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 Essays, his personality interpreted perhaps psycho-analytically—as a timeless Montaigne—or according to prescriptions more particular to his century.

In recent years, yet another approach has emerged, which plays down the Montaigne behind the Essays and brings to the foreground the acts of writing and invention. Here the leaps and disjunctures in the text are seen as bearers of meaning; and tensions in language, argument, and metaphor provide central clues. Material from beyond the Essays—say, from Erasmus’ theory of rhetoric or from nominalist philosophy—can be used to deepen their meaning, but particular emphasis is put on the ways Montaigne’s readers decide what his text is about. Montaigne often wondered who those future readers would be, and warned, “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.”1

With Jean Starobinski, we have one of Montaigne’s most remarkable and attentive readers, a critic whose approach includes and transcends the categories I have listed. His cultural range resembles that of Montaigne himself, though the profession in which he was trained, along with literature, was medicine rather than law. From his base at the University of Geneva, he has devoted himself to writings as separate in time and genre as Sophocles’ Ajax and Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony; he has continued his research on the history of medicine, and published major and influential studies on the thought and imagery of eighteenth-century France. For him interpretation requires an egalitarian relation between text and critic; it is not an act of conquest or even mere appropriation. He seeks to understand, to savor the singularity of a text and its bristling resistance to the present, even while asking his own questions and reconciling its language with his own.2

Throughout he has been pursuing another conflict in human experience and thought, that between the self and others, between the inside and the outside—indeed, between insiders and outsiders. In his first work (in the 1940s) on Kafka, he was already concerned with the predicament of solitude and the need to find a path to the outside world, and in his book on Montesquieu in 1953, his knowledge of medicine gave an original cast to his formulation of the issues. Over the years, that formulation has become more complex, as his texts have changed, along with his sense of where the new cracks occur in the social body. Thus Montaigne in Motion begins not so much with solitude as with Montaigne’s case against lying.


Starobinski presents Montaigne in Motion as the complement to his book Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La transparence et l’obstacle.3 Both Montaigne and Rousseau denounced the world for its dissimulation and hypocrisy, its masks and veils. How then did they come to deal with it? Indeed, how did they accept that they were themselves using the tricky medium of language to publish books for the unreliable world to read? Rousseau never did, says Starobinski. He was ultimately alone, his own audience, writing to know himself: the menacing world was for him an obstacle that allowed him to turn in on himself and affirm his innocent sincerity. Montaigne took a position more congenial to Starobinski: he decided that with the right safeguards and understandings, he could accept appearances as legitimate and enter into relations with other people that enhanced rather than falsified his sense of himself. This is the “movement” that Starobinski traces in Montaigne. It is not an orderly philosophical quest for the solution of the problem of skepticism; it is a struggle with experience, with living and writing, that stirs up the essays from start to finish.

Starobinski organizes his book around seven great themes that Montaigne felt he must examine and somehow resolve: friendship and the need for an audience; the meaning of death; freedom and obligation; the body; heterosexual love; the workings of language; one’s duty to engage in public affairs. In each case Montaigne denounces the falsity and deception that surround these subjects, and then finds his own way of renewing their meaning. Starobinski traces the steps by which he does so, carefully listening to everything Montaigne says, analyzing some of the essays in detail and drawing on some of Montaigne’s letters. Events from the sixteenth century are only occasionally evoked, apart from those that are mentioned by Montaigne himself, and few contemporary voices are heard that Montaigne has not himself chosen to record. With one notable exception—to which I will return—Starobinski works primarily with the clues that Montaigne himself has provided.

The long and beautifully constructed first chapter of Montaigne in Motion can serve to illustrate Starobinski’s approach. After presenting Montaigne’s condemnation of the political and social world in which lies and artifice have become the rule, Starobinski considers the meaning of his withdrawal in 1571 to his tower library. To retire in this way was not in itself odd. Humanist notions and gentlemanly ideals of leisure made it a legitimate thing to do. Montaigne’s solitude was to be for him a new birth, an occasion of inner truth and sincerity, for the discovery of a stable identity, a true self, and a capacity for moral decisiveness. But it didn’t work out that way. His reflections in the tower, among other experiences, led him to alter his idea of identity. He recognized that he had little hope of being a moral hero. He accepted that writing about himself for others could itself be a form of action and that it need not be a lie.

