In her new biography of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell narrates a little-known but telling incident in the life of the French thinker. One day Montaigne was “attacked by fifteen to twenty masked men, followed by a wave of mounted archers” while traveling through a dangerous area of France. The men argued about what to do with their hostage, wondering how much ransom money he might bring, until Montaigne interrupted them to say that the ransom they thought they were going to get was too high. The attackers responded strangely: they decided to let him go and even returned some of his possessions. Apparently, they were so overcome by Montaigne’s honesty and openness, they couldn’t rob him. As Montaigne wrote, “I owed my deliverance to my face and the freedom and firmness of my speech.”
Some form of this incident seems to happen again and again with Montaigne: people are so overcome by the force of his personality that they fall in love with his persona and his writing, sometimes against their better judgment. The portrait Bakewell creates of Montaigne is of a man who is resolutely ordinary, and herein lies his charm: by refusing to be anybody but himself he frees others to be nothing but themselves as well.
This perhaps accounts for Montaigne’s enduring popularity. Countless readers have found some reflection of themselves in his writing and have come to consider him a friend. As Bakewell writes, his adherents think of Montaigne as “a hero of an unusual sort: the kind that resists all claim to heroism . . . he is admired for his stubborn insistence on maintaining normality in extraordinary circumstances, and his refusal to compromise his independence.” His essays argue implicitly for the value of each individual person, an argument that becomes all the more powerful when one considers that he wrote during the vicious wars of religion in 16th-century France. Against a backdrop of widespread violence and brutality, Montaigne’s quiet project of exploring who he is and what he thinks becomes that much more radical. Appropriately, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, a man who lived in exile from his home during World War II and knew much about the costs of political upheaval, found in Montaigne someone who could speak to his experience: “only he knows how much courage, how much honesty and determination are needed to maintain the inner self in such a time of herd insanity.”
Bakewell tells Montaigne’s story in an admirably brisk and entertaining fashion, focusing on anecdotes and themes rather than on thoroughness and strict chronology. This is not a biography for the Montaigne expert but rather for the general reader who wants to know more about the man or who has read and loved the essays.
She begins her story with a young Montaigne who fell into a deep depression after spending too much time contemplating the ancients’ writings on the subject. (Some of them, unhelpfully, recommend meditating on death as a way of making peace with it.) Rather than preparing him for death, thinking on it merely made him unhappy with his life, and, appropriately, it was a brush with death that woke Montaigne from his stupor: when he was thirty-six, he was thrown from a horse and lost consciousness. After this conversion experience of sorts he believed the best way to respond to death is not to worry about it:
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
The question of how to deal with death, which is really the book’s question of how to live, is a thread that runs through the rest of the biography. Most notably, Montaigne suffered greatly from the death of his best friend Étienne de La Boêtie, he lost all but one of his children, the widespread political and religious violence around him made death a common occurrence, and, in his later years, he faced the prospect of a particularly painful death from kidney stones. With so much death around him, the question of how to live assumes a particular poignancy.
Bakewell’s guiding question, “how to live,” finds a new answer in each chapter, varying from “pay attention,” “be convivial,” and “live temperately,” to “do a good job but not too good a job” and “philosophize only by accident.” Each chapter contains a mix of biographical and critical material, and Bakewell also devotes a considerable amount of space to telling the story of Montaigne’s reputation during his lifetime and in the centuries after. She offers a picture of Enlightenment Montaigne, Romantic Montaigne, Victorian Montaigne, and, of course, Modern and Postmodern Montaigne, each era finding the version of the writer it wants and ignoring the ones it doesn’t.
The original Montaigne might have been Skeptic Montaigne. Readers of his time were particularly interested in his embrace of Skepticism, which appealed to the philosophical preoccupations of the day and also kept him in line with the Church, since his arguments about how little we know jibed well with calls to trust God (and the Church) rather than human reason. However, this very same Skepticism got him in trouble with some 17th-century thinkers. Descartes and Pascal in particular were preoccupied with and distressed by Montaigne’s Skepticism, seeing a dark side to his insistence that we know very little about anything. Both thinkers hoped to undermine Montaigne yet feared they could not; as Bakewell writes, “You can feel the frustration: how can anyone fight such an opponent? Yet one must. It is a moral duty, for otherwise doubt will carry everything away like a great flood: the world as we know it, human dignity, our sanity, and our sense of God.”
Later writers found different aspects of Montaigne to latch on to: 18th-century writers saw him as a “free-thinking Enlightenment Philosophe born two centuries too early”; the Romantics admired his free, natural writing style; and 19th-century readers tried to turn him into a proper gentleman while worrying about his sexual openness. Modernists such as Virginia Woolf appreciated his attempts to capture the natural flow of thought, and postmodern critics took up the challenge of deconstructing and psychoanalyzing him. At times English writers appreciated him when French writers did not; in the two centuries or so after Montaigne’s death, the French thought his essays were too wayward and inelegant for their taste, while English writers found inspiration in the freedom and exuberance of his style.
Bakewell also tells the story of how people have edited and abridged Montaigne over the years, another way to create the writer each time period wants. In 1800 in England, for example, an editor calling herself “Honoria” created a version of Montaigne that was safe for women by taking out the parts about sex. The various abridged versions, Bakewell writes,
made it possible to read Montaigne, not only in the boudoir, or on a Romantic mountaintop, or in the library of a man of the world, but also in a garden, on a summer’s day, where you might see a young lady of moral delicacy and innocence perusing Montaigne in bowdlerized octavo. And if she wanted to catch up on the naughty bits, she could always sneak into her father’s library later.
Even those devoted to reproducing the essays as accurately as possible, however, face serious challenges. Most contemporary editions use as their source the “Bordeaux Copy,” a copy of the 1588 edition of the essays annotated in Montaigne’s own handwriting, but another edition edited by Montaigne’s close friend Marie de Gournay exists, and some believe this version is the more reliable one. It remains to be seen which version will dominate.
Bakewell’s unusual structure occasionally leads to repetition and disorienting jumps from century to century, but overall the effect is to keep the material fresh and lively. She also has a tendency to try to make Montaigne relevant to contemporary times in ways that feel forced (do we have any idea whether as a 21st-century person he would have gotten a tattoo?), but overall, the book provides an excellent introduction to a writer whose influence is strongly felt today, and will be for some time to come.
Rebecca Hussey is an assistant professor of English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She blogs as “Dorothy W.” at Of Books and Bicycles.
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