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Montaigne's Essays

Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Atlantic.

Montaigne, a French lawyer and landowner, retired to his family property in the Dordogne when he was thirty-eight, in 1571, about the time that Shakespeare started grade school. With little to do, he got bored and then depressed, and to keep himself busy he began writing what he called Essais, or "Attempts." He addressed himself to a wide variety of subjects - sadness, idleness, liars, fear, smell, prayer, cannibals, and thumbs, among many others - but his ultimate and revolutionary subject was himself. The essay form, in which example and commentary, the objective and the subjective, twist around each other in generative embrace, did not exist; Montaigne proceeded to invent it.

Keith Jarrett, the jazz pianist, paying tribute at a concert to Miles Davis, said that even on a bad night Davis had tried with everything he had, as a jazz artist must, to body forth his individuality. That night, Jarrett himself was not, perhaps, at his best, but he certainly make his distinctiveness known. "It's not the music I care about," he said. "It's the process."

For Montaigne, too, it was the process that counted, and in that sense I nominate him the father of jazz, inventor of the verbal riff, the man who elevated organic form over inherited structures and first made art by letting one thing lead to another. He, too, wanted to make his individuality known. Although he was a modest man, who didn't think himself extraordinary in any way, he believed that everyone's mind was unique, and he wanted to leave a record of his own. "I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen," he wrote when he published the first two volumes of his essays, in 1580, "so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours."

Montaigne worked in a round library at the top of a tower. The wars of religion raged around him, but Montaigne, unlike many others, did not fortify his house, believing - with characteristic paradox, and rightly in the case - that no one would bother to attack that which was not defended. He himself was Catholic and conservative in temperament, feeling that unless one was absolutely sure the new way was better, there was no reason to change from the old and familiar. And how could he ever be sure? "Que scay-je?" ("What do I know?") was the motto struck on a medal he commissioned to commemorate his retirement, and emblazoned on his library ceiling was Pliny's reminder that nothing is certain except that nothing is certain.

Humility - a sense of the largeness of the universe and the insignificance of the self - was central to Montaigne's gaiety, and hence his continuing power to charm. "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?" In his lifetime a whole new world was being discovered, one the wisest men had been certain did not exist. Textbook wisdom has it that this discovery produced distressing responses in "Renaissance Man" - paralyzing uncertainty, or compensatory fanaticism, or just sheer gloom. Not in Montaigne. To him, the New World, with its strange inhabitants, was exhilarating, more grist for the mill of his imagination. In his famous essay "On the Cannibals," which inspired parts of Shakesspeare's The Tempest, he paid tribute to the nobility of the Indians while he acknowledged their cruelty. But if they practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism, was it a step forward when their European conquerors converted them to the practice of burying a man to his waist, shooting him half-dead with arrows, and then hanging him?
He was an anthropologist before anthropology: the more he learned of the world, the more he saw differences of custom.

"Here they live on human flesh; there, it is a pious duty to kill one's father at a particular age; elsewhere the fathers decide, when the children are still in the womb, which will be kept and brought up and which will be killed and abandoned; elsewhere aged husbands lend their wives to younger men to enjoy; elsewhere again there is no sin in having wives in common - indeed in one country the women, as a mark of honour, hem their skirts with a fringe of tassels to show how many men they have lain with."

In Montaigne, no panic was engendered by relativism; to the partisan certainties of his time he opposed a tolerance based on skepticism. "It is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them." He was pretty sure that in a hundred years people would hardly remember that there had been civil wars in France, to say nothing of being able to articulate what they'd been about. Few people are able to live happily with such a sense of their own unimportance, but Montaigne throve on it. Refusing all kinds of easy certainty, easy solace, he remained good-natured, and the cheerful face he gave to wisdom is, I think, what's most lovable in him, so different from the grave despondency we have been taught to associate with the philosophic mind.

Montaigne makes learning look good. The pleasure and the point of the essays is less in any insight than in the abundance and lucidity of insight, less in any story than in the movement of the mind between one story and another, from antiquity to the present, from this world to the antipodes. The essays offer an image of a mind darting comfortably out from the center of its own experience, experience both lived and acquired through books, with equal access to near and far, distant and present, in its search for self-knowledge and equilibrium. What he had read helped Montaigne palpably in his effort to live better and die well. "He who had never actually seen a river, the first time he did so took it for the ocean, since we think that the biggest things that we know represent the limits of what Nature can produce in that species." Against this kind of provinciality he deployed the wisdom of the ancients and any other mediated experience he could get his hands on. The imagination needed stretching, literature was the exercise equipment, and torrential example became moral response.

