Imagine an amber autumn afternoon a few miles north of the Dordogne in Aquitania. You are at the base of the south tower of an ancient château; through an old stone arch a parterre radiates outward. To the west and east, thick woods. You look southward onto vineyards heavy laden. Beyond the village, chalky hills slope to the river. You recall Grigson's “Montaigne's Tower”:
Was it really here, in this tiled room
In this tower that Montaigne wrote?
I hope that it was so. Never was there
A place better for recalling, I would say —
For being benign and wise, for loving
In words. I see him back a chair
Across these tiles, and stand and stretch, and then
Descend this newel stair, and going
Slowly as if arthritically outside.
He looks down, with feeling he sees again
How exceedingly sweet is this meadowed
Small valley below and how half-reddening
Vines in such a light cast straight
Black bars of shadow in row after row.
On a table there, a garnet Bergerac, a pitcher of water and fresh glasses, a plate of truffles, some foie gras; on a board, a tome d'Aquitaine beside a crunchy bâtard. Your host greets you and takes the other chair. It is easy to imagine him. He has already told you so much about himself—and seems to know you so well—that you fear there will be nothing to say. But he loves conversation more than all things. Four and a half centuries do not come between you as the easy hours glide away.
This tower is not of ivory but of natural stone. Montaigne, who could have spent his life in turreted ease, served as Mayor of Bordeaux twice (once staying on the job during a plague) and was a courtier of kings and dukes, his advice valued highly for its dispassionate perspicacity. He knew the world very well. The death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, when Montaigne was thirty, caused him to dedicate the rest of his life to self-examination. His library and study in the upper floors of the tower (the ground floor was a family chapel for Mass) were his observation post. It was his own Delphic temple, emblazoned, in a way, with those two Apolline maxims: Know Yourself and No Excess. The beams and rafters of his study were decorated with apothegms and dicta memoranda in Latin and Greek. You can still read them there.
The most frequent adjective we would apply to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne as he appears in his Essais is “modern,” often accompanied by an adverb such as "remarkably" or "surprisingly." These additives reveal our own self-regard, as if it were sheer miracle that a sixteenth-century man could mount so intellectually high as to attain our Olympic thoughts. No, self-congratulation is not among the reasons to read Montaigne. Disabusing ourselves of our conceit, our easy moral satisfaction, our intellectual laziness—that is why we go to his tower, so to speak. Montaigne gives us hundreds of pages of reasons to set self-assurance aside. All done with courtesy, wit, and style. Does he seem wonderfully "modern," then? Perhaps it is because he himself, in his piercing vision of mankind, created a great part of our own modernity.
But modern how? We cannot answer that question unless we consider the world into which Montaigne was born. Western Europe generally was emerging from what we call the Middle Ages. A New World was being explored. The cultural movement called the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation were provoking revolutionary thoughts and acts as well as harsh responses to them. Inquisitions were expected. The coldest part of the Little Ice Age coincided with Montaigne's life, and while he wrote the Wars of Religion were roiling France: torture, hangings, and beheadings were frequent if not common. Islamic jihadists would feel quite at home in that world. We can easily see why Montaigne retired to his tower, there to commune with the Muses.
One particular instance of his modernity can be seen in his observations of the religious and political extremism of his age, many of which can easily be applied to twentieth and twenty-first century attempts to recreate society by discarding custom and usage and forcibly, violently, imposing a totalitarian plan upon whole peoples. Anticipating the French Revolution and Burke by two centuries, Montaigne observed that "It is very easy to generate in a people a contempt for their ancient observances: no man ever attempted it without succeeding. But many have come to grief in their attempt to establish a better state of things in place of what they have destroyed." As George Homans once noted, "They who shake the foundations of a state are liable to be the first involved in its downfall" would be well understood by Robespierre and Trotsky, among others.
Montaigne's skepticism about the limits of human knowledge appears in his criticism of our blind obedience to customs. And yet he warns that the obliteration of our customs to further one particular ideology or another always entails very great social and political hazards:
They who have bent [religion] to the left hand, they who have bent it to the right, they who call it black, they who call it white, employ it so alike for their violent and ambitious undertakings, progress so equally in riot and injustice, that they make us doubt and unable to believe in the diversity of opinions they profess, in a matter on which depends the rule and conduct of our life.
And to resist the encroachment of an innovation which forces its way by violence is a dangerous obligation and inequality for one who, everywhere and in all things, holds himself in check and bound by rules; it places him at a disadvantage when faced with one who assumes all freedom to act, who regards everything as lawful that will serve his own designs and whose only law is to follow up his own advantage.
Montaigne corrects our unthinking habit of reducing the complexities of life to simple As versus Bs. We might find his thinking inefficient, meandering, maddeningly inconsistent. But that is precisely what we have to learn from him. You will find no isms here, no rational plan of life, but life as it is, faced fearlessly and described in detail, yet without navel-gazing. As Oakeshott said in his own essay on Hobbes, "It will be remembered that the brilliant and informal genius of Montaigne had perceived that our most certain knowledge is what we know about ourselves, and had made of this a philosophy of introspection." For Montaigne, freedom and truth are the paramount concerns of our life; we must be ready to sacrifice any and all of our cherished opinions for their sake. And the whole purpose of education is to prepare us and give us the means to do just that:
I, who make no other profession, find in myself such infinite depth and variety, that what I have learned bears no other fruit than to make me realize how much I still have to learn. To my weakness, so often perceived, I owe my inclination to coolness in my opinions and any hatred for that aggressiveness and quarrelsome arrogance that believes and trusts wholly in itself, a mortal enemy of discipline and truth.
It well serves the purpose of this present series of essays by the NAS that Montaigne's modernity is itself a product of antiquity. The ease and readiness with which he calls forth examples from ancient Greek and Latin authors in every genre is astonishing. The past provided him the means both to deal with the world of his own time and yet to see beyond it; his comprehensive view of human life and society approaches universality. The very notion of essays on old books that still and always matter is possible chiefly because of Montaigne's Essais. To write an essay about them is almost too meta. To read his books is to learn how to examine your own life. Anyone just approaching Montaigne will benefit from Barzun's masterful chapter in From Dawn to Decadence (pp. 133-140). Hilary Masters has a collection of essays, In Montaigne's Tower. And Sarah Bakewell has recently put out her How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I haven't read these last two—yet. But Montaigne himself I shall always read.
Peter Cohee teaches Classics in the Boston area and studies American educational history.
Image: Public Domain