A Renaissance man who sounded out ideas
THE EUROPEANS:Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), writer, philosopher, soldier, politician and “founder of introspection”, was one of the leading figures of the later Renaissance, a cultural movement that is said to have started with Petrarch in the 14th century and ended with Descartes in the 17th.
If the Renaissance was initially a process of rediscovery of classical writing and art – normally accompanied by a strong deprecation of the achievements of the more recent past – it can be said that Michel de Montaigne started out with some advantages.
Fostered for his first three years with a peasant family on his father’s estate near Bordeaux, the young Michel was then returned to the family home, where he was put in the care of a German tutor, Dr Horstanus, who knew no French. From this point until he was sent away to school aged seven he was educated entirely through Latin: indeed he heard no other language since even the servants were also given some instruction so that the linguistic cocoon being spun around the young master could be preserved.
We may regard this as a bizarre, even a cruel, procedure; Montaigne thought the opposite: “. . . without artificial means, without a book, without grammar or precept, without the whip and without tears, I . . . learned a Latin quite as pure as what my schoolmaster knew . . .”
His father, Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne, had been ennobled in 1519 as reward for military service on behalf of King François I in Italy.
It was there that he came into contact with Italian humanism and in particular its theories of education. One of the young Michel’s teachers held the view that it was dangerous for the childish brain to be suddenly torn from dreams, so it became customary for the boy to be roused from sleep slowly and by music.
Montaigne’s most famous work is his Essais. The word is universally translated as essays, though this is somewhat misleading: essayerin French is to try and Montaigne’s individual pieces are essentially trials or soundings of an idea.
At one level the Essais is a “commonplace book”, that is a book of favourite pieces compiled from the works of others. Much of the work consists of references to and quotations from the classical authors Montaigne most respected, such as Cicero, Horace and Seneca. The singularity of his thought, however, lies in his psychological exploration of himself, a project regarded as a departure in European thought: “I have no other object than to depict myself . . . It is not my acts that I am describing, it is me, my essence.” This interest in the individual was dramatically new.
The self we discover in the essays is sceptical, humane, humorous yet cautious. There is little evidence of religious feeling in Montaigne’s writings yet he maintained Catholic orthodoxy throughout his life, a wise position during a time of religious wars, in which he himself participated, both as soldier and diplomat.
But his scepticism and originality of thought were deeply rooted. Having met some native Americans in Rouen in 1562 he observed that “barbarians are no more remarkable to us than we are to them”. When he was playing with his cat, he asked, how did he know that she was not playing with him?
All of Montaigne’s work was placed on the Vatican’s index of forbidden books in 1676 and this, together with the charm of many of his essays, has made him something of a hero to later, secular and more culturally relativist readers.
But we should not overstate his modernity. Montaigne was a Renaissance man, and much of the substance of his work consisted of transmitting the wisdom of “the ancients” to his contemporaries and his intellectual heirs.
What to read: Essays and life story
The essays are available in a number of editions, including Penguin Classics.
Interest in Montaigne experienced something of a revival in 2011 with the publication of Sarah Bakewell’s very popular How to Live: or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer (Vintage).
Also worth consulting is Terence Cave’s short introduction, Montaigne (Granta Books).