In 1564 a book was published calculating that there were 7,409,127 demons at work in the world, under the administrative control of 79 demon-princes. Eight years later, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne began to write his Essays, a book which still seems to speak to us directly with all the force of rational understanding and an identifiable human personality. If Montaigne marks the beginning of modernity, it is because he tells us exactly what he is like; how he sees the world, fallibly and yet honestly; and because there was no book in the world like it before, and we are still writing books rather like it today.
Montaigne, in common with all great authors, has continued to be infinitely applicable. Centuries of academic readers have found a 17th-century sceptical writer, a rambling Romantic, a Victorian moralist, a modernist experimenting with perception and free association, and, alas, a post-modernist, playing with the random associations and hidden structures of words. Nietzsche was fascinated by Montaigne. Proust is steeped in him; the final image of A La Recherche, of lives extending far into the past and into the future, of men suspended above long tracts of time and memory as if on giant stilts, is taken as if in homage from the Essays.
Political leaders and thinkers of all sorts have gone on drawing solace from Montaigne’s unassuming belief that he isn’t sure of anything. Other people and, indeed, animals are probably just as important as the person who happens to be doing the talking at that moment. Montaigne asked, in the ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’ how he could be sure, when playing with his cat, whether it was more of a plaything for him, or he for the cat. That insight gave him a horror, unusual for his day, of irresponsible power, and particularly of torture, which he regarded as ineffectual as well as humanly repugnant. In the first half of the 20th century, Montaigne was important to such quiet resisters of fascist oppression as Stefan Zweig, as Sarah Bakewell describes. Nowadays, he is still explaining to us why it was wrong and futile to introduce torture in the attempts at Abu Ghraib to discover the truth. In ‘Of conscience’, he says:
Tortures are a dangerous invention, and seem to be a test of endurance rather than of truth … For why shall pain rather make me confess what is, than force me to say what is not?
Human wickedness is endlessly enduring, and it seems that Montaigne is always going to have something to say about it.
The author of this unprecedented work was an unusual man, and he tells us a lot about his unusualness. Where we have to guess what sort of person Chaucer, Cicero, and even Shakespeare was, Montaigne tells us who he is, and everything we know from other witnesses suggests that he was honest and perceptive in his account. He was slapdash in his practical affairs, and not very dynamic about the estate; he was intelligent and curious, but not consistent in his application. That is confirmed by other observers when Montaigne, under the patronage of Henri de Navarre and Catherine de’ Medici, started to play a part in public affairs: the English ambassador, Sir Edward Stafford, called him ‘a very wise gentleman’, and the Spanish ambassador observed, more carefully, that he was ‘considered to be a man of understanding, though somewhat addle-pated.’
The Essays, observations of the world, are also observations of the individual self to an alarming degree. Interestingly, just as Montaigne has surprisingly little to say about religion, so his self-deprecating accounts have very little to do with the act of confession. That might have seemed the obvious model for someone of Montaigne’s age, but sin is rarely his touchstone in explaining his shortcomings. In the famous and still startling essay ‘On Some Verses of Virgil’, mostly about sex, he uses his own failings, both moral and physical, to explore sexual customs and tendencies with an anthropological eye. Whether any of this would be considered wrong or not hardly seems to enter his head.
Montaigne is startlingly free from convention altogether. In a famous letter to his father, he gives a detailed account of the death of his great friend, the political theorist Etienne de la Boetie. For some distance, we seem to be part of a traditional death-bed scene, as La Boetie sends for his relations and a priest, distributes his goods and shows courage. But this is not Montaigne’s convention, rather the conventions a good dying man knows how to obey, which Montaigne is reporting accurately. Later on, La Boetie loses control of himself, and Montaigne goes on:
Even when I had remonstrated with him very gently that he was letting the illness carry him away and these were not the words of a man in his sound mind, he did not give in at first and repeated even more strongly, ‘My brother, my brother, do you refuse me a place?’
We rarely see this kind of honest reportage in writing of this time.
Some contemporaries complained about Montaigne’s subjective opinions. Pierre Dupuy, a writer from the generation after Montaigne, asked ‘Who the hell wants to know what he liked?’ Montaigne was aware of this danger, and says in ‘Of the Art of Discussion’ ‘you never speak about yourself without loss. Your self- condemnation is always accredited, your self-praise discredited.’ Nevertheless, the view of Montaigne as talking entirely about himself and extrapolating by degrees into the facts of the outside world is mostly a modern one. It seems appropriate to the age of the public confessional and the misery memoir. Actually, Montaigne is as much a collector of abstruse information as Herodotus or Sir Thomas Browne. Some of the essays, such as the one about thumbs, are just notes on a particular fact, gathered from ancient authorities. We know, too, that he was fascinated by peculiar physical phenomena, and the Essays are always apt to go into accounts of conjoined twins or men without external genitalia without much reference to Montaigne himself. If he remains the most entertaining essayist, it is because he is interested in the outside world, and reports on it through his own experiences.
Sarah Bakewell has written an entertaining and well-researched book. It takes the central questions of the Essays as the basis for a more-or-less chronological account of Montaigne’s life. It isn’t a biography, exactly, though it contains a biographical story and a thorough account of a peculiar and vivid personality. Bakewell’s is a clever solution to the problem of the ‘must have seen’s and ‘surely must have thought’s that any life of an individual from this period poses. We know what Montaigne said, and what the records show, and then Bakewell falls decorously silent. She could have tried a bit harder, however, to avoid such lecture-room banalities as describing Tristram Shandy as being ‘like Montaigne on speed’, and surmising that ‘had Montaigne been a young man of the early 21st century instead of the 16th, he would probably have had [his motto] done as a tattoo.’
She clearly loves Montaigne and is fascinated by his long afterlife. She gives a judicious and plausible account of the his two great relationships. The first was with Etienne de la Boetie, whose astonishing essay ‘On Voluntary Servitude’ is the founding text of passive resistance and the withdrawal of mass consent to government by tyranny. (It is so astonishing, indeed, that some people have thought it must be by Montaigne). The second was with his late-life fan and posthumous editor, Marie de Gournay. Bakewell catches the complicated, posturing tone of the one, and defends the other from centuries of misogynistic abuse. Poor Marie de Gournay has never been much admired, largely because she was a learned woman in an age when such things were considered hilarious. It seems unfair, because everything in Montaigne himself suggests that he thought women just as capable of triumph and blunders as men. If there is a single conclusion to be reached at the end of Montaigne’s work, it might be this: we’re all in it together, and we might as well put up with it.