When Michel de Montaigne was 42, which he considered to be the start of old age, he had a medal made with Que sçais-je? (What do I know?) inscribed on one side.
Though he lived in an age of emerging science he was no scientist himself, but a man of letters and country gentleman, and fell back on himself in his quest for knowledge: If I do have any knowledge or opinions, he wondered, what are they based on? What is this thing I call my ‘self’? Am I just a flurry of passing emotions and thoughts, or something more substantial?
Montaigne used the word essai, meaning ‘trial’, to test out what seemed to be true, both about the world and himself. His collection of essays is a sort of autobiography, but he is at pains that it be not a self-glorifying one; the tone of the Essays is more curiosity than anything else. In a prefacing letter, he notes: “Had it been my purpose to seek the world’s favour, I should have put on finer clothes, and presented myself in a studied attitude. But I want to appear in my simple, natural, and everyday dress, without strain or artifice...”
Indeed, the Essays often read like a catalogue of his deficiencies. For the first few years of his life Montaigne was steeped in Latin, and the book is littered with quotes from his heroes Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero, Cato and Catallus. He does not reference them to show his learning, but rather, he says, uses their virtues “as a cloak for my weakness.”
His quirky subjects include ‘On Smells’, ‘On the affection of fathers for their children’, ‘On the custom of wearing clothes’, ‘On the power of the imagination’, ‘On three kinds of relationships’, and ‘On cannibals’. Here we look at a handful of essays that seem to encapsulate Montaigne’s worldview, which has influenced Shakespeare, Pascal, Emerson and Nietzsche among others.
We think we’re great, and others slightly less so
The longest of the essays, ‘On presumption’, is arguably the best, and can be summed up in the line:
“It is my opinion that the nurse and mother of the falsest opinions, both public and private, is the excessive opinion that man has of himself.”
Montaigne is no great fan of scientists, or at least not their air of certainty: “Those people who be-straddle the epicycle of Mercury and see so far into the heavens make me grind my teeth.” With his own study of man telling him that we are often wrong on even the most basic of things, Montaigne wonders why we should give so much credence to those who “set out the causes of the rise and fall of the Nile”. If we so repeatedly lack self-knowledge, he argues, why should our ‘facts’ about the universe be considered reliable?
Montaigne confesses that nothing he has written has satisfied him, and other people’s good opinions are no compensation. He is hopeless at telling entertaining stories, or small talk, and bad at giving speeches or making arguments. His prose is simple and dry, with none of the arts of a Plato or Xenephon. He is short, which he considers a drawback for those who try to hold high positions, because “a fine presence and dignity is lacking”. Other skill gaps include tennis, wrestling, and control of animals. Of his work ethic he says: “I am extremely idle and extremely independent both by nature and by intention. I would as willingly lend my blood as my pains”. He discusses his poor memory (“It takes me three hours to learn three lines”), which means he can never remember his servant’s names. Among further defects are “a slow and lazy mind”, which allows him to understand only the most simple of plays and games, and blurred eyesight when he reads too much. And despite having been left a country estate to manage, Montaigne admits he is hopeless with finance, cannot tell one grain from another, and only a month before he had been caught out not knowing that yeast is needed to make bread.
Overall, Montaigne writes, “I think it would be difficult for any man to have a poorer opinion of himself, or indeed to have a poorer opinion of me, than I have of myself...I plead guilty to the meanest and most ordinary of failings; I neither disown nor excuse them.” Yet in fully admitting the range and extent of his ignorance and defects, he hopes to be able to reveal some things about himself that are true, noting that “...whatever I make myself out to be, provided that I show myself as I am, I am fulfilling my purpose.”
All that he is finally left with is his own judgement, or reason. Perhaps surprisingly, Montaigne seems to have high regard for this faculty in himself, but also admits it is a source of vanity: “We readily recognize in others a superiority in courage, physical strength, experience, agility or beauty. But a superior judgment we concede to nobody.” Our ‘vainglory’ has two sides, he observes: “...the over-estimation of ourselves, and the under-estimation of others.”
Enough with the masks
Boldness of action is considered to be ‘manly’, so we know Montaigne is laying himself bare in admitting his indecisiveness. He recalls Petrarch’s honest remark that “Neither yes nor no rings clearly in my heart.” He is good at defending points of view, but has trouble developing opinions of his own, with the result that decisions might just as well be made by the throw of a dice. “So I am only fitted for following, and easily allow myself to be carried along by the crowd. I have not sufficient confidence in my own abilities to set up as a commander or guide; I am very pleased to find my path marked out by others.”
The result of this furtiveness is that Montaigne is sceptical when others make claims for certainty and absolute truth. This relates not just to scientists, but to philosophers, and here he sums up his motivation for the Essays:
“It is a cowardly and servile characteristic, to go about in disguise, concealed behind a mask, without the courage to show oneself as one is...A generous heart should never disguise its thoughts, but willingly reveal its inmost depths. It is either all good, or all human.”
