By Jared Marcel Pollen.
Inventing a literary form is an honor bestowed upon few. We may speak of Don Quixote as the “first novel,” or Emerson as the “father” of American poetry, or Augustine’s Confessions as the earliest example of autobiography, and enjoy doing so because it exercises our desire to create ranks, build consensus and celebrate true originality, even if we know full well that American poetry didn’t begin at any one point, nor was there a first novel. Still, this hyperbole is fun, and lists need to be made. So when it comes to the essay, it should be said that the verdict is essentially unanimous: it belongs to Michel de Montaigne.
When we trace the invention of a form to a single individual effort, what we are really doing is citing the innovation of a style that feels so realized, so accomplished, it fits in seamlessly with later efforts of the same genre, showing no signs of germination or primitivism. It comes to us without comparison or any visible debt to prior works, and yet it comes already completed. The free verse of Whitman is a good example of this. They, like Montaigne’s essays, are a tour de force. They are intellectually and aesthetically total, in which it is impossible, or at the very least unduly onerous to isolate form, and should instead be treated as a sensorium.
In the ancient world up through the middle ages, if you were bright enough, you worked as a philosopher and you wrote either dialogues or treatises. The notion of occasional, brief writings on subjects like law, friendship, education, custom, government, death and civil society by an individual who was not acting in a professional capacity was a new enterprise indeed, and one that the culture of print helped bring into existence. The materials that make up the corpus of the essays, letters and travel logs began in 1571, when Montaigne, “long weary of the servitude of the courts and public employment” went into self-imposed exile in the south tower of his estate near Bordeaux and set about the task, or essais (in French “trial”) of self-examination.
The essays are a series of intellectual self-portraits that together produce an autobiography of the author. But unlike, say, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or Augustine’s Confessions, which are reflections upon a lifetime of learning, Montaigne is able to provide us with continuously altering snapshots of himself over the course of years, which furnish a diagram of the mind throughout its maturity. It is a personal investigation out of which the author might to sketch a vision of himself: “I have no thought of serving either you or my own glory,” Montaigne tells us at the outset; “I am myself the matter of my book,”––and that “…you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” Indeed, the project is that there is no project, but to record the mind contemplating itself, in which: “the first feature produces the second.” Thus we receive in the opening pages the dismissal of any possible culmination, or end goal, so that the inner narrative of the self is free to evolve. “I do not depict being,” Montaigne says, “I depict passage.”
It is tempting to want to credit Montaigne’s pensée with more methodology and philosophical intent than it really bears. As a thinker who is often referenced alongside Descartes and Pascal, it’s important not to understate just how whimsical and playful Montaigne’s work truly is. The more time is spent with the essays, the more it becomes apparent that there is, in fact, no method at all. In “Of Idleness,” he acknowledges that in committing his truant thoughts to his pen, his hope is to: “make [his] mind ashamed of itself.” This self-doubt––which often casts itself in the hue of self-reproach––is the presiding tone of the essays, so much so at times that one begins to suspect the author is being falsely modest, or blatantly disingenuous. (The essays were massively successful upon their publication, and most people who could read had probably read them.) Throughout the voluminous collection, Montaigne is frequently unserious and pathologically self-aware––ever ready to undermine himself at the moment he appears pedagogical, or didactic. Instead, the essays display a consummate knowledge without pedantry or rigor; the author is erudite without being esoteric.
This lack of agenda becomes the looseness of the writer’s technique––in contrast to the turgid, rococo style of the Ciceronian mode, with its strict adherence to form, which dominated European prose in the mid-to-late sixteenth century. But the essays are not bound by form, in as much as they repeatedly neglect any obligation for organization or procedure. It is a style that is completely internal, malleable and self-justifying. And because there is no imposed structure, the essays are less argumentative than exploratory, speculative while also avoiding relativism, committed but not systematic, and often severed at the moment Montaigne senses he is approaching a conclusion. One such famous example of this is the last line of “Of Cannibals”, which ends with a spectacular shrug: “All this is not too bad––but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.”
