Joseph Scaliger described Montaigne’s father as a seller of herring. The great scholar skipped a generation; it was the grandfather, Grimon Eyquem, who exported wines and dried fish from Bordeaux. Grimon inherited the business from Michel’s great-grandfather Ramon Eyquem, who made the family fortune so, and bought (1447) the mansion and estate known as Montaigne on a hill outside the city. Grimon expanded his patrimony with a judicious marriage. His son Pierre Eyquem preferred war to herring; he joined the French army, soldiered in Italy with Francis I, returned with scars and a rubbing of the Renaissance, and rose to be mayor of Bordeaux. In 1528 he married Antoinette, daughter of a wealthy merchant of Toulouse who was Jewish by birth, Christian by baptism, and Spanish by cultural background. Michel Eyquem, who became the Sieur de Montaigne, was born to Pierre and Antoinette with Gascon and Jewish blood in his brain. To further broaden his outlook, his father was a pious Catholic, his mother was probably a Protestant, and a sister and a brother were Calvinists.
Pierre had ideas on education. “That good father,” Michel tells us, “even from my cradle sent me to be brought up in a poor village of his, where he kept me so long as I sucked, and somewhat longer, breeding me after the meanest and simplest common fashion.”20 While the boy was still nursing he was given a German attendant who spoke to him only in Latin. “I was six years old before I understood more of French than of Arabic.”21 When he went to the Collège de Guienne his teachers (except George Buchanan) were loath to talk Latin to him, he spoke it so glibly. Such mastery he had acquired “without books, rules, or grammar, without whipping or whining.”
Perhaps the father had read Rabelais on education. He tried to rear his son on libertarian principles, substituting affection for compulsion. Montaigne relished this regimen and recommended it in a long letter on education,22 professedly written for Lady Diane de Foix; but in a later essay he recanted it and recommended the rod as a convincing supplement to reason.23 Nor did he follow his father in giving priority to Latin or the classics. Though his own memory bubbled over with classical quotations and instances, he deprecated a merely classical education, scorned book learning and bookworms, and stressed, rather, the training of the body to health and vigor and of the character to prudence and virtue. “We have need of little learning to have a good mind,”24 and a game of tennis may be more instructive than a diatribe against Catiline. A boy should be made hardy and brave, able to bear heat and cold without whimpering, and to relish the inevitable risks of life. Montaigne quoted Athenian authors, but preferred Spartan ways; his ideal was a manly virtue, almost in the Roman sense that made such a phrase redundant—to which he added the Greek ideal of “nothing in excess.” Temperance in everything, even in temperance. A man should drink moderately, but be able, if occasion should require, to drink abundantly without becoming stupefied.
Travel can form a vital part of education, if we leave our prejudices at home. “It was told to Socrates that a certain man had been no whit improved by travel. ‘I believe it well,’ said he, ‘for he carried himself with him.’ “25 If we can keep our minds and eyes open, the world will be our best textbook, for “so many strange humors, sundry sects … diverse opinions, different laws, and fantastical customs teach us to judge rightly of ours.”26 Next to travel, the best education is history, which is travel extended into the past. The student “shall, by the help of histories, inform himself of the worthiest minds that were in the best ages…. What profit shall he not reap … reading the Lives of our Plutarch?”27 Finally, the student should get some philosophy—not the “thorny quiddities of logic,” but such philosophy as “teaches us how to live … what it is to know, and not to know; what valor, temperance, and justice are; what difference there is between ambition and avarice, bondage and freedom; by what marks a man may distinguish true and perfect contentment; and how far one ought to fear … death, pain, or disgrace. … A child coming from nurse is more capable of them [such lessons] than he is to learn to read or write.”28
After seven years at the Collège de Guienne Montaigne proceeded to university and the study of law. No subject could have been less congenial to his discursive mind and limpid speech. He never tired of praising custom and berating law. He noted with joy that Ferdinand II of Spain had sent no lawyers to Spanish America, lest they should multiply disputes among the Indians; and he wished that physicians too had been forbidden there, lest they make new ailments with their cures.29 He thought those countries worst off that had most laws, and he reckoned that France had had “more than the rest of the world besides.” He saw no progress in the humaneness of the law, and doubted if any such savagery could be found among barbarians as togaed judges and tonsured ecclesiastics practiced in the torture chambers of European states.30 He gloried that “to this day [1588?] I am a virgin from all suits of law.”31
2. Friendship and Marriage
Nevertheless, we find him in 1557 councilor in the Court of Aids at Périgueux and in 1561 a member of the Bordeaux Parlement—the municipal court. There he met and loved Étienne de La Boétie. We have seen elsewhere how, about the age of eighteen, this young aristocrat wrote, but did not publish, a passionate Discours sur la servitude volontaire, which came to be called Contr’un—i.e., against one-man rule. With all the eloquence of Danton, it called upon the people to rise against absolutism. Perhaps Montaigne himself felt some republican ardor in his youth. In any case, he was drawn to the noble rebel, who, three years older, seemed a paragon of wisdom and integrity.