To begin with, his solitary leisure brought not disciplined reflection, as he had hoped, but “chimeras,” “fantastic monsters,” and “a melancholy humor…very hostile to my natural disposition.” Perhaps the true self was not a stable and constant essence but was mixed and inconsistent. Later, Montaigne characterized this situation, this “gloom of solitude,” as the setting for undertaking his Essays—“for meddling with writing. And then, finding myself entirely destitute and void of any other matter, I presented myself to myself for argument and subject.” Starobinski shows us that Montaigne is here shifting the task of establishing a truthful identity from a dialogue with himself to the composition of his book; he is recognizing that readers, “others,” are necessary to assure a faithful portrait.

Even more powerfully, he suffered two losses, which intensified in him the tendency to redefine himself and his moral aspiration. One was the death of his father, Pierre Eyquem, the other of his close friend Etienne de La Boétie. Montaigne tried to keep the memory of each man alive through publication. He issued a small collection of poems and translations that La Boétie had been able to complete before his early death. He published a translation of Raymond Sebond’s Natural Theology, which he had promised his father. But he still felt there was much more to be said. Starobinski follows closely Montaigne’s words about La Boétie to see how the survivor reconstructed the relationship. Montaigne had once had an incomparable intimacy with La Boétie, an intimacy that isolated them from the deceptive world, a “complete fusion of wills,” a stable unison of souls and self-revelation (“He saw for me, and I saw for him”). Now the intimacy was broken, the relation asymmetrical, and Montaigne was pushed toward a future in which he would write about La Boétie for the world.


And also write about himself. Starobinski notes the parallels between Montaigne’s way of talking about La Boétie, a presence “so entire and alive” within Montaigne, and his way of talking about himself in the dedication to the first edition of the Essays. He hopes that those who read him after he dies—and Montaigne thinks this will be soon—will through this book be able to keep their knowledge of him “entière et vive.” Pierre Eyquem and La Boétie are each “instigators,” justifiers, of Montaigne’s act of writing, so Starobinski suggests, but only in the ways they incite his memory; they are not moral examples. In life La Boétie had urged Montaigne to adopt ancient models of virtue and strive to imitate them; in death he loomed too large in virtue to be imitated by Montaigne, who now found himself weak and irresolute. Finally, Montaigne discarded the entire idea of guidance by example. Who even knew which to choose among the variety of admirable types? Instead, Montaigne would write about himself as honestly as he could, in all of his fragmentation and changeableness, and thus hold to the truth for which he had initially rejected the world of false appearance.

La Boétie had defined the “essay” as an effort to achieve a goal known in advance. Montaigne defined it anew: “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.”

Such is Starobinski’s opening argument, and it sets the pattern for those that follow, each one exploring a new path taken by Montaigne, from total indictment of the world to conditional and self-aware acceptance of it. “This mask torn away” pursues Montaigne as he considers and then discards the idea that the novelty of birth and the finality of death make them utterly authentic moments, beyond the lies of appearance. The self is not more truly revealed at death than at other times; Montaigne had known dreadful persons who died peacefully, while Socrates’ beautiful death was simply a step in a life habituated to virtue. Whatever truth there is, it will have to be found in life’s changes from minute to minute. Better to feel and try to understand these appearances, for pure essence is seen only by God. Sometimes Montaigne describes thinking and feeling as “reverie” (“Sleeping we are awake and waking asleep”). Perhaps the world is not always rigorously divided into mask and reality, but can be experienced—and written about—as overlappings, a mixture of opposites, a unity.