Montaigne engages his style through what he calls, “la peinture de la pensée” (“the painting of thought.”) The writer confronts the blank page as the blank canvas of the mind, and as the mind adjusts itself to a topic in the act of unpacking it, so do the “high” and “low” styles of the voice. As he says while apologizing for one of his signature digressions: “My style and my mind alike go roaming.” It is this mimetic representation of intellectual process that defines Montaigne’s technique; and technique, as Oscar Wilde says, is really personality. As readers, we are guided along the contours of the mind in motion, with the writer thinking and discovering as he writes. We, in turn, experience two prongs of thought: the voice of the mind discovering the subject, and the “other voice” of the mind interjecting on itself to reflect as it makes the discovery. Here, style is epistemic, style is judgment, and it reflects the process of induction. Thus, a particular mode of argument it is not simply a demonstration of the how the writer thinks, but the arrival of knowledge itself. The sensation one feels in reading is like that of falling through a consciousness, unprepared and desperate to make sense of itself and the world, a process hideously and perpetually internal that is at once denigrating and self-flattering.
The rhythms of thought are not only depicted, they are captured. At once point Montaigne describes the essays as an attempt to keep the “register” of his thoughts. The register in this case is not only the recorded thought, but the moment of the thought itself, its pitch and delivery. “The play is the thing,” says Hamlet, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But it is the prince’s attempt to catch his own conscience as much as the king’s. So in Montaigne’s writing is the awareness kept that his conscience could change at any moment, and change again. Thoughts move forwards as well as backwards, or back in on themselves, or spiral away before being retrieved several pages later. In “On Cannibals” we are thrown into a digression of speculative theories about the formation of the oceans, before being cautioned against pseudo-science and charlatanism; all this lasts nearly three pages and is heaped upon us almost immediately after the topic of discussion has been introduced.
In “On Vanity,” we get the admission: “I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.” It is this prescience, or the feeling of oncoming irony that makes capturing the thought at the moment of its arrival so crucial, though it provides no lasting comfort. Montaigne catalogues his thoughts at the very moment at which they occur in attempt to clarify them––before he can distrust them, before he can become ashamed of himself––just as Hamlet uses the artifice of the play to produce a renewed moment in which to hold a sense of resolve muddled by prolonged contemplation.
Montaigne is a writer we can be sure Shakespeare had read and knew well. In The Tempest, a passage from “On Cannibals” about utopianism and the idylls of the new world is spoken almost verbatim from the mouth of Gonzalo. (Caliban’s name can also be read as an obvious anagram for an anthropophagus.) Most of all though, we see him in Hamlet’s character. In “A Custom of the Isle of Cea”, a meditation on suicide, we get a few lines that ring eerily close to the prince’s in his most famous soliloquy:
“It is an act of cowardice, not of virtue, to go an hide in a hole, under a massive tomb, in order to avoid the blows of fortune?… Most commonly flight from other misfortunes drives us to this one.”
The essays contain a great deal of philosophy, but are not themselves a work of philosophy. They do not invest in their own ability to instruct, or serve as an example for the conduct of one’s life. Instead, we find in the essays a vocation liberated of the need to be right all the time. Simon de Beauvoir said that all philosophies had to be arrogant by virtue, because they sought to lay claim to something excessive: total possession of truth. Montaigne had a profound influence on the schools of skepticism and empiricism, which would begin with Descartes (who believed that only the self could be known to exist) and dominate European thought over the next two centuries, eventually reaching its logical terminus with Hume (who believed that the self was “nothing more than a bundle of perceptions.”) But Montaigne wasn’t nearly arrogant enough to perform as a philosopher. Dogma and intellectual rigidity are eschewed at every turn. And it is towards this conceitedness that many of the essays are counterposed.
Across nearly every subject, Montaigne demonstrates a pathological agnosticism. His sense of doubt is pregnant and unceasing, both of himself and others––critical, but rarely affirming or denying anything outright. Yet, in spite of his legacy to skepticism there is in the essays a clear and utter want of solipsism. The “I” of the narrator never diminishes the validity, or potential of other “I’s.” In the “Apology For Raymond Sebond” we get the metaphysically teasing line: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”––a far cry from Descartes’ belief that animals were automata whose broken components made them incapable of speech. Montaigne’s skepticism, rather, is more closely allied with the Socratic form, one that that works free of the methodological traps and extremes of the Cartesian cogito.
