for him equally insistent one Qui suis-je? (Who am I?).

As Terence Cave points out – and it is a necessary clarification for the modern reader – Montaigne did not consider himself a great scholar; the Latin works with which he was familiar were the staple of sixteenth century humanist education and there was nothing extraordinary in his familiarity with them. Nor did he consider himself a fine philosopher or a great mind, but as a man somewhere in the middle range of abilities writing for others of the same stamp:

… if these essays were worthy of being judged, I think they might not be much liked by common and vulgar minds, or by singular and excellent ones; the former would not understand enough about them, the latter too much. But they might get by in the middle region.

His famous scepticism – whose limits we have seen – was neither arid, nor negative, nor cynical, but simply the working method of a mind that was restless, free-ranging and fully engaged with all that is involved in being human. His philosophy and psychology were not systematic but built on reading, observation and a series of sharp insights and guesses. It is clear enough that he was proud of them, but not so proud as to wish to make them a doctrine: “After all, it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.” That may or may not be a “modern” sentiment, but it will do.

Quotations from Montaigne are from the Everyman’s Library Complete Works, translated by Donald M Frame. The quotation from Stefan Zweig is from Montaigne, published by Presses Universitaires de France/Quadrige. There is also an excellent selection of Montaigne’s essays in the Penguin Classics series, translated by JM Cohen, and a quite engaging (though of course unscholarly) reassembly of “the best bits” edited by Marvin Lowenthal as The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne and published by Nonpareil Books. John Florio’s translation of the Essais is available as an e-text at http://www.uoregon.edu/~rbear/montaigne/


Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.

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