We sought one another before we had seen one another, and, by the reports we heard of one another … I think by some secret ordinance of the heavens we embraced one another by our names. And at our first meeting, which was by chance at a great feast and solemn meeting of a whole township, we found ourselves so surprised, so … acquainted, and so … bound together, that from thenceforward nothing was so near to us as one unto another.32
Why this profound attachment? Montaigne answered, “Because it was he, because it was I”33—because they were so different that they completed each other. For La Boétie was all idealism, warm devotion, tenderness; Montaigne was too intellectual, prudent, impartial to be so dedicated; this very friend described him as “equally inclined to both outstanding vices and virtues.”34 Perhaps the deepest experience of Montaigne’s life was watching his friend die. In 1563, during a plague at Bordeaux, La Boétie fell suddenly ill with fever and dysentery. He bore his lingering death with a stoic fortitude and a Christian patience never forgotten by his friend, who stayed at his bedside during those final days. Montaigne inherited the manuscript of the dangerous essay and concealed it for thirteen years; a copy was printed in a pirated edition (1576); thereupon he published the original, and explained that it was the rhetorical exercise of a boy of “sixteen.”
That friendship made every later human relationship seem insipid to Montaigne. He wrote, again and again, that half of him had died with La Boétie. “I was so accustomed to be ever two, and so inured to be never single, that methinks I am but half myself.”35 In the warmth of that memory he placed friendship above the love between father and son, maid and youth, husband and wife. He himself seems to have had no romantic passion for any woman: “In my youth I opposed myself to the notions of love, which I felt to usurp upon me; and I labored to diminish its enjoyment, lest in the end it might… captivate me to its mercy.”36 Not that he lacked erotic hours; on the contrary, he acknowledges premarital relations of proud scope and frequency.37 He described sexual love as no “other than a tickling delight of emptying one’s seminary [sic] vessels, as is the pleasure which nature giveth us to discharge other parts”; and he thought it absurd that nature “hath pell-mell lodged our joys and filths together.”38
He agreed with most philosophers that the itch to detumesce is no reason for marriage. “I see no marriages fail sooner, or more troubled, than such as are concluded for beauty’s sake, or huddled up for amorous desires.”39 Marriage should be arranged by “a third hand”; it should reject the company and conditions of [sexual] love” and should try “to imitate those of friendship”; marriage must become friendship to survive. He inclined to the view of Greek thinkers that a man should not marry before thirty. He avoided the tie as long as he could. Still single at twenty-eight, he traveled to Paris, fell in love with it,40 enjoyed the life of the court for a while (1562), saw some American Indians at Rouen, hesitated between the rival charms of civilization and savagery, returned to Bordeaux, and married (1565) Françoise de Chassaigne.
He seems to have married for strictly rational reasons: to have a home and a family, to transmit his estate and his name. Amid all his fifteen hundred pages he says almost nothing of his wife—but that may have been good manners. He claims to have been faithful to her: “Licentious as the world reputes me, I had (in good faith) more strictly observed the laws of wedlock than either I had promised or hoped.”41 She made allowances for the self-absorption of genius; she took competent care of the household, the land, even the accounts, for he had no mind for business. For his part, he gave her full respect, and now and then a sign or word of love—as when he responded gratefully to her quick aid after his fall from a horse, and when he dedicated to her his edition of La Boétie’s translation of Plutarch’s Letter of Consolation. It was a successful marriage, and we must not take very seriously the quips against women in the Essays; they were a fashion among philosophers. Françoise bore him six children, all girls; all died in childhood but one, of whom he speaks tenderly.42 When he was fifty-four he adopted into the family a twenty-year-old girl, Marie de Gournay, “truly of me beloved with more than a fatherly love, and as one of the best parts of my being, enfeoffed in my home and solitariness.”43 He was not above the common feelings of humanity.
3. The Essays
In 1568 his father died, and Michel, as the oldest son, inherited the estate. Three or four years later he resigned from the Parliament of Bordeaux, and retired from the bedlam of the city to the boredom of the countryside. Even there peace was precarious, for religious war was dividing France, its cities, and its families. Soldiers raided villages, entered homes, stole, raped, and killed. “I have a thousand times gone to bed … imagining I should, the very same night, have been either betrayed or slain in my bed.”44 As a dissuasion to violence, he left his doors unlocked and gave orders that if marauders came they were to be received without resistance. They stayed away, and Montaigne was left free to live in his corner of philosophy amid the clatter of creeds and arms. While Paris and some provinces murdered Protestants in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, Montaigne wrote the supreme work of French prose.
