Falling in love with Montaigne

Falling in love with Montaigne, 427 years on
from SELHuG Committee Member Trevor Moore

Even on the highest throne in the world, you are still only sitting on your arse. Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

Until I read Sarah Bakewell’s magnificent 2010 bestseller How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, I had never heard of Michel de Montaigne. Yet in France he is as revered as Shakespeare is in this country. It didn’t take me long to see why. 

Montaigne’s legacy springs from his masterpiece Les Essais, running to 107 chapters in three volumes and more than a thousand pages. They are not essays in the modern sense, the noun springs from the French essayer – to try. In sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness discussion, Montaigne tackles subjects as varied as On the Length of Life, On Drunkenness, How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing, On Educating Children, and On Cruelty

I’m not embarrassed to say that I love the man, if that’s possible 427 years after his death. I am not alone. As Bernard Levin wrote, I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: “How did he know all that about me?” Virginia Woolf, equally smitten, wrote that if people were to pass a portrait of Montaigne in a gallery, they would pause to peer in ‘seeing their own faces reflected in it.’

Montaigne begins The Essays by teasingly telling you not to bother reading his work: Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain. Therefore, Farewell.

As a Catholic living during the religious wars Montaigne played his cards close to his chest, because a wrong move could end in death, particularly as he lived in the family chateau east of Bordeaux in an area with many roaming protestants eager to prove their devotion (they killed his Catholic page on the spot whilst out walking). 

God is taken as read in The Essays, leaving Montaigne to write openly on matters that ran counter to holy scripture, so much so that the book was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books in 1676. 

I venture to suggest that, had he lived today, Montaigne would have been a humanist: All the opinions in the world reach the same point, that pleasure is our target, even though they get there by different means; otherwise we would throw them out immediately; for who would listen to anyone whose goal was to achieve for us pain and suffering?

Indeed, the American Montaigne scholar Donald M. Frame concludes his Montaigne’s Discovery of Man – The Humanization of a Humanist (1955) by saying that Montaigne changed the meaning of the word ‘humanist’: He has given it a breadth and scope it had never had before. He has made it, even as he has made himself, fully human.

It is obviously not possible to capture the richness of Montaigne’s voluminous work in this short piece, but I hope my unbounded enthusiasm intrigues you to explore it further. And if you fall in love with him too, I promise not to get jealous.

 Translated extracts are from: M A Screech’s The Essays: A Selection (Penguin).