Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Man for All Seasons: Michel de Montaigne Book Review

I teach selections from Michel de Montaigne's incredibly rich Essays this spring. I love reading Montaigne and I love teaching Montaigne. His writing has a vivacity about it even when speaking of death; he is imaginative in writing on the imagination. A review by Frederic Raphael of Sarah Bakewell's new book on Montaigne, How to Live, itself provides a nice primer. Here are some nice snippets on Montaigne and religion:

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 and died (following an attack of kidney stones, like his father) in 1592. His mother was of Marrano descent; her family had been Sephardic Jews, forced into Catholicism. Montaigne himself was always formally obedient to the Church. 'Otherwise', he wrote, 'I could not keep myself from rolling about incessantly. Thus I have kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience.' In this respect, he was somewhat the precursor of Evelyn Waugh, who said that, had he not been a Catholic, he would scarcely have been human. Montaigne, however, was a genial man of no officious piety; a dutiful mayor of Bordeaux, unaggressive lord of his modest Périgordin manor, and a courtier without grand ambition.

His essays advocated good-humoured acceptance of the vagaries of human life. For all his formal orthodoxy, he was a manifest sceptic: 'There is', he observed, 'no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.' In practice, he preferred the Stoic amor fati to religious absolutism and abominated the righteous cruelty of those with undoubting convictions: 'It is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account.' Sarah Bakewell takes this to be an allusion to the spate of witch-hunting which accompanied the religious wars, but it is no great stretch to see in it a reference to the ongoing series of autos-da-fé on the other side of the Pyrenees. For those who choose to read him so, Montaigne was a bit of a crypto-Jew.

Fearing 'chimeras and fantastic monstrosities', he recruited reason, wryness and literacy to allay their hold on him. He declined to be engaged on either savage side in the religious wars which were the contemporary signs of that France 'divisée en deux' that first split Catholics from Huguenots, later Jacobins from Girondins, and then Socialists from the Droite classique. He played a key, but diffident, part in bringing the Protestant Henri of Navarre to the French throne and, one guesses, encouraged the king's view that Paris was worth a Mass. At the same time, Montaigne observed that, however lofty the throne, 'we are still sitting only on our own rump'.


How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is a lively, well-sourced account of the man and the work. Bakewell is tellingly accurate when she comes to the savage instability of sixteenth-century provincial life. Catholics and Huguenots, neighbours and friends, were inspired to slaughter each other with pitiless self-righteousness. Bordeaux was the scene of exemplary massacres and vindictive repressions, in which Montaigne strove, with no little courage and some success, to play a reconciling role.

Courageous but never pugnacious, except in self-advocacy, his sense of his own fragility and his innate tolerance warned him against what Byron (a somewhat kindred spirit, who also pampered his own inner divisions) called 'enthusymusy': over-keen religious partisanship. Two centuries later, Talleyrand (another Périgordin grandee) would counsel young diplomats to avoid 'trop de zèle' and played the Bishop of Bray, so to speak, with similar, but much more cynical, versatility.

Montaigne's want of dogmatic rigour, his willingness to settle for a good life this side of the grave, earned him the ardent reproaches of both Pascal and Descartes and, in time, the anathemas of the Church (once on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the essays were not reprieved until the mid-nineteenth century). He always did his duty, in pious and political terms, but his abiding pleasures were mundane and country-gentlemanly. His contemporary, Justus Lipsius, called him 'the French Thales'; but Montaigne would never, I suspect, have fallen into a well, as Thales supposedly did, while staring at the heavens. Micheau always watched his step with some care.

If you have not read any of the famous Essais, I would highly recommend it.

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