Montaigne , the French essayist, would retreat to the comfort of his tower, where he could think and write. What were his motives? To advise an audience ? That was not his primary objective. His main preoccupation was to remove himself from activity he did not want to do, and distract himself with activity he did want to engage in. So, as a man of considerable position in the vicinity, he chose to step down from political life, and invest his life in his musings. He was in a veritable position of privilege to be able to do so, for sure, but nevertheless, it was an astonishing move for a gentleman only in his late thirties, who may otherwise have considered adding to his worldly fortunes and notices.
So I became interested in Montaigne , the man, and this imperative of his fascinated me since I had chosen to withdraw myself from the push and pull of the world of commerce nearly twenty years ago, making for myself a world that revolved around my preoccupations of family, interests, and hobbies, eschewing the more modern ambitions of many of my peers. The reflective life is not a fashionable one, and I have lost count of the times I have been chastised and admonished for ‘thinking too much’.
How refreshing then, to come across the admirable work of Sarah Bakewell, who has written a thoroughly entertaining book, both describing the man and his work. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Her writing is light, but satisfying, obviously well researched and as a reader, I felt I was in ‘safe hands’. I believed what she told me. I will give you a potted account,to whet your appetite, but implore you to go and find the book, by whatevermeans. ( bar thieving)
Firstly, you must travel imaginatively in time and place, because Montaigne was born into theunfortunate times France was experiencing in the sixteenth century. There was civil unrest amongst rivalfactions of Catholics and Protestants,and the civil wars that ensued were bloody, disruptive and unpredictable. We can draw parallels when we look back at the horrors in Serbia and Bosnia, and the atrocities playing out in the Congo. Man is the same, the horror is how we imagine we have changed. One of Montaignes descriptions is of a Protestant family being dragged from their beds, the father stabbed at the front door, the son coming down to find out what was happening, and suffering the same fate. The wife, hearing the commotion, leaps from a bedroom window and breaks her legs. The Catholic rioters drag her back through the house by her hair, cut off her wrists to remove her bangles, and go on to burn her body on a spit, then throw the remains in the river. Imagine. These were not guerrilla terrorists , they were their neighbours! It wasn’t illegal to be Protestant, just not liked by the Catholics. They would have used the same bakers,butchers, streets. Their children would have played locally. How much history has to teach us, that from this suburb, this vignette of French life, such barbarity can result. It can happen to us. Tomorrow. Montaigne teaches ‘ guard your humanity.’
But he doesn’t preach. He is a human writer, admitting his own frailties and follies, content to appear as a whole flawed being, and it works. He gets his message across precisely because he is not writing towards an audience, he is writing as a sincere exploration into the psychologies of the human mind, and with the curiosity of a true intellectual. He comes at things with an open mind, and is willing to live with the absurdity of paradox which he reveals at every turn. We are mercurial creatures, and Montaigne delights in uncovering cultural differences and behaviours to show us that bigotry and prejudice are always products of narrow-mindedness and ignorance. He reminds me of the satirist Jonathan Swift, though Montaigne is far more generous spirited and hopeful. What is striking about what he writes, is the individualistic approach that he takes. This is not so strange to a modern reader, but at the time, most people were in strait jackets, metaphorically speaking, overwhelmed by Church or Government authorities, to the extent they would not think outside those boxes, even less write. Montaigne wanted to think his own thoughts, find his own truths.
“Everyone, who is listening to his inner landscape of thoughts, is able to discover his identity, so that he is able to repel everything, which does not fit this.”
He finds deep solace in writing,the Essays are an ongoing project , spanning decades, and as he moves through them, he finds benefit from the writing itself. By immersing himself in the reflective life, he is attempting to change himself, to improve himself
“I try to increase it in weight,” he wrote, “I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the
speed with which I grasp it … The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it.” At every moment, he brought himself back to himself. “When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.”
There is a quality of Zen like feeling to some of his writing. He chronicles the respect he has for life, for all forms of life, and for the interconnectedness of living things. In the midst of the most disruptive civil wars France had seen , this speaks volumes about the man. He refers back to the Ancient philosophers, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, and tries to emulate the conditon of stepping back from the immediate anxieties and preoccupations of the day. Paradoxically,he understands the psyche well enough to know that it is the ‘I’ experience that speaks to us, that our internal realities are intrinsic in our experience of being. The individual matters, in as much as anything does matter. Fascinating.
Montaigne was fascinated by way the world is always in flux and turmoil: he would look at his local river, the Dordogne, and imagine it carving a groove in the landscape like a carpenter carving wood. The human mind was even more variable – “our humors shift with the shifts in the weather”. He described reality as a branloire, a word he derived from a French peasant dance called the branle. That’s a dance that is full of movement, full of unchoreographed dips and turns. That seems to me to be as good a description of reality as I have yet found. I hope you want to know more. The link below takes you to the book I have just read.