The life of the skeptic is readily synonymous with that of the iconoclast. Yet occasionally the primacy of the former temperament has a tendency to get in the way of the dedication required for latter. Montaigne, for all his agnosticism, was averse to the trending political and religious rebellions of his time. He opposed The Reformation on the grounds that it had thrown Europe into what would become a protracted and cyclical civil war. His inherent distrust of individual opinion also meant that the revisions of one person could never justify the renovation of an entire institution, nor were they fit alone to establish a new one––believing instead that extant authority was best fit to regulate itself. Most of this is written about in “Of Custom,” in which much of the stress is placed on examples demonstrating that most laws, ranging drastically from nation to nation, are the product not of divinity but of arbitrary traditions. (But to accuse our author of contradiction is a truism.) In “Of Vanity” we get a defense of government that is dispassionately status quo: If you have monarchy, Montaigne says, and that body governs well enough, don’t bother to switch it out for hope of something better. Odds are you’ll wind up creating more trouble for yourself.
Organized religion, however, receives a much different treatment. Nominally a Catholic, Montaigne’s loyalty to his faith is difficult to parse. The best insight we have is the “Apology For Raymond Sebond,” which, at a hundred and fifty pages, is a book unto itself. In places, his contempt for religion is unambiguous: “Man is certainly crazy. He could not make a mite, and he makes gods by the dozen.” The essay contains only a few passages from scripture, and manages to avoid altogether any discussion of Christ. At a time when atheism was intellectually unattainable and any public display of irreligion meant persecution or death, it is tempting (mostly for the satisfaction of those of us in the club) to want to assume more about levels of unbelief in those who were obvious suspects. We can be confident enough though in saying that he was in all likelihood a Deist, or at the very least, a member of a new Christianity bastardized by Pagan thought.
But Faith is a different matter. It is easy to hold contradictions in intellectual development against previous generations who hadn’t yet worked them out. That reason could be used as a defense in the name of faith––doubt as a qualifier for credulity––is to us an anachronism of the mind. The question of whether or not this is reconcilable is the subject of the Apology. The essay sets out as a defense Sebond’s Theologia Naturalis, but in usual Montaigne fashion passes though the whole of western thought concerning matters of science and divinity. In the end we are presented with a case for doubt as act of humility in the face of a higher intelligence––that is, the intelligence of the Creator, which, Montaigne maintains, is not accessible through reason or everyday experience. To be certain of anything else is extreme arrogance. To doubt oneself is necessary; to doubt God is folly. It is in many ways the apotheosis of Montaigne’s skepticism, but it also wouldn’t be unfair to view it as a concession to intelligent design at the limits of one’s knowledge. Thus, it is equally a statement of terminal credulity. It is also the closest any of the essays comes to a committed argument that isn’t undermined or contradicted a posteriori.
“On Vanity” is perhaps the most exemplary of all the essays. It is also the most flippant. To write about vanity, says Montaigne, is the greatest vanity of all––a product of the needless proliferation of opinions and commentaries, which is a mark of decadence routinely mistaken for enlightenment. (One only needs to spend an hour with social media or the twenty-four hour news cycle to feel the truth of this.) It is considerably longer than most pieces, and the author begins by announcing the foolishness of his enterprise:
Here you have, a little more decently, some excrements of an aged mind, now hard, now loose, and always undigested. And when shall I make an end of describing the continual agitation and changes of my thoughts, whatever subject they light on, since Diomedes filled six thousand books with the sole subject of grammar? What must prattle produce, when the stammering and loosening of the tongue smothered the world with such a horrible load of volumes? So many words for the sake of words alone! O Pythagoras, why did you not conjure away this tempest?
It is a classic Montaigne paragraph––anecdotal, irreverent, brooding, full of self-reproach and complete with two references to the Greeks. From here we drift to annoyances and habits, his contentment to be apolitical, his distrust of utopian idealism, the hypocrisy of sanctimonious officials, his thoughts on friendship, marriage, the household, women, travel and his honorary status as a citizen of Rome. It is in many ways a microcosm of the entire collection, a brilliant tumble of intellectual wandering, self-investigation as well as self-forgetting.
