William Hazlitt remarked on the subject of Montaigne that he was the ‘first to have the courage to say as an author what he thought as a man.’
Who was he and why should you care? Because he was one of the first freethinkers and influenced not only policy making in his lifetime, but showed subsequent thinkers and writers a way of being in the world. His motto was ‘ What do I know?’ – a fashionable phrase at the moment, but then a radical statement that open mindedness can only lead to new knowledge, new perceptions. Remember to think about Montaigne in the context of his history, and you will be amazed by his humanism, and his acuity. I think I am in love, And this is a man who did not mind sharing his shortcomings, one of which was a small penis. Though I suppose everything is relative.
This was his secret – he wrote as though in dialogue with his soul mate, as though he was sitting across from him sipping a glass of wine and warming his feet on the fire. He was intimate. He shared. And what a lot he had to share, a life of fascinating experiences, I can only show you by giving a very potted biography.
His father belonged to the nouveau riche in France, and Montaigne was born 1533 into a century of discovery, intrigue, political upheaval, and scientific exploration. The world was changing. As a father, he wanted Montaigne to grow up into inheriting an estate requiring the skills of an astute manager, thus he sent his son to be weaned by a wet nurse, and he subsequently spent his formative years within a very ordinary family. Montaigne was to understand first hand the needs and preoccupations of the common man. From that early upbringing he was then brought back into the Montaigne household where he had a German tutor who was to converse with Montaigne only in Latin, along with the rest of the household. Latin was a requisite for French aristocracy, and if Montaigne was going to lift the family’s status it was imperative that he could converse in it as his first language. It meant Montaigne could read all the classical scholars without translation. At the age of 6 he was sent to a prestigious establishment for his education by the best tutors, some of the leading humanists of the day. Montaigne went on to study law at the University of Toulouse.
His young adulthood was spent amongst policy makers, and it was around 1559 that he met the man who was to become so important to him, a relationship as powerful as one we would view as romantic love. In the context of the time, men turned to other men for the companionship of intellectual and spiritual sharing; these two shared a common understanding that formed the foundation of a fulfilling, satisfying friendship. Etienne de La Boétie, the friend, was to die early aged 3,2 about 4 years after meeting Montaigne. He had written a radical piece about how tyrannical rulers should be stripped of power. Montaigne wanted to include it within his own essays, but realised his work would be censored if he did so, and included some of his poetry only.
He retired from public duties relatively early in life, aged about 38, and decided to study and record his thoughts from the comfort of his tower. He liked his own company, and although married, he and his wife had separate living quarters. He had travelled fairly extensively, had met the pope, and was friendly with Henry of Navarre, accepted at courts both Catholic and Protestant. These were very troubled times politically , requiring tact and diplomacy when abroad. France was in uproar, and atrocities were being committed in the name of religion.
When he retired to write, he drew upon his extensive knowledge of the classical authors, particularly enjoying Plutarch. Seneca and Lucretius. He favoured a stoic distancing from the melee of upheaval, and passed on his understanding that man has no absolute’s, but is reliant on his identity with a cultural context. He was asking the question ‘ How should man live’, and he brought to this search a stoicism and a sympathetic imagination. Contrary to popular belief he postulated that ”The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; ‘ and ‘in short, to my way of thinking, there is nothing that custom will not or cannot do’.
He wrote about himself and about the human condition. He wrote from an anthropological viewpoint before the word itself was considered. He influenced the thinkers and policy makers of the time, consorted with kings, yet radically wrote in a manner that was to inform with honesty about his life, and his times. He didn’t view himself as a philosopher foremost, but he formed the philosophies of life fro subsequent thinkers. A writer of perceptive observation and witty, poetic style, his legacy can inform modern statesmen and policy makers.
I have posted previously on Montaigne, and the extremely good book that Sarah Bakewell wrote
Thanks to Melvyn Bragg and Radio 4 for a great programme this morning , Listen if you can!