The Originality of Montaigne

Montaigne: A Biography

by Donald M. Frame
Harcourt, Brace & World, 408 pp., $10.00

Complete Essays of Montaigne

translated by Donald M. Frame
Stanford, 883 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne; drawing by David Levine

Everyone interested in Montaigne will welcome the appearance of a detailed, reliable, and up-to-date biography of him. Up till now we have still had to go back to Bonnefon’s Lives of 1893 and 1898, and laboriously supplement them with later books and articles. Professor Frame’s biography is written in a clear, unpretentious but expressive style, and, in so far as he is simply narrating the course of Montaigne’s life, his work is admirable. It is particularly valuable to have a full and lucid account of all that is now known about Montaigne’s period of office as Mayor of Bordeaux and about his important role as a politique negotiator between Henry III and Henry of Navarre. This information corrects the picture Montaigne gives of himself as an egocentric escapist. But here comes the difficulty. Montaigne’s Essais are primarily autobiographical; his explicit aim, which he certainly achieved, was to give a self-portrait. In consequence a full biography of Montaigne must inevitably also include a study of his writings (although it would be useful for scholars to have a collection of all the information about him from sources other than the Essais). This is perhaps all to the good; the customary separation of l’homme from l’oeuvre is artificial even where it is possible. But, granting that one should not separate the man from the thinker and writer, I find Professor Frame’s treatment of the Essais not wholly satisfactory, mainly because he does not put Montaigne’s ideas in an historical context. For his life, the necessary historical background, political, social, and economic, is given succinctly and adequately; but this is not true of the intellectual background.

In many ways Montaigne was a startlingly original and independent thinker; but this can be appreciated only if one has some knowledge of relevant contemporary and earlier thought, for the most fundamental of Montaigne’s new ideas and attitudes have now become our own unquestioned assumptions. Conversely, some of his opinions, which seem to a modern reader strange and perverse, such as his belief in inverted progress, i.e., inevitable decadence, in human societies, are merely the universally held presuppositions of his time. The fideism of the Apologie de Raymond Sebond, to which Professor Frame devotes a whole chapter, appears less dangerous when seen as part of a revival of ancient skepticism used for religious purposes, which begins with Gian-Francesco Pico and culminates in the first complete Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus (1569) made by Gentien Hervet, who introduces him, in his dedication to the Cardinal of Lorraine, as a valuable weapon against heretics and unbelievers.

Montaigne wrote of his Essais: “It is the only book in the world of its kind”; and he says this because, as he has just told us, he has taken himself as his subject-matter. Now this statement was, without qualification, true. There are no autobiographical works remotely like Montaigne’s earlier than his, nor, so…

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