The transient nature of the Montaigne’s thought and the occasional contradictory handling of the same subjects has allowed him to resist being claimed, and made his allegiances difficult to place. A few things we are able to say with certainty though. Like most thinkers born before the enlightenment, he regarded “democracy” as a dirty word and treated it with pessimism. In “Of Prognostications” we get a firm rejection of charlatanism and soothsayery. The essays in the first collection, especially those related to death (“To Philosophize is to Learn How To Die”) or prophecy, (“Of Prognostications”) lean visibly towards a kind of Lucretian stoicism, a scientific detachment, one based on the order of Nature, designed to relieve angst and guard oneself against false consolation. In the age of rediscovered classical knowledge, spiritual kinship was to be found in either Greece or Rome. Montaigne was much more of a Roman. Cicero and Seneca are the thinkers cited with the greatest frequency throughout; Virgil and Lucretius the poets; Horace and Terence the playwrights; and though there is little mention of him, the later essays show an Epicureanism fitting old age.
The more time you spend with the essays though, the less concerned you find yourself with the need for answers, or the firmness of the author’s position. At a certain point you allow yourself not to care. The fluid agnosticism of the author instills itself in us and we, internalizing the voice, waft freely along with it. Pedagogy falls away and style takes over. Is this not what ultimately draws us back to great writing? We don’t continue to revisit our favorites so that we can root through their sentences, confirming opinions and statements of belief. We go to literature to experience the activity of another consciousness. In other words, we go to experience how a writer thinks more so than what they think. And with Montaigne, how is everything. And how is style. This is usually the territory of fiction, which can perform it with greater license––whereas critical writing is often burdened by the need to formulate argument and manage subjective experience with facts for the sake of accuracy or correctness.
The essais however, manage to find this same freedom, the same negative capability and world-making power of interiority. It is fitting that the last entry of the third book is titled “Of Experience,” in which, among other things, Montaigne weighs the question, which contributes more to knowledge: literature, or life? It is a question he never really seeks to answer. After completing the last installment of the essays, however, Montaigne would spend the final ten years of his life writing about his travels––writings that we have, though he never intended for them to be published. By 1581, the personal enterprise of the essays, spanning over ten years, had been closed, never to be reopened. What they leave behind though is an instruction simple enough: know thyself. Otherwise, what do we know?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jared Marcel Pollen‘s work has appeared in The Millions and Open Letters Monthly. He currently lives in Windsor, Ontario.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 4th, 2016.
Montaigne: his free-ranging essays were almost scandalous in their day. Étienne Dumonstier/Wikimedia Commons
When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.
His Essays’ preface almost warns us off:
Reader, you have here an honest book; … in writing it, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end. I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason that you should employ your leisure upon so frivolous and vain a subject. Therefore farewell.
The ensuing, free-ranging essays, although steeped in classical poetry, history and philosophy, are unquestionably something new in the history of Western thought. They were almost scandalous for their day.
No one before Montaigne in the Western canon had thought to devote pages to subjects as diverse and seemingly insignificant as “Of Smells”, “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”, “Of Posting” (letters, that is), “Of Thumbs” or “Of Sleep” — let alone reflections on the unruliness of the male appendage, a subject which repeatedly concerned him.
French philosopher Jacques Rancière has recently argued that modernism began with the opening up of the mundane, private and ordinary to artistic treatment. Modern art no longer restricts its subject matters to classical myths, biblical tales, the battles and dealings of Princes and prelates.
French philosopher, Jacques Rancière. Annette Bozorgan/Wikimedia Commons
If Rancière is right, it could be said that Montaigne’s 107 Essays, each between several hundred words and (in one case) several hundred pages, came close to inventing modernism in the late 16th century.
Montaigne frequently apologizes for writing so much about himself. He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all. With an almost Socratic irony, he tells us most about his own habits of writing in the essays titled “Of Presumption”, “Of Giving the Lie”, “Of Vanity”, and “Of Repentance”.
But the message of this latter essay is, quite simply, that non, je ne regrette rien, as a more recent French icon sang:
Were I to live my life over again, I should live it just as I have lived it; I neither complain of the past, nor do I fear the future; and if I am not much deceived, I am the same within that I am without…I have seen the grass, the blossom, and the fruit, and now see the withering; happily, however, because naturally.
Montaigne’s persistence in assembling his extraordinary dossier of stories, arguments, asides and observations on nearly everything under the sun (from how to parley with an enemy to whether women should be so demure in matters of sex, has been celebrated by admirers in nearly every generation.
Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare. He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot. Voltaire celebrated Montaigne – a man educated only by his own reading, his father and his childhood tutors – as “the least methodical of all philosophers, but the wisest and most amiable”. Nietzsche claimed that the very existence of Montaigne’s Essays added to the joy of living in this world.
More recently, Sarah Bakewell’s charming engagement with Montaigne, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) made the best-sellers’ lists. Even today’s initiatives in teaching philosophy in schools can look back to Montaigne (and his “On the Education of Children”) as a patron saint or sage.
So what are these Essays, which Montaigne protested were indistinguishable from their author? (“My book and I go hand in hand together”).
It’s a good question.
Anyone who tries to read the Essays systematically soon finds themselves overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of examples, anecdotes, digressions and curios Montaigne assembles for our delectation, often without more than the hint of a reason why.
To open the book is to venture into a world in which fortune consistently defies expectations; our senses are as uncertain as our understanding is prone to error; opposites turn out very often to be conjoined (“the most universal quality is diversity”); even vice can lead to virtue. Many titles seem to have no direct relation to their contents. Nearly everything our author says in one place is qualified, if not overturned, elsewhere.
Without pretending to untangle all of the knots of this “book with a wild and desultory plan”, let me tug here on a couple of Montaigne’s threads to invite and assist new readers to find their own way.
Philosophy (and writing) as a way of life
Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic, hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars, and his grief at the loss of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie through dysentery.
Did Montaigne turn to the Stoic school of philosophy to deal with the horrors of war? Édouard Debat-Ponsan/Wikimedia Commons
Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favorites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles. It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called “a way of life”.
Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it. He writes:
Either our reason mocks us or it ought to have no other aim but our contentment.
We are great fools. ‘He has passed over his life in idleness,’ we say: ‘I have done nothing today.’ What? have you not lived? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious of all your occupations.
One feature of the Essays is, accordingly, Montaigne’s fascination with the daily doings of men like Socrates and Cato the Younger; two of those figures revered amongst the ancients as wise men or “sages”.
Their wisdom, he suggests, was chiefly evident in the lives they led (neither wrote a thing). In particular, it was proven by the nobility each showed in facing their deaths. Socrates consented serenely to taking hemlock, having been sentenced unjustly to death by the Athenians. Cato stabbed himself to death after having meditated upon Socrates’ example, in order not to cede to Julius Caesar’s coup d’état.
To achieve such “philosophic” constancy, Montaigne saw, requires a good deal more than book learning. Indeed, everything about our passions and, above all, our imagination, speaks against achieving that perfect tranquillity the classical thinkers saw as the highest philosophical goal.
We discharge our hopes and fears, very often, on the wrong objects, Montaigne notes, in an observation that anticipates the thinking of Freud and modern psychology. Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change. Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.
Philosophy, in this classical view, involves a retraining of our ways of thinking, seeing and being in the world. Montaigne’s earlier essay “To philosophise is to learn how to die” is perhaps the clearest exemplar of his indebtedness to this ancient idea of philosophy.
Yet there is a strong sense in which all of the Essays are a form of what one 20th century author has dubbed “self-writing”: an ethical exercise to “strengthen and enlighten” Montaigne’s own judgement, as much as that of we readers:
And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? … I have no more made my book than my book has made me: it is a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life…
As for the seeming disorder of the product, and Montaigne’s frequent claims that he is playing the fool, this is arguably one more feature of the Essays that reflects his Socratic irony. Montaigne wants to leave us with some work to do and scope to find our own paths through the labyrinth of his thoughts, or alternatively, to bobble about on their diverting surfaces.
A free-thinking sceptic
Yet Montaigne’s Essays, for all of their classicism and their idiosyncrasies, are rightly numbered as one of the founding texts of modern thought. Their author keeps his own prerogatives, even as he bows deferentially before the altars of ancient heroes like Socrates, Cato, Alexander the Great or the Theban general Epaminondas.
There is a good deal of the Christian, Augustinian legacy in Montaigne’s makeup. And of all the philosophers, he most frequently echoes ancient sceptics like Pyrrho or Carneades who argued that we can know almost nothing with certainty. This is especially true concerning the “ultimate questions” the Catholics and Huguenots of Montaigne’s day were bloodily contesting.
