We seek to honor the spirit of Montaigne, but who was our hero? Glad you asked.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a French nobleman that lived from 1533 to 1592. He wore many hats: landowner, intellect, magistrate, confidante to the king, and even mayor of Bordeaux.
But Montaigne’s lasting fame rests in the remarkable book, Essays, that he labored over for twenty years. No one had ever read anything like it. As Sara Bakewell points out in her marvelous book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, “The idea–writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity–has not existed forever.” Montaigne single-handedly brought a new way of thinking and talking about the world into being.
Montaigne seemed to be uniquely bred for his culture-changing future. His father, seeking the advice of humanist friends, had him placed in the home of a peasant family for his first three years so he could learn to appreciate the hard work and life of the people that managed the estates he would inherit. Upon returning home, his tutor and family could speak nothing but Latin in his presence so he would master the international language of the day. Montaigne would also learn Greek and read extensively, study law at university, and become a counselor. So by the time he reach adulthood he served as a sort of poster child for the ideas of the Renaissance and Humanism.
Yet for all his education and privilege, Montaigne could not find his bearings. A preoccupation with death haunted him, his father died, and the untimely passing of his closest friend, Etienne de La Boetie, deepened his anxiety and despair. Would Montaigne simply pass his days as a lawyer and judge, managing his estates, and fade into the history of the French nobility?
And then a traumatic event changed the course of his life. While out riding one day in 1569 or 1570, he was thrown from his horse and suffered a near-fatal head injury. As he lay in his bed between life and death, Montaigne came to realize he had nothing to fear, that he could not control the circumstances of his life, and that knowing death would prove no more difficult than falling off to sleep, he emerged from the experience liberated. The man that once feared mortality and found himself nearly crushed under the grief of his friend’s death, would go on to write:
But if you have never learned how to use life, if life is useless to you, what does it matter if you have lost it? What do you still want if for?
Montaigne turned his attention away from the end of life and began considering the precious gift of life that remained. How to make the most of it? How to enjoy its pleasures and avoid the distractions that rob life of meaning and delight? He decided to dedicate himself to this project, and in 1571 prepared a citadel on his property for the task. Filled with his library and his writing desk, Montaigne began composing the remarkable essays that changed not just literary style, but the way we related to the world.
Montaigne discussed everything that interested him and his interests knew no bounds: cannibals, sex, thumbs, sleep, habits, faith, idleness, digestion, Rome, and kings. All engaged his curiosity so all were worthy of exploration. The essay might last a few paragraphs; it might last a couple of hundred pages. He would set off on a seemingly exhaustive catalog of every anecdote, quote, story, and suggestion he had ever heard on the topic. Montaigne promised to never lie when it came to own experiences, and if a story he heard from another stretched the bounds of belief? Well, he was just honestly recounting what he had been told. He would digress; he would ruminate; he would examine one conclusion and then another. And best of all, he would most often shrug and say, “But what do I know?”
This refusal to proscribe, to demand adherence to a conclusion, to descend into division and rancor, remains Montaigne’s great appeal. As Bakewell notes, Monataigne “does not have designs on you.” He just invites you along for the journey and hopes you have as good a time as he does. This approach also means the reader tends to identify herself in the writing because Montaigne lets you choose what to discover. Blaise Pascal, who abhorred Montaigne’s refusal to locate certainty and tried to counter with his own essays, still had to confess, “It is not in Montaigne but in myself that I find everything I see there.”
A child of the digital age, I must confess that when the Internet began its rise, I thought the spirit of Montaigne would rule. We would share our questions and concerns, we would learn from each other, we would broaden our understanding and narrow the divisions of culture, race, and geography. Instead we seek only those voices that echo ours and condemn with a savageness that never ceases to sadden, those that would see the world differently. Montaigne’s only dogma was there should be no dogma; his only insistence the dedication not to insist. Let us think this over, Montaigne says. Let me yell and brook no evidence to the contrary our websites, blogs, and tweets proclaim. When being noticed and being right become the only measure, we will descend into any lunacy and rudeness to prevail.
The argument that Montaigne came from easier, gentler times doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. A brutal religious civil war waged during most of Montaigne’s life, and being on the wrong side of a religious dispute could end in death not a nasty comment after your blog post. Neither side championed tolerance or liberty of conscience; each side was happy to quarter, mutilate, burn, and hang their opponents given the opportunity (sometimes all at once if you were especially despised).
Yet Montaigne managed to navigate this world and keep his approach to life intact. He refused to succumb to the rabid discourse and violence and found respect from both the Protestant and Catholic kings of his time. And this extended beyond his writing. As both a judge and mayor, Montaigne earned almost universal admiration for his fairness and even hand during these often terrifying times.
So this site will try to occupy a tiny corner of the digital frontier in honor of Montaigne. It will seek to explore, and question, and hope, and invite in the name of finding ways to live that delight and embrace. I think such a project could change the course of our angry conversations and our fearful lives. But what do I know?