Text Used — Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Works. Essays, Travel Journal, Letters. Everyman’s Library. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Introduction by Stuart Hampshire. 1,336 pages.
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Our first book for the Early Modern Book Club (and winner of last month’s Twitter poll) is the famous and widely admired (by William Shakespeare, no less!) Essays of Michel de Montaigne.
I actually began reading the Essays several months ago and one of the benefits of this selection for book club readers with limited extra time (which is what I was at that time) is that it’s the type of book that lends itself to sampling and being dipped in and out of. Though the Essays come to some 900 pages long in the Modern Library edition—no slouch next to comparable books like Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy or Pierre Bayle‘s Historical and Critical Dictionary—each essay is relatively short (with the notable exception of the book-length “Apology for Raymond Sebond”) and individually easy to read in a single sitting. (If you can read the introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy in one sitting, by contrast, you are a one-sitting reading champion.)
Further easing things is that Montaigne is so darn likeable, an effect many commentators have attributed to his disarming sincerity, his apparent honesty and vulnerability (if we may describe candor about one’s own inclinations and insufficiencies as such.) William Hazlitt (who idolized Montaigne in much the same way as I idolize William Hazlitt) wrote that Montaigne “may be said to have been the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man,” though Hazlitt is careful to add that Montaigne was a person of extraordinarily keen faculties. (Who cares about the feelings of a bloviating idiot? We hear about those all the time in those deservedly-mocked New York Times pieces on Trump voters.) The appeal of Montaigne is to hear the sincerity of a capacious, far-seeing mind, that capaciousness being the funnel which amplifies the effect of his sincerity.
Reading Montaigne is something like shooting the breeze with your favorite down-to-earth college professor, except in this case your professor happens to be an exceptionally erudite and (however-much he/she may represent herself otherwise) astonishingly well-read person who, in spite of his awareness of his own limitations, hilariously (by his own admission) tries to out-Seneca Seneca on a regular basis. You walk into Montaigne’s office going, “Yo, Professor M, did you hear about A, B, and C?” And Montaigne’s response, really the core of his worldview, is to say, “Well, but there’s also X, Y, Z, and so many more things, so many that I don’t think we can even name them all; but hey, isn’t life grand? Aren’t people fascinating?” (I don’t think I am being too reductive here.) What distinguishes Montaigne, beyond his introspection, beyond his frankness, beyond his tremendously interesting and learned conversation, is that he is constantly seeking to broaden the reader’s mind, to make us see that there is something else, so many things else, and it’s all fascinating, even though there are limits to how much of it we can really ever understand.
Another part of Montaigne’s appeal is that the things he writes about are both interesting on their own, and have universal appeal; nobody who writes strictly “about himself” could possibly be as appealing as Montaigne is, and it’s a mistake to represent him as an egotist merely because he’s verbose or takes occasional breaks from objectivity to engage in some degree of self-searching. The more I talk about (or essay to talk about) the essays of Montaigne, what they are about, why we ought now to read them nearly 500 years later, the more I realize how universal Montaigne’s subject matter is; individual essays are about (take your pick) “constancy,” “idleness,” “fear,” “education,” “pedantry,” “friendship,” “sleep,” “smells,” “thumbs,” “glory,” “presumption,” “giving the lie,” “repentance,” “physiognomy,” and “experience,” (to cite some of the shortest-titled of the 107 essays in Donald Frame’s complete translation of the essays for Everyman’s Library) but the themes that continually recur are those of tolerance, broadmindedness, and openness to the possibility (as W.C. Brann puts it in his essay “On Charity”) “that we do not know it quite all.” Montaigne is charmingly humble and self-critical, writing in “On Books” (for example):
I speak my mind freely on all things, even on those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction. And so the opinion I give of them is to declare the measure of my sight, not the measure of things.
That last line finds an echo in Hazlitt’s “Refinement creates beauty everywhere: it is the grossness of the spectator that discovers nothing but grossness in the object,” and is also a cool rebuke of Protagoras’s famous statement about man; we are limited, says Montaigne (he treats this entire subject at length in the essay, “It is folly to measure the true and false by our own capacity”), and tend to project our limitations onto the universe; our inability to understand does not limit the universe’s ability to be “queerer than we can suppose.” This is a very important and humbling thing to understand about the world; actually, to call it a thing is deceptive, because the ambiguity that we are talking about really amounts to an infinitude of things, an entire (skeptical) way of thinking.
Skepticism can, on the other hand, be taken too far, and where Montaigne errs, where his argumentation is weakest in my opinion, is when—as in that terribly misguided, but also terribly interesting early work, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”—he gets caught up in the classic philosopher’s trap of overemphasizing these limitations to our understandings, these irreducible caveats that (were we to allow them to) would prevent us from saying anything about anything. (For example, I was having a discussion with a philosophically-minded gentleman the other day who was entirely unwilling to entertain the idea that one art work might be judged “better” or “worse” than another; I acknowledged that such claims are socially constructed, but asserted that physiology plays an undersold table-setting role as well, and that while we should be skeptical about aesthetic judgments, that doesn’t mean we should allow crippling skepticism to foreclose any conversation whatsoever about where they come from; our conversation ended with me asking, “Well, sir, don’t you want to know why?” and him saying, “Why is irrelevant; read Spinoza and you’ll get the answers to all of your questions”—my goodness, what tediousness!) Fortunately Montaigne is hardly so consistent in maintaining such impossible (and horrendously limiting) principles. He writes,
I should certainly like to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I do not want to buy it as dear as it costs. My intention is to pass pleasantly, and not laboriously, what life I have left. There is nothing for which I want to rack my brain, not even knowledge, however great its value.