His favorite retreat was the library on the third floor of the tower that rose in the façade of his château. (The château was destroyed by fire in 1885, but the tower survived.) He loved his library as himself, his alter ego.
The form of it is round, and hath no flat side but what serveth for my table and chair; in which … manner at one look it offers me the full sight of all my books … There is my seat, there is my throne. I endeavor to make my rule therein absolute, and to sequester that only corner from the community of wife, of children, and of acquaintance.45
Seldom has a man so relished solitude, which is almost our direst dread.
A man must sequester and recover himself from himself … We should reserve a storehouse for ourselves … altogether ours … wherein we may hoard up and establish our true liberty. The greatest thing in the world is for a man to know how to be his own.46
In that library he had a thousand books, most of them bound in tooled leather. He called them “meas delicias” (my delights). In them he could choose his company and live with the wisest and the best. In Plutarch alone, “since he spoke French” (through Amyot), he could find a hundred great men to come and talk with him, and in Seneca’s Epistles he could savor a pleasant Stoicism melodiously phrased; these two (including Plutarch’s Moralia) were his favorite authors, “from whom, like the Danaïdes, I draw my water, incessantly filling as fast as emptying47 … The familiarity I have with them, and the aid they afford me in my old age, and my book merely framed of their spoils, binds me to maintain their honor.”48
He never quotes the Bible (perhaps as too well known), though he frequently cites St. Augustine. For the most part he prefers the ancients to the moderns, the pagan philosophers to the Christian Fathers. He was a humanist insofar as he loved the literature and the history of old Greece and Rome; but he was no indiscriminate idolater of classics and manuscripts; he thought Aristotle superficial and Cicero a windbag. He was not quite at home with the Greeks. He quoted the Latin poets with roaming erudition, even one of Martial’s most privy epigrams. He admired Virgil, but preferred Lucretius. He read Erasmus’ Adagia predaceously. In the early essays he was a pedant, adorning himself with classical tags. Such excerpts were in the manner of the age; readers who had no competence for the originals relished these samples as little windows glimpsing antiquity, and some complained that there were not more.49 From all his pilfering Montaigne emerged uniquely himself, laughing at pedantry and making up his own mind and speech. He looks like scissors and paste, and tastes like ambrosia.
So, leisurely, page by page and day by day, after 1570, he wrote his Essais.I He seems to have invented the term,50 almost the type; for though there had been discorsi and discours, they were formidably formal, not the informal, meandering conversations of Montaigne; and this easygoing, buttonholing style has tended to characterize the essay since his death, making it a predominantly modern genre. “I speak to paper,” he said, “as I do to the first person I meet.”51 The style is the man, natural, intimate, confidential; it is a comfort to be spoken to so familiarly by a seigneur of the mind. Open him at any page, and you are caught by the arm and swept along, never knowing, and seldom caring, where you will go. He wrote piecemeal, on any subject that struck his thought or matched his mood; and he diverged anarchically from the initial topic as he rambled on; so the essay “On Coaches” rattles off into ancient Rome and new America. Of the three volumes, three consist of digressions. Montaigne was lazy, and nothing is so arduous as producing and maintaining order in ideas or men. He confessed himself divers et ondoyant—wavering and diverse. He made no fetish of consistency; he changed his opinions with his years; only the final composite picture is Montaigne.
Amid the confused flux of his notions his style is as clear as the soul of simplicity. Yet it sparkles with metaphors as surprising as Shakespeare’s, and with illuminating anecdotes that instantaneously transform the abstract into the real. His probing curiosity snatches at such instances anywhere, admitting no moral hindrance. He carefully hands down to us the remark of the Toulouse woman who, having been handled by several soldiers, thanked God that “once in my life I have had my bellyful without sin.”52Nihil naturae alienum putat.