Dualities are undermined in yet another way in Montaigne’s encounters with obligation and independence. Starobinski begins his third chapter with Montaigne’s announced detestation of dependence, of being obliged to others out of favor or gratitude, or worse, being subject to their judgment. But when he withdraws to self-sufficiency, Montaigne finds that “others” creep back in; he needs them if only to prevent him from lying to himself: “I feel this unexpected profit from the publication of my behavior, that…[it] obliges me to keep on my path, and not to give the lie to the picture of my qualities.” Moreover, he recognizes that there is a difference between unreasoned subjection to one’s family or local community and solidarity with wider communities—solidarity that forms “a universal bond”: “I consider all men my compatriots.” With these broader views of self and community, Montaigne can go back to local relations. Obligation, he decides, need not be subjection; it can be mutual so long as it is based on the link of truthful speech.

Starobinski concludes “The relation to others” with a discussion of Montaigne’s delight in triads and in three-part structures, from the three stages of his life into which he divides his relation to money to the three types of virtue and philosophy to the three types of readers for whom one writes. In each case, the third category becomes Montaigne’s own choice, relating him to other people in a more humane or honest way. Like the unity of reveries, the three-part structure cracks apart the initial formulation of the world as either/or, being/appearance, self/others.

The central thread of the next two chapters of Montaigne in Motion—“The body’s moment” and “Speaking love”—is the body, in the first case the body in health and in pain, in the second the body filled with sexual desire. Montaigne’s writing about his bodily states and about his kidney stone is not only defiant of sixteenth-century social codes in its immodest truth-telling; it also defies physicians in its insistence on the body’s experience as opposed to their abstract medical categories, and on a natural regimen as opposed to their learned artifice. Yet Montaigne also connects himself with those whom he defies: to challenge the physicians, he uses their own questions about health; to give meaning to bodily suffering, he resorts to the artifice of language and describes his own sweating and trembling as others around his bed see it.

As for sexuality, he wants to strip away the hypocrisy of silence about its realities, yet he recognizes that veiled references, the oblique fancies of Virgil’s verse, arouse love and are all we have to sustain the memory of the brief heat of passion. His own experience of the love of women he casts in the usual three stages: an initial loss of self in burning excess; a restraint and guardedness to protect his autonomy; and, regaining balance, a return to love as a mutual service in pleasure, without any “usurpation of sovereign authority” over the other.

Starobinski points out how easily Montaigne slips from talking about the flights of love and reciprocity to talking about the writer’s fancies and the pleasurable exchange between his book and himself. In Starobinski’s chapter on work—“Each man in some sort exists in his work”—the relation between language and life is the center and the metaphors of movement are at their most powerful. Starobinski describes with particular force Montaigne’s reconciliation of the contraries of activity and passivity once he has abandoned his quest for essence and accepted the world of appearance. The solution is a language of motion: reflexive verbs that cause Montaigne to roll around within himself, so to speak, filling his emptiness; verbs of grasping and seizing matched by verbs of flowing and being swept along. “Life is an uneven, irregular, and multiform movement,” Montaigne writes, and we must both float along with it and take our distance from it.

Starobinski restages Montaigne’s entire argument in a final chapter on “public affairs.” The man who resigned his judgeship in the Parlement of Bordeaux can return to periodic public service once he understands how to tell the truth about himself and can bring that awareness with him into the political world. He also brings with him compassion for victims of cruelty, war, and religious persecution—the affective side of “the universal bond”—and an acceptance of custom, an opposition to innovation, and a willingness to conform to religious and political authority. Starobinski devotes many pages to accounting for Montaigne’s conservatism against modern critics who regard it as merely a defense of noble privilege against the forces of “progress.” Montaigne’s obedience always had a radical edge to it (recognized by his seventeenth-century readers), for it was never coupled with affirmation of the truth of dogma or belief in the superiority of kingship. The relatively stable evil of the present was preferable to the evils that would be brought by hopeless efforts at innovation (“in public affairs there is no course so bad, provided it is old and stable, that it is not better than change and commotion”); history was full of shifts for the worse or rolling cycles; none of Montaigne’s contemporaries, Starobinski remarks, had the idea of a law of progress built into history. One had to dwell in the present as best one could, making use of the individual’s defenses against tyranny: the quest for self-knowledge, the honest authorial voice, and compassion for the suffering even of the heretic, even of the witch.