As William James notes in Pragmatism, the claim of philosophers to be offering objective theories is weak, because a philosophy is usually just the character of a person writ large. Montaigne also understood that so called objective science and philosophy was often just a projection of human minds, and trying to keep one’s personal view hidden meant that one had something to hide.
In political life, Montaigne is critical of Machiavelli’s idea that one needs to become a master of trickery and falsehood to succeed; what tends to happen is that an initial gain made for the wrong reasons will be followed by a stream of losses. Instead he quotes Cicero, that “Nothing is as popular as goodness”. Montaigne would rather be seen as a tactless bore who says what is on his mind, than someone who schemes, lies and flatters.
The mystery of the self
In the use of our minds, Montaigne says, we “have usually more need of lead than wings”. Our normal state is constant desire and agitation, so we must bring ourselves down to earth and see the way things actually are. Meditation or contemplation is perhaps the best thing in this regard, and he describes it as “...a rich and powerful method of study for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously.”
The ‘chief talent’ of humans is their adaptability and flexibility. This applies not just to situations, but to ourselves. Just as life itself is unequal and irregular, so it is madness to stick to our rigid habits of mind, which leads us to become a slave to ourselves. “The best minds”, Montaigne says, “are those that are the most various and supple.”
The Essays continually evoke the transitory and unreliable nature of this thing we call the ‘self’. In ‘On books’, Montaigne dismisses the idea that a person grows in knowledge and wisdom as they get older, and becomes ‘all of a piece’:
“I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it in the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of reading, I am one who retains nothing.”
All he can do, Montaigne says, is say what he appears to know at any given moment. Anyway, he does not even want to know everything. It is more important to him to live pleasantly and without great labour. When he reads, it is only for entertainment, or if the tome is more serious, it must show him a clearer way to self-knowledge, or how to live and die well.
Montaigne contradicts himself in various places, but this is not necessarily a sign of weakness. As Walt Whitman would say several centuries later, “I am large, I contain multitudes”, and those selves will see things differently at different times.
In the absence of a carefully worked out worldview some have suggested Montaigne was not a philosopher at all. But his aversion to big philosophical or theological systems actually made him a philosopher of a very modern type, questioning the scientific and religious certainties of his day. On the issue of free will, for instance, he casts aside church dogma to take the position of the Stoics that we are part of a completed universe. In his essay ‘On repentance’, he wonders why repenting for anything makes sense: “Your mind cannot, by wish or thought, alter the smallest part without upsetting the whole order or things, both past and future.”
With this outlook, it made sense that Montaigne could not take himself too seriously, and in doing so he avoided the lies that most people tell themselves. He contrasts two philosophers, Democritus and Heraclitus. The former was known for his mocking and wry view of human life, while the latter was known as the ‘weeping philosopher’, so deep was his pity and compassion for the human condition. Montaigne sides with Democritus, because man is so worthy of derision, not as a vessel of sin or misery, but simply folly. “We are not so full of evil”, he remarks, “as of inanity”.
Yet scepticism and fatalism is no excuse for a dissolute life, and through avoiding passions and extremes (‘Restraint’ was inscribed on the other side of his medal), he freed himself up for contemplation and meditation, practices which he felt revealed something about himself, others and the world. One of the many amusing lines in the book is, “It is good to be born in very depraved times; for, compared with others, you gain a reputation for virtue at a small cost.”
Montaigne noted the Roman satirist Persius’ remark, ‘No man attempts to descend into himself’, yet by doing exactly this he created a template for a more personal kind of philosophy. Anyone writing an autobiography would do well to read him; they will learn that it is less interesting to record ‘How I did it’ than ‘What it has been like to be me’ – that is, a person living in this time and this place with these limitations and this potential.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533, the son of a Dordogne landowner and his Sephardic Jewish wife. He received an excellent education, knowing Latin by 7, and in his teens studied at the Universities of Bordeaux and Toulouse. He practiced law and was a counsellor at the Bordeaux parliament, where he met his mentor Etienne de la Boetie, and for a time worked at the court of Charles IX.
In 1570 Montaigne moved back to the family estate in Perigord, which he had inherited, and minimised his obligations so he could focus on study; for the next nine years spent his time reading, writing and thinking. His library was in a circular tower above his estate buildings, so he could see what was going on without getting too much involved. He wrote: “Miserable, to my mind, is the man who has no place in his house where he can be alone, where he can privately attend to his needs, where he can conceal himself!”
After journeying around Europe from one spa to another seeking a cure for his often painful gallstones, Montaigne was recalled home when elected (against his will) as Mayor of Bordeaux, a position once held by his father. He served for two terms.
Montaigne’s marriage was arranged, and his wife is barely mentioned in the Essays. Late in life he adopted as his daughter Marie de Gournay, a young woman who had come to know him through his writings. He died of a tonsil abscess in 1592.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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