4. The Philosopher
He claims to have only one subject—himself. “I look within myself; I have no business but with myself; I incessantly consider … and taste myself.”53 He proposes to study human nature at first hand, through his own impulses, habits, likes, dislikes, ailments, feelings, prejudices, fears, and ideas. He does not offer us an autobiography; he says almost nothing, in the Essays, about his career as a councilor or mayor, about his travels, his visits to the court. He does not wear his religion or his politics on his sleeve. He gives us something more precious—a frank and penetrating analysis of his body, mind, and character. He expounds his faults and vices with pleasure and at length. To accomplish his purpose he asks permission to speak freely; he will violate good taste to exhibit a man naked in body and soul. He talks with noisy candor about his natural functions, quotes St. Augustine and Vives on melodic flatulence, and meditates on coitus:
Each one avoideth to see a man born, but all run hastily to see him die. To destroy him we seek a spacious field and full light; but to construct him we hide ourselves in some dark corner and work as close as we may.54
Even so, he claims to have practiced some reticence. “I speak truth, not my bellyful, but as much as I dare.”55
He tells us a great deal about his physical self, and he nurses his health from page to page. Health is the summum bonum. “Renown or glory is overdearly bought by a man of my humor, in God’s name.”56 He records the vicissitudes of his bowels in affectionate detail. He sought the philosopher’s stone and found it lodged in his bladder. He hoped to pass these pebbles in some amorous ecstasy, but found, instead, that they “do strangely diswench me,”57 threatening him with inopportune disablement. He consoled himself with his proud capacity to “hold my water full ten hours,”58 and to be in the saddle long hours without exhausting fatigue. He was stout and strong, and he ate so avidly that he almost bit his fingers in his greed. He loved himself with indefatigable virtuosity.
He was vain of his genealogy, his coat of arms,59 his fine dress, and his distinction as a Chevalier of St. Michael—and wrote an essay “Of Vanity.” He pretends to most of the vices, and assures us that if there is any virtue in him it entered by stealth. He had many nevertheless: honesty, geniality, humor, equanimity, pity, moderation, tolerance. He tossed explosive ideas into the air, but caught and extinguished them before they fell. In an age of dogmatic slaughter he begged his fellow men to moderate their certainties this side of murder; and he gave the modern world one of its first examples of a tolerant mind. We forgive his faults because we share them. And we find his self-analysis fascinating because we know that it is about us that the tale is told.
To understand himself better he studied the philosophers. He loved them despite their vain pretensions to analyze the universe and chart man’s destiny beyond the grave. He quoted Cicero as remarking that “nothing can be said so absurd but that it has been said by one of the philosophers.”60 He praised Socrates for “bringing human wisdom down from heaven, where for a long time it had been lost, to restore it to man again,”61 and he echoed Socrates’ advice to study natural science less and human conduct more. He had no “system” of his own; his ideas were in such restless evolution that no label could pin down his philosophic flight.
In the brave morning of his thought he adopted Stoicism. Since Christianity, splitting into fratricidal sects and bloodying itself with war and massacre, had apparently failed to give man a moral code capable of controlling his instincts, Montaigne turned to philosophy for a natural ethic, a morality not tied to the rise and fall of religious creeds. Stoicism seemed to have approached this ideal; at least it had molded some of the finest men of antiquity. For a time Montaigne made it his ideal. He would train his will to self-mastery; he would shun all passions that might disturb the decency of his conduct or the tranquillity of his mind; he would face all vicissitudes with an even temper and take death itself as a natural and forgivable fulfillment.
Some Stoic strain continued in him to the end, but his effervescent spirit soon found another philosophy to justify itself. He rebelled against a Stoicism that preached the following of “Nature” and yet strove to suppress nature in man. He interpreted Nature through his own nature, and decided to follow his natural desires whenever they did no perceivable harm. He was pleased to find Epicurus no coarse sensualist but a sane defender of sane delights; and he was astonished to discover so much wisdom and grandeur in Lucretius. Now he proclaimed with enthusiasm the legitimacy of pleasure. The only sin that he recognized was excess. “Intemperance is the pestilence which killeth pleasure; temperance is not the flail of pleasure, it is the seasoning thereof.”62
From the oscillation of his views, and the degradation of contemporary Christianity in France, he came to the skepticism that thereafter colored most of his philosophy. His father had been impressed by the Theologia naturalis of the Toulouse theologian Raymond of Sabunde (d. 1437?), who had continued the noble effort of the Scholastics to prove the reasonableness of Christianity. The father asked his son to translate the treatise; Montaigne did, and published his translation (1569). Orthodox France was edified, but some critics objected to Raymond’s reasoning. In 1580 Montaigne inserted into the second “book” of his Essais a two-hundred-page “Apologie de [Defense of] Raimond Sebond,” in which he proposed to answer the objections. But he did so only by abandoning his author’s enterprise, arguing that reason is a limited and untrustworthy instrument, and that it is better to rest religion on faith in the Scriptures and in Holy Mother Church; in effect Montaigne demolished Raymond while purporting to uphold him. Some, like Sainte-Beuve, have judged this “Apology” as a tongue-in-the-cheek argument for unbelief.63 In any case, it is the most destructive of Montaigne’s compositions, perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of skepticism in modern literature.