Reading Jean Starobinski’s book, one experiences some of the same excitement and delight as when one reads Montaigne. Carefully translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Montaigne in Motion gathers quotations and expands its argument through surprising associations, and leads us on to the experience of interpretation as Montaigne wanted to lead his readers on to the experience of the senses. What resemblance does it have to the major subjects and methods of Montaigne criticism I mentioned earlier?

Montaigne in Motion treats several of the motifs that appear in the traditional intellectual biography—nature, reason, and the like—but bursts the bounds of that genre. The dialogues between Montaigne and Plato, Cicero, and Seneca Starobinski sees not as a matter of classical influence but as Montaigne’s strategy for quoting his predecessors that still allows him his independence. Montaigne’s “movement” is not a matter of intellectual stages, one superseding the other in time until a final balanced position is obtained once and for all. It is a periodic motion, a continuous turbulence in life and text, stirring up late essays as well as early ones. In the 1588 edition, published when Montaigne was in his fifties, he sharpens earlier condemnations of hypocrisy and traces for the first time his route from self-mastery to the mutuality of love.

Nor is Montaigne in Motion a psychological biography in the usual sense. It shows how a set of attitudes toward the world can have philosophical, personal, literary, and political meaning, all at the same time. To be sure, the perspective that Starobinski brings most consistently to the Essays, other than his sophisticated understanding of the structure and possibilities of texts, is a psychological one. From his training in psychiatry, he has an acute sense of such themes in Montaigne as melancholy, mourning, the protection of the ego, and the uses of reverie. But Starobinski lets Montaigne’s words carry the weight of analysis and does not insist that his twentieth-century formulations be imposed. On Montaigne’s celebration of his friendship with La Boétie, he writes:

In the surpassing of every model that Montaigne describes, a modern reader might decipher aesthetic pride at escaping all norms, the overestimation of a narcissism à deux…. Idealizing, Montaigne concludes that his friendship freed itself of all models.

On the good consequences of Montaigne’s “making room” within himself for the voice of La Boétie:

It will not have the disciplinary but disastrous effects that modern psychology attributes to a tyrannical superego. It is as if La Boétie’s death suddenly revealed to Montaigne his own death.

Starobinski not only uses Freud to interpret Montaigne; he uses Montaigne to interpret Freud.

Though Starobinski’s way of discussing how a text is invented, ordered, and experienced exemplifies one of the most influential styles of contemporary literary criticism, it is clear that he is not among those who want to discard the authors’ presence behind or before their texts. Nor is he among those who think that historical reference to the world outside the text will contaminate the critic’s product. On the contrary, the “remoteness” of a text is one of its features that the critic must respect; Montaigne’s text is “a specimen of discourse drawn from the living past.” What Starobinski said of Rousseau he presumably believes also of Montaigne: “One cannot interpret the work of Rousseau without taking into account the world to which it was opposed.”

Now and then he does this, evoking sixteenth-century beliefs, practices, or situations that help to place Montaigne: humanist attitudes toward culture or the sense of paradox, which may have nourished his “motion” of withdrawal and return; the recent upward mobility in Montaigne’s family, which may have sustained “his intuition of the inevitability of change,” Further, he locates Montaigne’s struggle with appearances in a long historical perspective: the centralizing political power and religious conflict special to the sixteenth century increased both the use of lying and its denunciation; the development of systematic experiment and mathematical science in the seventeenth century would start with Montaigne’s doubt but go beyond appearances and experience to essential laws of nature. These are familiar references and connections, enlightening but not surprising.

It is in “The body’s moment,” the heart of Montaigne in Motion, that Starobinski speaks in a distinctive way—as literary critic, as physician, and as historian of medicine. He presents Montaigne’s case against the physicians of his day—the inefficacy and even harmfulness of their learned remedies and repeated interventions—and then he gives his historian’s report. Montaigne was right, he notes, about Galenic medicine: it was oversystematic, unable to evaluate its own beliefs, and arrogant in its claims. On the other hand, Montaigne was indifferent to the major development in the understanding of the body in which experience counted: the discoveries of anatomical dissection. Thus Montaigne’s return to the world of appearances is especially open to question in regard to the body, for there is nothing in the medical art that he is willing to use except its language; and he does so in order to take charge of and describe his own health.

