A New Montaigne

Montaigne in Motion

by Jean Starobinski, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
University of Chicago Press, 348 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Michel de Montaigne—who does not know that charmed name? Once it was Eyquem, but Michel dropped his father’s surname in favor of Montaigne, the noble property that he inherited as Pierre Eyquem’s oldest son. (But what glory did a name bring, Michel asked later in his Essays.) Once a law student, then a judge in the high court of Bordeaux, he resigned that post even before he knew he would have no son to whom to pass it on. (“I speak not as judge…but simply to converse,” he wrote later in his Essays.) During the religious wars of the last decades of the sixteenth century, he did not turn his back on the world: his health and curiosity took him as far as Rome; he served twice as mayor of Bordeaux and several times as mediator between Catholic prince and Protestant prince. But much of the time he stayed on his estate with his family, reflecting as he went about his daily affairs (he said his freest thoughts came when he was on horseback), reading in his tower library, and composing and recomposing his Essays.

Published in lengthening editions from 1580 to 1595, three years after Montaigne’s death, the Essays were new in name and relatively new in genre. Their cast of characters ranged from emperors to wet nurses, from Greek warriors to widows of the Indies; their subjects went from cruelty to sleeping, from coaches to thumbs; quotations from classical authors were found on many pages. Yet Montaigne assured his readers in his first dedication and often afterward that the subject of his book was himself, told about in all honesty and with naturalness, concreteness, and intimacy. “Everyone recognizes me in my book, and my book in me.”

Slippery in meaning and argument, moving in surprising association from one example or idea to the next (“My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance”), Montaigne’s Essays have become a test for critical interpretation in our own time. For some, the task has been a traditional one of intellectual history: the reader takes a major theme, such as skepticism, reason, nature, or melancholy, and develops a coherent position for Montaigne by tracking it through the essays and indicating where, and how, it changed from his early writing to his late. Here the emphasis falls on Montaigne’s dialogue with the classical and Christian writers whom he read and reacted to.

For others, the task has been that of traditional social and cultural history: to see the Essays as a reflection of, and on, the great issues of life in sixteenth-century France—commercial exchange, family conflict, social mobility, religious intolerance, and the like. Here Montaigne’s view of the culture around him is analyzed without much attention to questions of literary form and intention. For still other readers, it is the author himself who is the prey, the “moi” who declared himself “consubstantial” with his book. He is brought to life once again in the detail and language of the…

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