Long before Locke, Montaigne affirms that “all knowledge is addressed to us by the senses,”64 and that reason depends upon the senses; but the senses are deceptive in their reports and severely limited in their range; therefore reason is unreliable. “Both the inward and the outward parts of man are full of weakness and falsehood.”65 (Here, at the very outset of the Age of Reason, a generation before Bacon and Descartes, Montaigne asks the question that they would not stop to ask, that Pascal would ask eighty years later, that the philosophers would not face till Hume and Kant: Why should we trust reason?) Even instinct is a safer guide than reason. See how well the animals get along by instinct—sometimes more wisely than men. “There is a greater difference between many a man and many another man than between many a man and many an animal.”66 Man is no more the center of life than the earth is the center of the universe. It is presumptuous of man to think that God resembles him, or that human affairs are the center of God’s interest, or that the world exists to serve man. And it is ridiculous to suppose that the mind of man can fathom the nature of God. “O senseless man, who cannot make a worm and yet will make gods by the dozen!”67
Montaigne arrives at skepticism by another route—by contemplating the variety and fluctuation of beliefs in laws and morals, in science, philosophy, and religion; which of these truths is truth? He prefers the Copernican to the Ptolemaic astronomy, but: “Who knows whether, a thousand years hence, a third opinion will rise, which haply may overthrow these two,” and “whether it be not more likely that this huge body, which we call the World, is another manner of thing than we judge it?”68 “There is no science,” only the proud hypotheses of immodest minds.69 Of all the philosophies the best is Pyrrho’s—that we know nothing. “The greatest part of what we know is the least part of what we know not.”70 “Nothing is so firmly believed as that which is least known,” and “a persuasion of certainty is a manifest testimony of foolishness.”71 “In few words, there is no constant existence, neither of our being nor of the objects. And we and our judgment, and all mortal things else, do incessantly roll, turn, and pass away. Thus can nothing be certainly established. We have no communication with being.”72 Then, to heal all wounds, Montaigne ends by reaffirming his Christian faith and singing a pantheistic paean to the unknowable God.73
Thereafter he applied his skepticism to everything, always with an obeisance to the Church. “Que sais-je? What do I know?” became his motto, engraved on his seal and inscribed on his library ceiling. Other mottoes adorned the rafters: “The for and against are both possible”; “It may be and it may not be”; “I determine nothing. I do not comprehend things; I suspend judgment; I examine.”74 Something of this attitude he took from Socrates’ Ouden oida, “I know nothing”; something from Pyrrho, something from Cornelius Agrippa, much from Sextus Empiricus. Henceforth, he said, “I fasten myself on that which I see and hold, and go not far from the shore.”75
Now he saw relativity everywhere, and nowhere absolutes. Least of all in standards of beauty; and our lusty philosopher revels in noting the diverse opinions among divers peoples as to what constitutes beauty in a woman’s breasts.76 He believes that many beasts surpass us in beauty and thinks we were wise to clothe ourselves. He perceives that a man’s religion and his moral ideas are usually determined by his environment. “The taste of good or evil greatly depends upon the opinion we have of them,” as Shakespeare was to say; and: “Men are tormented by the opinions they have of things, not by the things themselves.”77 The laws of conscience proceed not from God but from custom. Conscience is the discomfort we feel when violating the mores of our tribe.78
Montaigne had better sense than to suppose that because morals are relative they may therefore be ignored. On the contrary, he would be the last to disturb their stability. He talks boldly about sex, and claims much freedom—for men; but when you cross-examine him you find him suddenly orthodox. He recommends chastity to youth, on the ground that energy spent in sex comes from the common store of force in the body; he notes that athletes training for the Olympic games “abstained from all venerean acts and touching of women.”79
It was part of his humor to extend his skepticism to civilization itself, and to anticipate Rousseau and Châteaubriand. The Indians he had seen at Rouen inspired him to read the reports of travelers; from these accounts he composed his essay “Of Cannibals.” Eating dead people, he thought, was less barbarous than torturing live ones. “I find nothing in that nation [Indian America] that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarism which is not common among themselves.”80 He imagined these natives as rarely sick, as nearly always happy, and as living peaceably without laws.81 He praised Aztec art and Inca roads. He put into the mouth of his Rouen Indians an indictment of European wealth and poverty: “They had perceived there were men amongst us full gorged with all sorts of commodities, and others that were dying of hunger; and they marveled that the needy ones could endure such an injustice and took not the others by the throat.”82 He compared the morals of the Indians with those of their conquerors, and charged that “the pretended Christians … brought the contagion of vice to innocent souls eager to learn and by nature well disposed.”83 For a moment Montaigne forgot his geniality and burst into noble indignation:
So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed or made desolate; so infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, status, and ages, massacred, ravaged, and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest, the best part of the world topsyturvied, ruined, and defaced for the traffic of pearls and peppers! Oh, mechanical victories, oh, base conquest!84