Michel de Montaigne. Wikimedia Commons
Writing in a time of cruel sectarian violence, Montaigne is unconvinced by the ageless claim that having a dogmatic faith is necessary or especially effective in assisting people to love their neighbors:
Between ourselves, I have ever observed supercelestial opinions and subterranean manners to be of singular accord…
This scepticism applies as much to the pagan ideal of a perfected philosophical sage as it does to theological speculations.
Socrates’ constancy before death, Montaigne concludes, was simply too demanding for most people, almost superhuman. As for Cato’s proud suicide, Montaigne takes liberty to doubt whether it was as much the product of Stoic tranquility, as of a singular turn of mind that could take pleasure in such extreme virtue.
Indeed when it comes to his essays “Of Moderation” or “Of Virtue”, Montaigne quietly breaks the ancient mold. Instead of celebrating the feats of the world’s Catos or Alexanders, here he lists example after example of people moved by their sense of transcendent self-righteousness to acts of murderous or suicidal excess.
Even virtue can become vicious, these essays imply, unless we know how to moderate our own presumptions.
Of cannibals and cruelties
If there is one form of argument Montaigne uses most often, it is the sceptical argument drawing on the disagreement amongst even the wisest authorities.
If human beings could know if, say, the soul was immortal, with or without the body, or dissolved when we die…then the wisest people would all have come to the same conclusions by now, the argument goes. Yet even the “most knowing” authorities disagree about such things, Montaigne delights in showing us.
The existence of such “an infinite confusion” of opinions and customs ceases to be the problem, for Montaigne. It points the way to a new kind of solution, and could in fact enlighten us.
Documenting such manifold differences between customs and opinions is, for him, an education in humility:
Manners and opinions contrary to mine do not so much displease as instruct me; nor so much make me proud as they humble me.
His essay “Of Cannibals” for instance, presents all of the different aspects of American Indian culture, as known to Montaigne through travellers’ reports then filtering back into Europe. For the most part, he finds these “savages’” society ethically equal, if not far superior, to that of war-torn France’s — a perspective that Voltaire and Rousseau would echo nearly 200 years later.
We are horrified at the prospect of eating our ancestors. Yet Montaigne imagines that from the Indians’ perspective, Western practices of cremating our deceased, or burying their bodies to be devoured by the worms must seem every bit as callous.
And while we are at it, Montaigne adds that consuming people after they are dead seems a good deal less cruel and inhumane than torturing folk we don’t even know are guilty of any crime whilst they are still alive…
A gay and sociable wisdom
Voltaire celebrated Montaigne as one of the wisest and most amiable philosophers. Nicolas de Largillierre/Wikimedia Commons
“So what is left then?”, the reader might ask, as Montaigne undermines one presumption after another, and piles up exceptions like they had become the only rule.
A very great deal, is the answer. With metaphysics, theology, and the feats of godlike sages all under a “suspension of judgment”, we become witnesses as we read the Essays to a key document in the modern revaluation and valorization of everyday life.
There is, for instance, Montaigne’s scandalously demotic habit of interlacing words, stories and actions from his neighbors, the local peasants (and peasant women) with examples from the greats of Christian and pagan history. As he writes:
I have known in my time a hundred artisans, a hundred laborers, wiser and more happy than the rectors of the university, and whom I had much rather have resembled.
By the end of the Essays, Montaigne has begun openly to suggest that, if tranquillity, constancy, bravery, and honor are the goals the wise hold up for us, they can all be seen in much greater abundance amongst the salt of the earth than amongst the rich and famous:
I propose a life ordinary and without lustre: ‘tis all one…To enter a breach, conduct an embassy, govern a people, are actions of renown; to…laugh, sell, pay, love, hate, and gently and justly converse with our own families and with ourselves…not to give our selves the lie, that is rarer, more difficult and less remarkable…
And so we arrive with these last Essays at a sentiment better known today from another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of A Gay Science (1882) .
Montaigne’s closing essays repeat the avowal that: “I love a gay and civil wisdom…” But in contrast to his later Germanic admirer, the music here is less Wagner or Beethoven than it is Mozart (as it were), and Montaigne’s spirit much less agonized than gently serene.
It was Voltaire, again, who said that life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. Montaigne adopts and admires the comic perspective. As he writes in “Of Experience”:
It is not of much use to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must still walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are still perched on our own bums.
Matthew Sharpe is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Deakin University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.