Montaigne is famously quoted as saying that his book is about himself (a belated observation he makes well into the essays, actually, in his essay “On Books”) and my own view is, well, yes and no; the bulk of the text of the essays are mostly not about Montaigne specifically, but humanity generally, the diversity of human passions and human experiences, the wonderful, frustrating, inspiring, dumbfounding, comprehensible, incomprehensible, sad, joyful, wise and foolish tendencies which animate this our life, this Comedie Humaine; certainly Michel de Montaigne participates in this grand pageant of history and passions, but he is not really the focus of it for anything close to most of the time. The focus is humanity; Montaigne’s place in it is secondary.
Stuart Hampshire leans heavily into this “Montaigne’s subject was Montaigne” angle in his introduction to Frame’s translation, casting the content that constitutes probably upwards of 90% of the book as a mere appendage:
This entirely original topic in literature, Montaigne on Montaigne, demanded for its full development a new literary form, the loose, unstructured, discursive essay, replete with deliberate irrelevances, antiquarian references and classical quotations, with snippets of autobiography and fragments of philosophy and with speculations about the relations between mind and body.
I think Hampshire is being too credulous towards Montaigne here—as Phillipe Desan says, it’s possible to take the author too much at his own word—and the idea of “deliberate irrelevances” seems to carelessly attribute irony—and, for lack of a better way to phrase this, post-modern humorous intentions—to a writer who is rarely humorous, much less ironic, and who frequently emphasizes his lack of memory, his inability to organize his thoughts into a polished piece of rhetoric. As Montaigne explains,
I have no other marshal but fortune to arrange my bits. As my fancies present themselves, I pile them up; now they come pressing in a crowd, now dragging single file. I want people to see my natural and ordinary pace, however off the track it is. I let myself go as I am.
Montaigne’s main virtue is his sincerity, not his trickery or his (non-existent) inclination for telling jokes (and as I intend to show in another essay, this lack of theatricality and aversion to ostentation results in certain rhetorical trade-offs that Montaigne, for all his introspection, seems somewhat oblivious to.) A more accurate description of the essays, I think, is that they represent the development of a unique form over time. The essays began as something more conventional and familiar in Montaigne’s time—the miscellany, or common-place book—then became more like the famously introspective essays we now know in subsequent editions.
Montaigne continued to revise his essays up until his death, with each edition making large additions. Frame has (extremely helpfully) marked these revisions with superscript A, B, and C, and it is fascinating to see what Montaigne felt needed to be added from edition to edition across the essays. Phillip Desan, in last year’s Montaigne: A Life (which I hope to review this month) argues that these changes often reflect Montaigne’s political jockeying at different points in his career, a fascinating thesis. What I noticed from my reading is that generally the introspective side of Montaigne that is often emphasized is an outgrowth of his self-criticism, his questioning of his own premises, his belated counter-examples to his own examples.
I think it’s important to emphasize Montaigne’s examples, because they are the geologic shield or craton on which all of Montaigne’s further elaboration accretes. A great portion of the text consists of examples which illustrate varieties in human nature. A typical Montaigne essay has him strike up a theme—education, say—and he will methodically plumb all the variations that exist on that phenomenon in the world (at least as it was known to a well-read 16th century Frenchman.) He will follow these statements of something that exists with a plethora of examples culled from ancient and modern history, and these examples are at least as enjoyable as Montaigne’s reflections; reading about catastrophic farts, the customs of South American tribesmen, and common horse and elephant tricks gives the same pleasure—unexpected in a putative “classic”—that one gets from reading one of those junior grade “Did you know?” science books, or something put out by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Whatever it became, it seems to me that Montaigne’s book began as an unusually casual and witty miscellany. George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax, in his preface to Charles Cotton’s revision of John Florio’s translation of the essays, describes them as “justly ranked among miscellaneous books: for they are on various subjects, without order and connection; and the very body of the discourses has still a greater variety.” (That it seems on its face like a miscellany, Halifax adds, doesn’t stop people from ranking it above all other books of that kind.) Miscellanies were not unheard of in Montaigne’s time; there were the ancient examples of Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae and Aelian’s Varia Historia. There were encyclopedists like Pliny and, in the more recent past, Brunetto Latini. There were the moral essays of Seneca, Plutarch, and Cicero, all favorites of Montaigne’s, as well as the Greek and Latin historians whom he also assiduously read. Of moderns (or 16th century moderns) he read Jean Bodin, Guicciardini, du Bellay, and Philippe de Commines. I think there are aspects of all of these textual traditions in the Essays, and I am resistant to the idea that they represent a rupture with the literature of their times rather than a development.
Next Time: Short Montaigne Bio; My Favorite Montaigne Essays so Far; My Least Favorite (the answers may surprise you)
Later: Reviews of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2011) and Phillipe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life (2017)
And then: First attempts at a rubric for non-fiction.