Was his obeisance to religion sincere? Obviously his classical foraging had long since weaned him from the doctrines of the Church. He retained a vague belief in God conceived sometimes as Nature, sometimes as a cosmic soul, the incomprehensible intelligence of the world. At times he presages Shakespeare’s Lear: “The gods play at handball with us, and toss us up and down”;85 but he ridicules atheism as “unnatural and monstrous”86 and rejects agnosticism as another dogmatism—how do we know that we shall never know?87 He waives aside as pretentious futilities all attempts to define the soul or to explain its relation to the body.88 He is willing to accept the immortality of the soul on faith, but finds no evidence for it in experience or reason;89 and the idea of eternal existence appalls him.90 “Except for faith, I believe not miracles”;91 and he anticipates Hume’s famous argument: “How much more natural and likely do I find it that two men should lie than that one man in twelve hours should be carried by the winds from East to West?”92 (He might seek another example today.) He steals a march on Voltaire by telling of the pilgrim who judged that Christianity must be divine to have maintained itself so long despite the corruption of its administrators.93 He notes that he is a Christian by geographical accident; otherwise “I should rather have taken part with those who worshiped the sun.”94 So far as one reader can recall, he mentions Christ but once.95 The lovely saga of the Mother of Christ made only a moderate appeal to his unsentimental soul; however, he crossed Italy to lay four votive figures before her shrine at Loreto. He lacked those marks of the religious spirit—humility, a sense of sin, remorse and penance, a longing for divine forgiveness and redeeming grace. He was a freethinker with an allergy for martyrdom.
He remained a Catholic long after he had ceased to be a Christian.96 Like some sensible early Christian bowing transiently to a pagan deity, Montaigne, the most pagan of Christians, turned aside now and then from his selected Greeks and Romans to honor the cross of Christ, or even to kiss the foot of a pope. He did not, like Pascal, pass from skepticism to faith, but from skepticism to observance. And not merely through caution. He probably realized that his own philosophy, paralyzed with hesitations, contradictions, and doubt, could safely be the luxury only of a spirit already formed to civilization (by religion?), and that France, even while bathing its creeds in blood, would never exchange them for an intellectual labyrinth in which death would be the only certainty. He thought a wise philosophy would make its peace with religion:
Simple minds, less curious, less well instructed, are made good Christians, and through reverence and obedience hold their simple belief and abide by the laws. In intellects of moderate vigor and capacity is engendered the error of opinions…. The best, most settled, and clearest-seeing spirits make another sort of well-believers, who by long and religious investigation, penetrate to a more profound and abstruse meaning in the Scriptures and discover the mysterious and divine secrets of our ecclesiastical polity…. The simple peasants are honest folk, and so are the philosophers.97
So, after all his barbs at Christianity, and because all faiths alike are cloaks to cover our shivering ignorance, he advises us to accept the religion of our time and place. He himself, true to his geography, returned to the ritual of his fathers. He liked a sensory, fragrant, ceremonial religion, and so he preferred Catholicism to Protestantism. He was repelled by the Calvinist emphasis on predestination;98 being of Erasmian lineage, he liked the genial and worldly cardinals of Rome more than the Loyola of Geneva or the lion of Wittenberg. He regretted particularly that the new creeds were imitating the intolerance of the old. Though he laughed at heretics as fools who raised a fuss over competitive mythologies, he saw no sense in burning such mavericks. “After all, it is setting a high value on our opinions to roast people alive on account of them”99 or to let people roast us.
In politics too he ended as a comfortable conservative. There is no use changing forms of government; the new one will be as bad as the old, because it will be administered by men. Society is so “vast a frame,” so complex a mechanism of instinct, custom, myth, and law, slowly fashioned by the trial-and-error wisdom of time, that no individual intellect, however powerful and brilliant, can take it apart and put it together again without incalculable confusion and suffering.100 Better submit to current rulers, bad as they are, unless they attempt to chain thought itself; then Montaigne might screw his courage up to revolt, for “my reason is not framed to bend or stoop; my knees are.”101 A wise man will avoid public office, while respecting it; “the greatest vocation is to save the commonwealth and be profitable to many”; but “as for me, I depart from it.”102 However, he served his terms.
He mourned that half his life had been lived during the ruination of France,103 “in an age so corrupt and times so ignorant.” “Read all ancient stories, be they never so tragical, you shall find none to equal those we daily see practiced.”104 He was not neutral in the duel for France, but “my interest has not made me forget either the commendable qualities of our adversaries or the reproachful qualities of those whom I have supported.”105 He would not shoulder a gun, but his pen was with the Politiques, those peace-preferring Catholics who advocated some compromise with the Huguenots. He lauded Michel de L’Hôpital for farsighted humanitarian moderation, and he rejoiced when his friend Henry of Navarre moved to victory on the policies of L’Hôpital. Montaigne was the most civilized of Frenchmen in that savage age.
