Michel de Montaigne lived in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France in the 16C. A man of property and connections, he lived an interesting enough and somewhat rarefied life, but his claim to fame is his writing; specifically a collection of over 100 essays which have been in print pretty much consistently since then in French and since the 17C in English (The best translation is available free on line).
I read a bunch of the essays back in the day and have been haunted by fragments since then. They’re remarkable reads on several levels.
First of all, they are “essays” or, in French, “essais.” The French word “essayer” means “to try.” So, these are attempts, with no claim to finality or definitiveness. The sense of humility implicit in the word was also central to his philosophy. He was diffident, tentative, unassuming, skeptical, and open-minded. All rare enough since or now, and much more so in early modern Christian Europe where the rise of Protestantism (Luther posted his 95 theses just 13 years before Montaigne’s birth) led to rigidity, animosity, and internecine war.
Second, they are immensely personal. Montaigne looks at his body, his family, his culture, his clothes, and his interactions with his neighbors and colleagues.
Perhaps most importantly, they are candid. He strips away pretense and convention. They are filled with observation, not self-justification.
Montaigne was among the first in recorded literature to do this and his work has resonated with thinking people ever since. In important ways, his work is part of the inspiration for my blog project. The adjectives I used above to describe his attitude: “diffident, tentative, unassuming, skeptical, and open-minded.” are among those to which I aspire. This blog is more topical and political, probably more snarky and didactic, and definitely much less grounded in the classics (especially Roman) than his essays. Montaigne wrote over the course of twenty years (1572-92) when he was retired to his estate/vineyard after serving as part of the judicature of Gascony. He continually revised his work. Indeed, Montaigne constantly rewrote and added ideas to works in the several editions which came out during his lifetime (the notes and marginalia of which provide grist for all sorts of literary scholarly analysis). I also have left a legal career behind, but I’m publishing every week, so my efforts are (intentionally) a bit less polished than his.
Bakewell’s book contextualizes Montaigne’s writings within a framework of his life. She offers twenty “attempts” (or essays) to answer the central question which Montaigne posed: “How to Live.” She draws on the (various and often conflicting) answers that Montaigne provided in his essays and shows how his actual life lined up with those perspectives. It’s a lively and fun way to understand both the man and his “life and times.” She also traces his philosophic and literary influences as well as the interpretations and translations of Montaigne’s work across the 450 years since he wrote. This sheds light on the evolution of Western culture, drawing on Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Woolf among others.
But, of course, beyond the biography and the bibliography lies the Essays themselves. One of the reasons I picked up the Bakewell book was to renew and deepen my acquaintance with Montaigne and his work, thinking that his self-examination could be useful in my upcoming course on autobiography. I’m still sorting through the Essays to find one of the right size and accessibility for my freshman class. Some are too long or obscure, others are more sociological than reflective. There are more worth reading than fit into the syllabus, and will repay your perusal, guided perhaps by the editor of whatever version you might pick up.
Throughout the Essays, Montaigne struggles to figure out how to live well. He draws on literature and, even more, his own experience of life—his friendship and work, how he lives in his body and how he lives in his mind, his family and his books. He explores lying, parenting, cannibals, smells, estate management, friendship, and clothes. Montaigne’s philosophizing is off-hand, incidental and far less oppressive than either the ancient or contemporary varieties. He tells stories. All in the service of trying to see the different aspects of his own life.
Harold Bloom, the late literary critic, argued that Shakespeare—especially in Hamlet and Henry IV—was the first to crystallize and publish characters as self-reflective. Bloom called it: “the invention of the human.” But Shakespeare was just starting to write when Montaigne died and read the first English translation of the Essays and his works show the echoes.
Regardless of genre or historical primacy (or literary capability), the project of self-knowledge is essential and the more examples of trying to attain this state we can find, the better. Virtually every philosophical tradition (Western or other) urges the primacy of “knowing yourself.” Like much that is essential in human life, this is a futile, but necessary project; all we can do is essay our best.
I’ll be a bit more Montaigne-conscious in my blog postings to come, in style, in allusion, and in (I hope) self-candor.
[btw, Happy Bastille Day! Vive la France!]