The art of the introduction is dying. It used to be that when you opened, say, a Penguin or Oxford classic you’d find a short, engaging tour d’horizon, quirky in the English style and focused on essentials. It predisposed you to give the author an even break. Today you bang your knee instead against belabored essays by scholars who think “foreground” and “background” are verbs. They lecture you on the narrow historical context they’ve banished the book to and its ordained place in the author’s development; then it’s on to mind-numbing debates about which manuscript or folio or annotated edition or critical commentary (their own) is to be preferred.

What they never tell you is why you should read the book. Doesn’t it occur to publishers that while this scholarly detritus may have a place in footnotes and appendices, it does not constitute an introduction, whose function is, well, to introduce? When any of us presents someone or something to another person, the first thing we try to convey is why he, she, or it might matter. You must try this, you must meet her. But apparently publishers have concluded that appeals to taste or pleasure or (why not) truth are bad for the college market, so we are left with these grim checkpoints guarding the border between the us and the author, protecting him from any embrace. I forbid my students to read them.

What a delight, then, to come upon Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, an engaging introduction to the life and thought of Michel de Montaigne, and a pleasure to read. Here is a writer whose love for her subject is so infectious that some readers might abandon her halfway through and plunge straight into the Essays. It is not the sort of introduction that would have been written a half-century or more ago, when it could be assumed that readers would be familiar with Montaigne and his place in the historical unfolding of European philosophy and literature.

Bakewell begins at ground zero, much as Montaigne did, without assuming anything more than that her readers have an interest in themselves and a desire to live well, which she addresses by cleverly organizing her book as a series of suggestions Montaigne makes for doing just that. (“Don’t worry about death,” “Give up control,” “Reflect on everything; regret nothing,” “Be ordinary and imperfect.”) She’s generous toward her subject, keeping herself out of sight and never dumbing him down, or dumbing him up into the kind of systematic philosopher he mocked. The connections she makes between his life and his thought are unforced, and her deft discussion of the historical background, especially the twists and turns of the Wars of Religion, is as detailed as it needs to be but not more. She is an excellent guide for first-time readers of the Essays today.

Why today? Because her Montaigne is so congenial to contemporary tastes. We live in a self-revealing age that prefers memoirs to fiction or poetry (unless they are confessional), reality shows to imaginative dramas, and “friend”-ship mediated through a public website to the companionship of conversation. People who agonize about this blame the “me generation” or mass culture, but Bakewell is right to point instead to Montaigne as the figure who first made self-exposure a legitimate and even fashionable activity. This did not endear him to the Catholic Church after his death, and it rattled nineteenth-century English publishers, who brought out suitably bowdlerized editions “purged of anything distressing or confusing” to the female sex.

But who today can fail to be charmed by a book, especially a five-hundred-year-old one, that begins:

This book was written in good faith, reader…. If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.

And what follows is so wonderfully idiosyncratic and familiar at the same time that it’s hard not to believe this profession of transparency. When Montaigne tells us that he is lazy, inconstant, voluptuous, self-absorbed, diffident, something of a hypochondriac (he suffered terribly from kidney stones), and likes making love standing up, who are we to doubt him? And don’t we have similar faults and fears and quirks? The reaction of the British journalist Bernard Levin to the Essays is typical of readers over the centuries: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?'” And Bakewell’s response to that question is equally typical: “The answer, of course, is that he knows it by knowing about himself.”


That answer, though, begs a more interesting question. Why did Montaigne think we needed self-knowledge, and what would it mean to have it? Socrates and Saint Augustine gave very different reasons for thinking that self-knowledge brings happiness, but what they both meant was knowledge of the human condition—of what it is to be a soul in a body in time. Bakewell’s Montaigne is after something different, which is knowledge of his particularity. It is by knowing what distinguishes me from others, not what I share with them, that I attain a useful enlightenment for the never-ending process of self-fashioning.

It is a common view today, at least among literature scholars of a certain bent, that for Montaigne the basic point of the Essays was simply to have written them, to have created a mental and literary space where, as Bakewell puts it, he “questioned himself again and again, and built up a picture of himself—a self-portrait in constant motion.” In writing, Montaigne became himself, and all he urges on his readers is to do the same—to become themselves. The most he has to teach us is that we are only what we make of ourselves, that we are perpetually in flux, that we cannot look to others as models, that no one can take a bath for you. All of which means that, in the end, Montaigne’s lifework has “no great meaning, no point to make, no arguments to advance. It does not have designs on you; you can do as you please with it.” And what reader today will be sorry to hear that?

But is this Montaigne? I don’t really think so. The great value of How to Live is that it will get people reading him again, acquaint them with his life and times, and give them a foretaste of what the essays, taken independently of each other, have to offer. But those readers who then step back and ask themselves what holds the Essays together, and what Montaigne’s deeper intentions were, will start to suspect that there is more to this extraordinary project than Bakewell lets on. They will especially start to question whether she’s made the right assumption in taking Montaigne and his professions of transparency at face value. For if ever there was a book that had designs on its readers, it is the Essays.