5. The Rolling Stone
The stones in his bladder bothered him more than the wars of France. In June 1580, shortly after the first publication of the Essays, he set out on an extended tour of Western Europe, partly to see the world, partly to visit medicinal springs in the hope of alleviating the “colic” (as he called it) that repeatedly incapacitated him with pain. He left his wife behind to take care of the estate; but he took with him a younger brother, a brother-in-law, the Baron of Estissac, and a secretary to whom he dictated part of his travel diary; add a retinue of servants and muleteers, and we no longer wonder that these memoirs are intellectually thin. They were meant rather for remembrance than for publication; Montaigne, returning, hid them in a chest, where they were discovered 178 years after his death.
The party went first to Paris, where the proud author presented a copy of the Essays to Henry III; then by easy stages to Plombières, where Montaigne for nine days drank two quarts of medicinal waters daily and succeeded in passing some small stones with great pain.106 Then through Lorraine to Switzerland. “He had infinite pleasure,” says the third-person diary, “in observing the freedom and good government of this nation.”107 He took the waters at Baden-Baden and advanced into Germany. He attended Calvinist and Lutheran as well as Catholic services, and discussed theology with Protestant clergymen. He tells of one Lutheran minister who vowed that he would rather hear a thousand Masses than partake of one Calvinist Communion108—for the Calvinists denied the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Moving into the Tirol, he felt the grandeur of the Alps long before Rousseau. From Innsbruck the party mounted to the Brenner Pass, Montaigne passing on the way “a stone of middling size.” Then through Trent to Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Venice, where he contributed “two big stones” to the Grand Canal. He thought the city not so wonderful as he had expected, nor the prostitutes as beautiful. On to Ferrara, where (according to the Essays, not the diary) he visited the insane Tasso; to Bologna and Florence, where the Arno received “two stones and a quantity of gravel,”109 and through Siena to Rome, where he “passed a stone as big as a pine kernel.”110 All in all, these recorded accretion-excretions would have built a pretty pyramid.
In Rome he visited a Jewish synagogue, witnessed a circumcision, and discussed with the rabbis their religious rites. He exchanged philosophies with the Roman courtesans. He was not (as Stendhal thought) insensitive to the art in Rome.111 He wandered day after day among the classic remains, never ceasing to marvel at their grandeur. But the great event was a visit to Gregory XIII. Like any son of the Church, Montaigne knelt to kiss the papal shoe, which the Pope kindly raised to ease the operation.112 Meanwhile the customs officials had found a copy of the Essays, which they turned over to the Inquisition. Montaigne was summoned to the Holy Office and was gently admonished that some passages smelled of heresy; would he not change or delete them in future editions? He promised. “I thought I left them very well satisfied with me”; indeed, they invited him to come and live in Rome. (He kept his promise indifferently, and in 1676 his book was placed on the Index.) Perhaps to reassure them and himself, he journeyed across Italy to the shrine of the Virgin at Loreto and dedicated a votive tablet to her. Then he recrossed the Apennines to take the waters at Lucca.
There (September 7, 1581) a message came, saying that he had been chosen mayor of Bordeaux. He asked to be excused, but Henry III bade him accept, and the tradition of public service left him by his father could not be ignored. He took his time getting back to France; he did not sight his château till November 30, seventeen months after beginning the tour. The duties of the mayoralty were light; the emoluments were honors without pay. He functioned sufficiently well, for he was re-elected (August 1583) for another two years. In December 1584 Henry of Navarre, with a mistress and forty followers, visited him, and the future king of France slept in the philosopher’s bed. Toward the end of the second term plague struck Bordeaux, and Montaigne, like nearly all public officials, left the city for rural retreats. On July 30, 1585, he turned over the insignia of his office to a successor and retired to his home.
He was only fifty-two, but his stones periodically disabled him, sometimes preventing him for days from passing water.113 Early in 1588 he was strong enough to make a third trip to Paris. While there he was arrested, as an adherent of Henry III, by the League then dominating the capital; he was lodged in the Bastille (July 10, 1588), but was released the same evening through the intercession of Catherine de Médicis. In October he attended the States-General at Blois, but he returned to Bordeaux just in time to escape involvement in the vicissitudes of Henry III after the assassination of the Duke of Guise.
