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How Wise Was Montaigne?

Michel de Montaigne: The Essays

translated and edited by M.A. Screech
Penguin/Allen Lane, 1,283 pp., $60.00

Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the ‘Essays’

by M.A. Screech
Penguin, 194 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Dr. Screech has done us a great service by producing a meticulous translation of the Essays in plain, contemporary English, and with no avoidance of those frank or obscene terms that Montaigne was not afraid of using. Of course, a twentieth-century translator cannot, in the nature of things, reproduce the quaint period flavor which gives such charm to the original English version of 1603 by Florio, but Florio was not always accurate, and it was inevitable that his work would be supplemented by subsequent translators. In 1685, Charles Cotton produced a version which shared the field with Florio’s up to the end of the nineteenth century, both of them benefiting perhaps from the assumption that their archaic style gave them a sort of authenticity.

But since the turn of this century, there have been three or four new translations, either partial or complete, the most remarkable being that of Donald Frame (1957). It is so thorough and scholarly that one might have thought it would discourage other attempts for a very long time to come. Dr. Screech does not explain why he considered it necessary to undertake the immense labor once again (he makes no mention of the previous versions), but he has some features which make his translation seem closer to present-day taste than Donald Frame’s, even though the latter is only thirty-five years old.

Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style, as can be seen from the following characteristic sentence, in which Montaigne is criticizing Cicero and Pliny the Younger:

But this surpasses all baseness of heart in persons of such rank: to have wanted to derive some great glory from mere babble and talk, to the point of publishing their private letters written to their friends; and even though some of these failed to be sent, they were published nonetheless, with this worthy excuse, that the writers did not want to lose their labor and their vigils.

Screech’s version is racier and more immediately intelligible:

But what surpasses all vulgarity of mind in people of such rank is to have sought to extract some major glory from chatter and verbiage, using to that end even private letters written to their friends; when some of their letters could not be sent as the occasion for them had lapsed, they published them all the same, with the worthy excuse that they did not want to waste their long nights of toil!

Screech’s treatment of the scores of Latin and other quotations, with which the text is studded, also seems preferable. Whereas Frame identifies them only by the names of their authors, and runs them, as it were, into the body of the text by translating them into English and, in the case of poetry, into a uniform kind of English verse, Screech gives the original as it stands in the French text, followed by a strictly literal translation in brackets. This has the clear advantage of showing how the classical fragments are stuck in like plums in a pudding, so that Montaigne’s own text is reduced at times to a thin paste of connective tissue. Screech also gives a full reference for each one, so that we can see from which part of which work they came. Still more importantly, he takes the trouble to identify those many places in which Montaigne mischievously transposes ancient authors into French, without letting on that he is doing so. It is just as well to know which these are, because—if I can change the metaphor from puddings to basketwork—the Essays, more than any other famous book, are composed to a large degree of borrowed strands.

In fact, Montaigne speaks unmistakably in his own voice only when he is dealing with his personal life and his immediate likes and dislikes; when he broaches more general issues, it is often difficult to tell whether he is fully behind what he is saying, or just trying out one opinion after another, according to the last author he happened to look at or think about. Although he was the first person to apply the term essai to a piece of writing, it is essential to know that these are not “essays” in the modern sense of a more or less organized treatment of a given subject. He freely admits that he has no sense of composition, and refers to his book as “my muddle.” Dr. Screech prefers to translate essais as “assays” in the body of the text, in order to bring out the meaning that these are attempts by Montaigne to put down on paper whatever comes into his head, in an endeavor to calm his unruly nerves and to discover his true being—no doubt in obedience to the slogan of his beloved Socrates: “Know thyself.”

His starting point was neurotic unease. (In his 1983 study, Montaigne and Melancholy, now reissued along with his translation, Dr. Screech relates this disturbance to the old theory of the “humours.” In modern, existentialist terms, it could be described as the “anguish” of the unfocused consciousness in the absence of an adequate “project.”) Montaigne explains that, after his retirement from public service at the age of thirty-eight, he expected to enjoy a quiet life on his country estate. To his surprise, relative solitude did not bring mental repose, but instead allowed his thoughts to run painfully riot, until he hit on the idea of taking up his pen in order to talk himself into a more acceptable frame of mind. His writing started, then, as a therapeutic exercise; we might say that he began confessing himself to himself with the instinctive hope that the collective, extra-personal agency of language would allow him to see himself in perspective. It is a commonplace, in the modern world, that writers write out of their neuroses, and we tend to forget that direct self-revelation of this kind is a relatively recent phenomenon. Montaigne’s great originality in his day was to see himself as an individual personality worthy of an attempt at definition, just as Descartes’s complementary originality in the following century was to see himself as an individual mind with the right to think for itself from scratch.

