Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne; drawing by David Levine

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.”

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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.

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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.

Nor are many of the achievements of humanity as new as one might think. Let me quote only three examples from among many. I didn’t know that the original inventor of aleatory painting was one Protogenes, an artist mentioned by Pliny, who, in a moment of frustration, threw a paint-soaked sponge at his picture and was delighted with the result. When, quite recently, I heard it said of a world-famous but rather self-righteous musician, “He thinks his own shit doesn’t smell,” I took the expression to be a typically rude Australianism, but here it is, quoted by Montaigne and deriving, apparently, from Aristotle by way of Erasmus: Stercus cuique suum bene olet. And the following quotation suggests that there may already have been a Wittgenstein in the Ancient World:

One of the Ancients was reproved for not judging philosophy to be of much account yet continuing to profess it; “That is what being a philosopher means,” he replied.

Yet, paradoxically, although Montaigne is such an assiduous compiler of other men’s sayings, he gradually comes over as a strong individual temperament, trying to look at himself and the world afresh. In spite of his frequent, and not quite convincing, protestations of modesty (after all, he didn’t just put his therapeutic exercise away in a drawer, but went to the trouble of publishing it at his own expense and presented a copy to the king), he has a powerful and quite crusty ego, which makes him sound at times rather like a Gallic equivalent of Dr. Johnson, except that the Doctor, so far as I remember, never discusses sex or bowel movements.

Montaigne tells us about his physical appearance, which was imposing and served him well on various occasions, about his eating habits, his hygiene (he cleaned his teeth twice a day and didn’t like to be disturbed when in his privy), his dislike of making love in a standing position, his enjoyment of horse-riding, which stimulated his thoughts, his attitude toward money—he squandered it in youth, tended to hoard it with almost miserly care at a later stage, and only learned to administer it freely and sensibly in his final years—his fundamental lack of ambition although he was familiar with princes, his indifference to the details of husbandry although he was a landowner, his deep, platonic buddy-relationship—more than a friendship—with Etienne de la Boétie, which relegated the love of women, including his feeling for his wife, to a much inferior plane—and a hundred other things, which show him to have been an Epicurean in his willingness to enjoy life as far as possible, and a would-be Stoic, and possibly a real one, in coping with its inevitable ills.

What makes him appear so immediately present and up-to-date is the fact that he is not at all high-minded in dealing with these things; he mixes the supposedly trivial with the supposedly important as being inseparable elements of what would now be called the phenomenology of everyday life. “I have known many a soldier put out by the irregularity of his bowels” is a typical throw-away remark. He lives simultaneously, as it were, in his body and his mind, a truism applicable to all of us, but one which is not perhaps fully conveyed in literature and philosophy as often as it might be.

Being, in so many respects, l’homme moyen sensuel, he is naturally full of contradictions, although he preempts criticism on this score through his familiarity with the Heraclitean view that all is flux, including his individual self. He is as aware as any modern existentialist that every morning is a new day:

I am not portraying being but becoming….

There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people….

It is a hard task to be always the same man.

It could be argued that, on the intellectual level, Montaigne doesn’t try very hard to remain the same man. In one place, he will quote with approval Aristotle’s dictum: “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge,” but, in another context, he will condemn the libido sciendi as sententiously as any medieval dogmatist, saying that it is the source of all our woes. This chimes in with his general confusion about nature which I have already referred to. He occasionally puts forward the pious view that nature being the work of God, all things—as the English hymn says—are bright and beautiful and only man is vile:

Himself entirely Good, he has made all things good…. All things which are in accordance with Nature are worthy of esteem….

Nature, being equal and common to all, cannot fail to be just. But…we have unslaved ourselves from Nature’s law and given ourselves over to the vagrant liberties of our mental perceptions.

On the other hand, we find him echoing the much more complex ideas of Lucretius and Seneca, which anticipate the Darwinian concept of Nature as an amoral drive in which “good” and “evil” are inextricably interdependent. In an early essay, he does this on a philosophical level:

Those who reproach humanity with always gaping towards the future…touch upon the most common of human aberrations (if we dare use the word “aberration” for something towards which Nature herself brings us in the service of the perpetuation of her handiwork, impressing this false thought upon us as she does many others, more ardently concerned as she is for us to do than to know). We are never “at home”: we are always outside ourselves.

Here, Nature is seen as an anonymous life force working for its own inscrutable ends and “corrupting” man in the process; the last sentence is again proto-existentialist, since it defines the “unhappy” consciousness in its relationship to time. Further on, in another essay, the ambiguities of Nature are flippantly summarized in a joke from a Greek comedy: “No doctor ever derives pleasure from the good health even of his friends.”