In his final and finest essay, “Of Experience,” he included a description of his physical decay. His teeth, for example, seemed to have reached “the natural term of their continuance.”114 He endured his “going hence” without bitterness. He had lived his life very much as he had planned it, and he could write with pride: “View all antiquity over, and you shall find it a hard matter to choose out a dozen men that have directed their lives unto one certain, settled … course, which is the sweetest drift of wisdom.”115 Told that his end was near, he gathered his household and his legatees about him, and gave them in person the sums or objects he had bequeathed them in his will. He received the sacraments of the Church as piously as if he had never written a doubting word. He died September 13, 1592, aged fifty-nine.
His influence pervaded three centuries and four continents. Richelieu accepted with pleasure the dedication of Mlle. de Gournay’s final edition of the Essays. His friend and disciple Charron, as early as 1603, developed them into a formal and orderly philosophy. Florio made them into an English classic (1603), but overlaid his author’s brief simplicity with erudite verbosity. Shakespeare may have seen that translation and been helped to form and phrase the skepticism of his greatest tragedies; we have noted his specific debts. Perhaps Ben Jonson had Shakespeare in mind when he accused English writers of stealing from Montaigne.116 Bacon felt that influence, and Descartes may have found in the Essays the stimulus to his initial universal doubt. Pascal went almost insane trying to salvage his faith from Montaigne’s questionings. From Montaigne stemmed Bayle, Vauvenargues, Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire—Rousseau from Montaigne’s confessions and his essays “Of Education” and “Of Cannibals,” Voltaire from all the rest. Montaigne was the grandfather, as Bayle was the father, of the Enlightenment. Mme. du Deffand, the least deceived woman of her brilliant age, wished to “throw into the fire all the immense volumes of the philosophers except Montaigne, who is the father of them all.”117 Through Montaigne the psychological analysis of mind and character entered into French literature, from Corneille and Molière, La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère to Anatole France. Thoreau took much at this fountainhead, and Emerson bathed himself in it before writing his own Essays. Of Montaigne, as of few authors before the eighteenth century, it may be said that he is read today as if he had written yesterday.
The world has long since recognized and forgiven his faults. He admitted so many that he almost depleted the armory of his critics. He knew quite well that he was garrulous and vain. We tire, now and then, of his classical quotations, and for a moment fall into Malebranche’s unjust judgment of the Essays as “nothing but a tissue of historical anecdotes, little stories, bon mots, verses, and apothegms … proving nothing.”118 Unquestionably Montaigne jumbles his wares into a lazy disarray, so lessening their impact and point. He contradicts himself in a hundred subjects; he is bound to be right, since he says everything and its opposite. There is something paralyzing in universal skepticism; it preserves us from theological homicide, but it takes the wind out of our sails and drains us of fortitude. We are more deeply moved by Pascal’s desperate attempt to save his faith from Montaigne than by Montaigne’s willingness to have no faith at all.
We cannot put our hearts into such criticism; it interrupts only passingly our joy in the gaya ciencia, the laughing learning, the allegro pensieroso, of this unsilenceable gossiper. Where again shall we find so animated a synthesis of wisdom and humor? There is a subtle similarity between these two qualities, since both may come from seeing things in perspective; in Montaigne they make one man. His loquacity is redeemed by quaintness and clarity; there are no shopworn phrases here, no pompous absurdity. We are so weary of language used to conceal thought or its absence that we can overlook the egoism in these self-revelations. We are surprised to see how well this amiable causeur knows our hearts; we are relieved to find our faults shared by so wise a man, and by him so readily absolved. It is comforting to see that he too hesitates and does not know; we are delighted to be told that our ignorance, if realized, becomes philosophy. And what a relief it is, after St. Bartholomew, to come upon a man who is not sure enough to kill!
Finally, and despite his onslaught upon reason, we perceive that Montaigne begins in France, as Bacon in England, the Age of Reason. Montaigne, the critic of reason, was nothing if not reason itself. With all his curtsies to the Church, this irrationalist was a rationalist. He consented to conform only after he had sown the seeds of reason in the mind of France. And if, like Bacon, he tried to do this without disturbing the consolatory faith of the poor, we must not hold his caution or tenderness against him. He was not made for burning. He knew that he too might be wrong; he was the apostle of moderation as well as of reason; and he was too much of a gentleman to set his neighbor’s house on fire before he had any other shelter to give him. He was profounder than Voltaire because he sympathized with that which he destroyed.
Gibbon reckoned “in those bigoted times but two men of liberality [of free and generous ideas] in France: Henry IV and Montaigne.”119 And Sainte-Beuve, after viewing Montaigne unsympathetically through the eyes of Pascal,120 ended by pronouncing him, in a rare burst of enthusiasm, “le Français le plus sage qui ait jamais existé”—”the wisest Frenchman that ever lived.”121