"The tyrant Dionysius offered Plato a long, perfumed, damask robe, fashionable in Persia. Plato refused it saying that, since he was born a man, he would not willingly wear women's clothing. Aristippus, however, accepted it, replying that no apparel could corrupt a chaste heart; and when his friends taunted him with cowardice for taking so little offence when Dionysius spat in his face, he replied: 'Merely to catch a gudgeon fishermen suffer the waves to bespatter them from head to foot.' Diogenes was washing some cabbage leaves when he saw Aristippus go by: 'If you knew how to live on cabbage,' Diogenes said, 'you would not be courting a tyrant.' Aristippus retorted: 'You would not be here washing cabbages, if you knew how to live among men.' That is how Reason can make different actions seem right. Reason is a two-handled pot: you can grab it from the right or the left. ... When they lectured Solon for shedding vain and useless tears at the death of his son, he replied, "It is precisely because they are vain and useless that I am right to shed them." Socrates' wife exclaimed, increasing her grief: 'Those wretched judges have condemned him to death unjustly!' But Socrates replied, 'Would you really prefer that I were justly condemned?'"
Montaigne was educated according to a notion of his father's, so that Latin was his mother tongue rather than French, and he knew Greek, though he was never comfortable in it. He cited stories and passages from Cicero, Seneca, Terence, Plutarch, Lucretius, Xenophon, Herodotus, Livy, and Martial, to name just a few sources. The essays began as notes on his reading, and the early ones are little more than tissues of quotation, with stiff and timid commentary. As he went on writing new essays, and revising the early ones, he became freer and increasingly autobiographical, adding stories and examples from his own experience, speaking to the reader more directly, using "I." He prided himself on never erasing, but he did change and add to the text in successive editions. Every time he tooted his horn, he tooted it just a little bit differently. Serious modern editions of Montaigne's essays identify the successive layers of text with successive letters, so that one can follow Montaigne's changes over time. (I've included the letters in this quotation only.)

"[Al It is difficulty which makes us prize things. B] The people of the Marches of Ancona more readily go to Saint James of Compostela to make their vows: those of Galicia, to our Lady of Loreto. At Liege they sing the praises of the baths at Lucca: in Tuscany, of those of Spa-by-liege. You hardly ever see a Roman in the fencing school of Rome: it is full of Frenchmen! Great Cato tired of his wife - just like the rest of us – while she was his: when she belonged to another he yearned for her. [C] I had an old stallion which I put out to stud: there was no holding it back when it scented the mares. The ease of it all soon sated it where its own mares were concerned; but with other mares, as soon as one passes by its paddock it returns to its incessant neighings and its frenzied passion just as before. A] Our appetite scorns and passes over what it holds in its hand, so as to run after what it does not have."

The earliest text, with elegant abstraction, sets the theme; the later texts play variations, offering specific - and increasingly personal - examples.

This is how Montaigne described his method: "I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full. ... Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it. ... I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. ... I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance. Anything we do reveals us. The same soul of Caesar's which displayed herself in ordering and arranging the battle of Pharsalia is also displayed when arranging his idle and amorous affrays."

Although he seems formidably learned to us, Montaigne did not think himself a bookish person. He preferred action to words. His best ideas came to him when he was on horseback. He said he always chose easy books over hard ones and liked authors who started with their conclusions. In the course of writing and rewriting his essays he took time off to serve as mayor of Bordeaux and also to travel, both for enlargement and to seek cures for his deteriorating health. He wrote for his own amusement. "If anyone says to me that to use the Muses as mere playthings and pastimes is to debase them, then he does not know as I do the value of pleasure, plaything, or pastime. I could almost say that any other end is laughable."

I read Montaigne for his rhythm as much as for anything he tells me - the staccato sentences, the cascading examples, the hard little nuggets of epigrammatic insight. "Wherever peccadillos are treated as crimes, crimes are treated as peccadillos." "Faced with danger I do not reflect on how to escape but on how little it matters that I do so." "I only quote others the better to quote myself." "No wind is right for a seaman who has no predetermined harbour." I read him for the way he shifts and slips from subject to subject. "Where I seek myself I cannot find myself. I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgment." I do not think Montaigne would mind my reading him more for style than for substance, because he did the same with other writers. "Every day I spend time reading my authors, not caring about their learning, looking not for their subject-matter but how they handle it; just as I go in pursuit of discussions with a celebrated mind not to be taught by it but to get to know it."
In a characteristically indirect essay called "On Coaches" he tells us about Roman coaches drawn by tigers and then offers a long, brilliant portrait of the Spaniards' perfidy toward the Indians of Mexico and Peru. The connection between the two is only hinted at toward the end of the essay, when Montaigne reconstructs an image that struck him in his reading - an image of the Inca King borne not in a tiger-drawn coach like the decadent Romans but in a chair on the shoulders of his followers. Attacked by the Spaniards, his chairbearers die in waves, the places of the slaughtered taken by new volunteers until the King himself falls into Spanish hands. The essay ends with almost no ending at all - just that image, a dying fall in more ways than one.

There are other ways to write essays: the tripartite form in which thesis is followed by antithesis and then booming synthesis, for example. People still reach conclusions, or strive for transcendence, or, having explored both sides of a question, leave it predictably unanswered. Not all essays are conceived of as explorations or "trials" of the self, and, although it must be said that this model has also licensed an incredible number of windbags, Montaignesque essays that are based on the illusion that the author is talking to the reader about whatever comes into his or her mind tend to be, at the least, more lively, less stagey, than others - revelations, celebrations, or pronouncements - that cultivate an image of the author as provider of enlightenment.

Montaigne's essays got better and better the later they were written. Anyone interested in sampling them should begin at the end, with the essays of Book III, which was published eight years after the first two. Montaigne died in September of 1592, aged fifty-nine but by his own accounts feeling very old. He had suffered from kidney stones for years and was hardly ever out of discomfort. He revised the essays up until he died, and one of his great continuing themes was how to meet death. On this most serious of all subjects Montaigne was ultimately lighthearted.

"I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!"

Let's hope that this habit of mind - a sense of the ridiculous as a form of solace - is catching. It may be Montaigne's most precious gift. That and his championing of change, growth, and the provisional nature of any statement. By insisting on making himself known to us in all his flickering individuality, he made himself immortal.