The Frenchman who shaped the Bard: Shakespeare’s Montaigne
Review: A selection of Michel de Montaigne’s essays, as translated by John Florio in 1603, highlights the philosopher’s influence
Montaigne: had the misfortune to live through France’s brutal wars of religion. Photograph: Apic/Getty
Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays: A Selection
Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter G. Platt
Thinking in Renaissance Europe was centred on paradox, in particular the notion that the universe might be best understood as something beyond human comprehension, the truth very likely being the opposite of what might seem logical or within the confines of the ordinary imagination. Few thinkers embraced and explored the paradox in a more sophisticated and nuanced way than Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92), the urbane French aristocrat who retreated to his chateau in Bergerac and invented the essay, a major form of writing ever since.
For Montaigne the essay – from essai, an attempt – was a means of exploring an idea and following it wherever it took the writer. His essays range from two to more than 100 pages, apparently meandering, as unsympathetic readers such as Ben Jonson have argued, but invariably controlled, detailed and often very funny reflections on the human condition.
Montaigne often starts with a maxim or proverb and then explores its meaning, seeing whether it provides us with insight or whether the opposite is in fact more truthful. He concludes that the fear of death acts as a stimulation to philosophy, the prospect of the absence of consciousness sparking conscious and sustained thinking. When playing with his cat Montaigne wonders who is really in control and whether the cat is actually playing with him, a crux that encapsulates his sceptical attitude to knowledge.
Montaigne had a medal cast with the question “Que sçay je?” (What do I know?), which he wore around his neck to remind him of his limitations. Much influenced by Stoicism as a young man, he eventually concluded that the detachment from the world that the ancient philosophy cultivated was too certain a belief for him to support. His intellectual position grew much closer to fideism, the belief that faith and reason are separate, the subject of his most sustained essay, the wonderful An Apology for Raymond Sebond.
Montaigne had the misfortune to live through France’s brutal wars of religion of the late 16th century and witnessed slaughter on a grand scale. His writings suggest that he cut himself off from the world, but other records show that he intervened as often as he could to prevent needless suffering and killing. As Stephen Greenblatt remarks, “His was not an untroubled life of solitary meditation.” The background of civil war informs much in his writings, most significantly Of the Cannibals.
Montaigne contrasts the innocent peoples newly discovered in South America, who lack many of the corrupting elements that disfigure the modern world, with their European counterparts. It is true, he makes clear, that the natives of the New World eat victims defeated in battle as a means of performing “an extreme and inexplicable revenge”, but this is nothing compared with the violence that Europeans mete out to each other each day. The essay, however, leaves the matter more open and less clear in its final two sentences.
Talking to a high-status prisoner via an interpreter, Montaigne learns that the man’s authority will continue after the wars have ended. He concludes: “All that is not very ill; but what of that? They wear no kind of breeches or hose.” The reader is left wondering how serious the author is after all and what message might be gleaned from this example. Should we try to return to a more innocent age and wear fewer trappings of civilisation? Or is this a potentially foolish and dangerous manoeuvre that, even were it possible, would do more harm than good?