Starobinski brings out Montaigne’s double relation to medicine by comparing his words with those of the great surgeon Ambrose Paré (himself a mediating figure, closer to the world of practice than any doctor of medicine). Paré is confident that all the many “indications” needed to diagnose and prescribe can be known for a patient; Montaigne says that given the variety in human experience, doctors make nothing but errors. But both men use the same categories. About matters of regimen, such as the ills of old age or the importance of habit, Montaigne reads as though he had borrowed from Paré, but he turns the surgeon’s language against him, undermining the medical system in favor of experience.

This chapter, splendid on several counts, shows how powerfully evidence from historical practice can be brought to bear on literary interpretation. And it has benefits for the historian, too, for it conceives the relation between Montaigne and his contemporaries in a way that goes beyond finding that one simply mirrors the other or can be used to pass judgment on the other. As a historian, I am, of course, tempted to expand the same approach to many other topics—to Montaigne’s writing on sexuality, for instance, which I would want to play off against the comical treatment of intercourse in contemporary medical texts. And to Montaigne’s writing on obligation and autonomy, in which much of the “motion” is connected with the prevailing conventions for exchanging gifts. A look at such practices would clarify both the servitude and the liberties possible in relations involving obligation (including the relations that authors had with their readers).

And if the lost friend La Boétie is so important to the inception of the Essays, what do we make of the young Marie de Gournay, Montaigne’s spiritual daughter, and his unusual choice for literary executor? In Montaigne’s first solitude, La Boétie had been “lodged in [him] so entire and alive”; in a later period of solitude, he loves and cherishes Marie de Gournay “as one of the best parts of [his] own being.” As Montaigne had first desired to know La Boétie while reading his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, so Gournay had first wished for his friendship while reading the Essays; as he had published La Boétie’s works, so she would publish his. The trust in words moves across the generations, as he passes his book, “the child of his mind,” to Gournay—“and she a woman, and in this age, and so young.”

Finally, my historian’s eye would want to modify Starobinski’s defense of Montaigne’s conservatism. It is true, as Starobinski says, that the sixteenth century had not developed the laws of progress of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet despite his belief in “the vicissitude of things,” Louis Le Roy could celebrate his century above the ancients’ and urge that “we aspire always to the perfection that has never yet appeared”; and any number of educational and welfare projects had been offered as novel improvements in the years up to 1560. If Rabelais had set his Abbaye de Thélème in a Utopian frame, nonetheless his laughter was intended not only “to conserve and endure” but to nudge people toward the better. If the Protestants defended their reforms as a “restoration,” nonetheless this entailed changes that they claimed were for the better.

In short, Montaigne’s conservatism was a choice, not merely a position taken by default because the notion of a better future was unthinkable in any form. It was a choice in favor of order made while the country was bleeding itself to death in civil war—a choice that associated Montaigne with a vanguard of political thinkers, and also brought him closer to the peasants, who had had their fill of Protestant and Catholic troops destroying their lands, than to his fellow seigneurs. Montaigne had invented the Essays and published them for all to read; but the changes they wrought were to be of the spirit, opening minds, not wounds.

Returning to the Essays after Montaigne in Motion, readers will find many new paths to follow. Montaigne will still be slippery, and Starobinski expects as much, assuming like Montaigne that any act of interpretation will leave questions in its wake. But Starobinski strengthens our perception not only of the sixteenth-century Montaigne but also of the Montaigne who has a striking presence in the late twentieth century: tolerant, questioning, and self-reflective, but never in his relativism abandoning the need for veracity and an agreed-upon realm of knowledge; committed to our own experience and its teaching over any orthodoxy; a citizen, even when the future looks uncertain, speaking against the stupidity of slaughter, reminding us under our infinite diversity of the universal bond.

This Issue

November 19, 1987