Montaigne is just as capable of moral uncertainties as he is of intellectual ones. Like many other men, he has an ambivalent attitude to war. He lived at a time of armed conflict between Catholics and Protestants; he repeatedly laments the physical havoc and moral decay caused by the civil war; he himself fought on the Catholic side, and speaks with horror of being involved in a massacre of Protestant villagers; yet he can still refer to war as “the most grandiose and glorious of human activities.” And again:

No occupation is as enjoyable as soldiering—an occupation both noble in its practice…and noble in its purpose.

In discussing professional behavior, he sometimes seems to be almost condoning immorality; at least, his phrasing is very “man of the world” in the dubious sense:

…a man of honour is not accountable for the crimes or stupidities of his profession, nor should they make him refuse to practice it; such is the custom of his country: and he gets something from it. We must make our living in the world, and use it as it is.

In dealing with politics, Montaigne may go so far as to elevate “the custom of the country” to an absolute principle. On the one hand, he explains at length that there is never any fully settled state of society, that laws, like everything else, are subject to fashion, that houses rise and fall, etc., and he had every reason to do so since, in sixteenth-century France, it must often have been difficult to decide where one’s loyalties lay. On the other hand, while he sees the relative nature of all political authority, his only recommendation is total political quietism—unless, of course, he is being ironical:

…we can wish for better men to govern us but we must nevertheless obey those we have.

Even wicked rulers must be obeyed, provided we make mental reservations about them:

We owe subordination and obedience to all our kings equally, for that concerns their office; but we owe esteem and affection only to their virtue.

In the case of the following passage, it is impossible to tell whether it represents traditional acceptance of the divine right of kings or stoical submission to uncontrollable events:

In my own activities I allow but a small part to my intelligence: I readily let myself be led by the public order of this world [but he has just explained that there is no settled public order]. Blessed are they who, without tormenting themselves about causes, do what they are told rather than tell others what to do; who, as the Heavens roll, gently roll with them.

The most favorable interpretation of “gently rolling with the Heavens” is that it represents the nostalgic dream of an undogmatic and well-meaning man living in troubled times and longing for a clearer sky. As a political doctrine, it doesn’t make sense even for him because, as he points out again and again, we never know which way the Heavens are going to roll; Fortune—his word for chance—constantly surprises us, and Fortune, as he often repeats along with the Stoics, rules the world.

This brings us back to the difficult question: What are the final implications of the Essays? Montaigne may have begun writing almost by accident, but it seems reasonable to suppose that what he was eventually aiming at, despite his rambling method and his often bewildering use of quotations, was no less than an analysis of the individual consciousness, with the ancient philosophical purpose of working out a rule of life. This, I imagine, is why Dr. Screech gives the subtitle The Wisdom of the Essays to his study of Montaigne. It suggests that the essayist achieved his purpose and that we, his readers, can imbibe his wisdom. Dr. Screech is able to take this line, because his main contention, which he develops with a wealth of sixteenth-century references, is that Montaigne is a humanist who realizes that humanism is inadequate on its own, and needs to be supplemented by religious faith. He argues that Montaigne’s often extreme skepticism or Pyrrhonism was, in reality, “the Pyrrhonism of the Church,” i.e., the systematic humiliation of the intellect to open the way to the higher truth of faith. If this is so, Montaigne was a predecessor of Pascal, who adopts exactly this procedure in the Pensées, the notes for his projected Christian apologia. M. Marc Fumaroli, a professor at the Collège de France, who contributes an enthusiastic preface to Dr. Screech’s study, strongly supports this view by suggesting that Montaigne was writing a sort of handbook for Christian men of the world, just as his younger contemporary, St. François de Sales, composed L’Introduction à la vie dévote for the guidance of women in lay society.

This surprisingly confident reading runs counter to what I take to have been the majority view of Montaigne, at least since the eighteenth century. It is true that some modern French Catholic critics have tried to reclaim Montaigne entirely for the Church: for instance, M. Citoleux, in a pugnacious little book, Le Vrai Montaigne, théologien et soldat (1937), trounces those many people who have dared to throw doubt on Montaigne’s faith, as if his orthodoxy were self-evident.

More cautious scholars, such as Jean Starobinski in his Montaigne en mouvement (1982), have worked out subtle patterns of development or oscillation within the complexity of the Essays, and have not tried to place their author in any definite ideological camp. One sixteenth-century scholar, the late D.P. Walker, who reviewed Screech’s study in these pages when it first appeared,* took issue with it precisely on the subject of the boldness of Montaigne’s thought; his skepticism, Walker maintained, was not just “the Pyrrhonism of the Church” but a basic rejection of the medieval man-centered view of the universe. Certainly, as far as my reading goes, most people have concluded that, in spite of Montaigne’s genuine or simulated deference to Catholic orthodoxy, his “muddle” is, on the whole, part of the Renaissance explosion of free thought, which eventually fed the Enlightenment.