Of course, Montaigne had before him the example of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, but Augustine gave an account of his early life, post factum, to show how he arrived at faith; Montaigne, on the contrary, was a Renaissance explorer undertaking a voyage of self-discovery which might lead anywhere. He was the originator of that peculiarly French emotional-cum-intellectual self-awareness, which characterizes Pascal in the seventeenth century, the Rousseau of the Confessions in the eighteenth, and so many later writers, such as Valéry, Gide, Camus, and Sartre.

However, his writing procedure may take some getting used to. I was at first put off him, over half a century ago, through having to read, for examination purposes, the essay entitled L’Apologie de Raimond Sebond, a very long chapter which purports to explain the “natural” arguments in favor of Christianity put forward by an obscure medieval theologian. Actually, it wanders all over the place like the conversation of some garrulous old man and, on balance, seemed to me to demolish religion rather than support it. Also, it includes, among other apparently irrelevant and doubtful items of information, the bland assertion that pet animals often weep when their owners die, reinforced by a quotation from Virgil about the mythic horse Aethon bathing its master’s wounds with its tears. How could a man who spent his life among horses make such a statement, unless he was having a dig at Virgil’s poetic exaggeration? Yet nothing indicated that a joke was intended. (I was to realize subsequently that this is a recurrent problem with Montaigne: How often is he just pulling the reader’s leg?) All I could be sure of was that the Apologie, had it been submitted anonymously as a university dissertation, would certainly have been failed by the examiners on grounds of incoherence. It was only much later that I came to understand the enormous importance of Montaigne’s experiment in self-knowledge, although I continue to think that the Apologie, taken on its own, doesn’t adequately show this.

Now that I have gone through the Essays again, not as a sixteenth-century specialist and a classical scholar like Dr. Screech, but as an ordinary reader more at home with later literature, I still feel that Montaigne is an exceptionally difficult writer to grasp as a whole. What is one to make of the “muddle,” since the term is by no means inappropriate? A possible approach is not to bother too much in the first instance about trying to work out the intellectual pattern of the Essays—that is, Montaigne’s very own genuine philosophy, if he had one—but to enjoy the fragmented but vivid portrait he gives of a sixteenth-century gentleman belonging to the minor aristocracy, and at the same time to take his book for what it is in large part, an entertaining and instructive compendium of ancient lore.

It is the lively resuscitation of Greece and Rome that strikes one first. As I have said, the Essays are a tissue of quotations; Montaigne frequently complains about his bad memory, but he had a magpie mind and an eye for the juicy detail. Most importantly, he was brought up at a time when Latin was still the lingua franca of Europe, and his father, by all accounts an unusual man, arranged for him to be in the sole care of a Latin-speaking tutor until the age of six. How this was managed in detail unfortunately remains unexplained, but Montaigne himself says that he spoke Latin before French, and surprised his teachers by his fluency when he went to school in Bordeaux, where instruction was presumably conducted for the most part in Latin.

As a result of this training, he had a familiarity with the language which is almost unimaginable today and, although he was in no way a scholar by temperament, he was soaked in Latin literature and in the Latin versions of the Greek texts. For him, the writers of the Ancient World were not objects of academic study, but his everyday reading matter, as newspapers and novels are for us today, so that Caesar and Pompey, Cicero and the two Catos, Epaminondas and Socrates, the Stoics, the Pyrrhonists and the Epicureans were constantly in his thoughts, and he reflected on their lives and sayings as freely and as unself-consciously as if they were just around some recent corner in time. Consequently, to read him is to enjoy a leisurely stroll through that Ancient World with which most of us, in the late twentieth century, have to all intents and purposes lost touch.

He reminds us, in the most immediate and convincing way, that while science and technology have progressed with such astonishing and accelerating speed since ancient times, and more especially since the Renaissance, a great deal of human psychology and the major philosophical options have remained essentially the same. For instance, a reading of the Essays will, I think, convince anyone incapable of religious belief that the only other possible philosophies of life were anticipated by the Stoics and the Epicureans, and that, outside religious faith, one has to settle for some personal balance between their two complementary doctrines. Also, the contemporary ecological debate appears as just a continuation of the discussion of the concept of nature which has been going on for at least two thousand years, and in which Montaigne gets himself hopelessly entangled from time to time. Is civilization or culture a struggle against nature, or a coherent development of human nature within general nature? Can we extrapolate from animal nature to human nature or vice versa? He broaches these themes in different places, giving different answers according to his mood.

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