Some admirers see this as a virtue, others as a weakness. Sainte-Beuve, who admires him up to a point, but is also a Catholic sympathizer, regrets that the author of the Essays is not sensitive to la sainte folie of religion and, in a memorable phrase, says that Montaigne, who figures significantly in Pascal’s Pensées, secretly gnawed away at Pascal’s faith, as the fox hidden in the Spartan boy’s tunic gnawed at his vitals. As for the Enlightenment thinkers, they seem to have taken it for granted that Montaigne was mainly on their side. Montesquieu, a major figure, writes approvingly about him, and borrowed material from the Essays for his highly irreverent Lettres Persanes. Some of the antidogmatic points in Voltaire’s Candide could also have come directly from the Essays, and what could be more Voltairean than Montaigne’s own quip:

After all, it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.

It is true that the Vatican, after some initial qualms, left Montaigne in peace during his lifetime. “The Roman censors gave a friendly jolt to his arm,” as Dr. Screech puts it, and indeed, as Montaigne describes the encounter in his Journal de voyage, the censors of the day were almost comically lax. During his visit to Italy, he had, in any case, initiated a maneuver that was perhaps meant to avert trouble; he managed to have himself made a Citizen of Rome, on the same terms, he was pleased to note in his deadpan way, as the Pope’s son, the Duke of Sora, as if it were an honor to be associated with the product of a papal sin. (Actually, although Montaigne doesn’t mention the fact, this son was apparently an illegitimate child, fathered before the pontiff had taken holy orders, so that the sin was secular, although hardly alleviated, one supposes, by the subsequent ennoblement of the bastard sprig.) However, this acceptance by the Church did not last; in 1676, when Montaigne had been dead for some eighty years and the Counter-Reformation was in full swing, he was finally put on the Index.

Whatever Montaigne’s “real” intentions, the majority view seems inescapable to me. I grant that Montaigne was officially a good Catholic; he was on friendly terms with eminent figures in the Church; he takes care to tell us that he has a chapel in his castle-tower near to his study; he may even have been able to operate alternately as a believer and a nonbeliever, as seems to be the case with some modern scientists. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, most of the time, he speculates haphazardly, outside all dogma, using the themes and categories of the old pagan world and ringing the changes on Stoicism, Pyrrhonism, and Epicureanism.

Incidentally, in his Stoic mood, he specifically contradicts Catholic orthodoxy by arguing that suicide is legitimate in certain circumstances; it appears, however, that in the past the Church has varied on this point. The most significant fact is that he makes relatively little use of the Bible and the Christian tradition, apart from a number of references to Saint Augustine. His intellectual and moral hero is Socrates—“the soul of Socrates…is the most perfect to have come to my knowledge.” He refers to him repeatedly, whereas in the whole book there are only four references to Jesus, and those of a rather perfunctory kind.

He is more lavish with the term “God.” Sometimes he uses it with apparent piety and, in one context, even goes so far as to parallel Peter’s denial of Christ by apparently denying his revered Socrates, but when he says—

The virtuous actions of Socrates…remain vain and useless, since Socrates did not have as his aim and end love of the true Creator of all things and obedience to him

—can one tell whether he is sincere or just sanctimonious? On the other hand when he declares—

My professor [i.e. guide] is the authority of God’s Will, which undeniably governs us and which ranks way above our vain human controversies

—God seems to become synonymous with Fortune or Chance, the inscrutable power behind the Universe. Admittedly, this concept has a parallel in the more somber forms of Christianity in the shape of the Deus Absconditus, but, with Montaigne, the Hidden God seems nearer to the impersonal force recognized by the Stoics, which we have to submit to, but which we cannot obey in any meaningful sense, since we cannot possibly know in advance what the Unknowable requires of us:

The wisest man that ever was (Socrates), when asked what he knew, replied that the one thing he did know was that he knew nothing.

Theoretically, of course, there remains the possibility of Revelation. Is Montaigne accepting or deriding it, when he makes the following statement?

Our religion did not come to us through reasoned arguments or from our own intelligence: it came to us from outside authority, by commandments. That being so, weakness of judgement helps us more than strength.

As a last piece of evidence, I quote an odd fragment of dialogue, which might have been written by Diderot, another major figure of the Enlightenment, and which formulates the answer that nonbelief must inevitably give to all revealed and dogmatic faiths:

“What ought I to choose?”—“Anything you wish as long as you choose something.” A daft enough reply! Yet it seems to be the one reached by every kind of dogmatism which refuses us the right not to know what we do not know.

Pace Dr. Screech, I doubt if Montaigne himself was confident that he had achieved wisdom. The rich ragbag of the Essays reflects rather the myriad interlocking perplexities of the doubting civilized mind, and it is as well to remember another of Montaigne’s sayings: “We are but blockheads.” However I would single out the words “the right not to know what we do not know” as a neat statement of the essential humanist principle.

This Issue

November 5, 1992

  1. *

    See D.P. Walker’s “The Faith of a Skeptic,” The New York Review, February 14, 1985.