Anyone who reads that work slowly and straight through, an exercise I recommend, will be struck by how much energy Montaigne expends trying to convince us how little energy his book cost him. He wants us to take it as a kind of inner dictation, the unedited transcript of his thoughts as they moved randomly from seemingly banal subjects (“Of Thumbs”), to the writers and statesmen of antiquity, over to the latest travelogue of distant lands, and then back to himself, his habits, his defects, his digestion. This is, of course, impossible. Even someone who can’t afford psychoanalysis and only keeps a journal knows that all streams of consciousness are composed, and certainly a course of self-examination like Montaigne’s, which lasted a lifetime and was then rendered into artful, disarming prose, is a masterpiece of composition, not a chronicle of spontaneity. But Montaigne is determined that we ignore this.

It’s crucial that we do, otherwise we might begin to doubt that he is presenting himself “in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion.” We need to forget that there is no better way to hide yourself than to say you are revealing yourself. When a sensible girl hears a young man say, “Look, I’ve got to be honest with you,” she steels herself for the coming lie. She is rarely wrong. Readers need to be just as cautious with authors who say they are baring their breasts, and Montaigne’s most penetrating readers always have been. That other master of deception through confession, Rousseau, knew one when he saw one: “I place Montaigne foremost among those dissemblers who mean to deceive by telling the truth. He portrays himself with defects, but he gives himself only lovable ones.” T.S. Eliot, though resistant to Montaigne’s allure, or perhaps for that very reason, appreciated his cunning:

Montaigne is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons, you must be prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince you by his argument.

When I play with my cat, Montaigne famously wondered, how can I be sure she’s not just playing with me? The same might be asked of Montaigne the author. Once we get past the charming anecdotes and reveries, essay after essay turns out to be darker and more paradoxical than it seemed at first blush, and about much more than Michel de Montaigne. But you must stay alert to see what he is doing—and not doing. For instance, Bakewell seriously misleads her readers when she says that “the Essays has nothing to say about most Christian ideas,” as if silence about certain things isn’t sometimes the loudest way to speak. And what are we to make of the remark that Montaigne shows no interest in Jesus Christ, that “he writes about the noble deaths of Socrates and Cato, but does not think to mention the crucifixion alongside them”?


Let me submit that the Essays, which Montaigne began the year of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and finished while his Catholic and Protestant neighbors in Bordeaux were still slitting each other’s throats, are about little else but Christian ideas, and that it’s unlikely that the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord and Savior slipped his mind. Countless tales he tells mock Christian ideals, though they are prudently set in ancient or foreign settings.

Instead of expressing his disgust with Christian martyrdom—and, implicitly, the crucifixion—he tells us about the Sicilian father who killed his daughters to keep them from marauding Turks, the Portuguese Jews who threw their children into a well rather than let them be converted, the Roman wives who killed themselves when their husbands fell out of favor, and the men of Astapa, Spain, who burned to death everyone in their besieged city, then threw themselves onto the pyre. And instead of attacking directly the cruelty of monastic self-discipline, he dismisses as futile similar efforts by unnamed “Stoics,” of whom there were only an educated handful at his time. Montaigne’s contemporary readers would have had no trouble discerning the real target of these stories, and certainly the Catholic Church didn’t. It placed the Essays on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1676 and didn’t remove them until 1854.

The deeper into the book we go, the more connected and mutually reinforcing the essays appear, and more ambitious, too. Just compare the Essays to Saint Augustine’s Confessions, which I can’t help thinking they were intended to supplant. It was Augustine, mentioned only once in passing by Bakewell, and not Montaigne who first employed the rhetoric of transparency and self-exposure to promote his doctrines, by making readers first identify with himself. By recounting and no doubt embellishing the story of his fruitless search for meaning and tranquility among the philosophical sects of late antiquity, the depression brought on by the loss of a friend (not unlike Montaigne’s reaction to the loss of Étienne de la Boétie), his unruly sexual desires, the stealing of some pears, and the drama of his conversion, Augustine has made millions of Christians ever since ask themselves, “How did he know all that about me?”

It was by pretending to offer himself up “without straining or artifice” in the form of a book-length prayer—and who lies to God?—that Augustine persuaded early Christians that free philosophical speculation and virtuous self-cultivation could never suffice, since they could never erase the most basic fact about being human: that we are creatures fallen into self-love, amor sui, the sin from which all unhappiness flows. By telling the story of one man, Augustine showed that no one is sufficient; to truly become ourselves we must, paradoxically, surrender ourselves. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The turning point in the Confessions comes when Augustine says, “I have become a problem to myself.” There are no turning points in Montaigne’s Essays, no epiphanies, and certainly no conversion, which he considered an abdication of moral and psychological responsibility. His response to Augustine’s dramatic self-doubt was simply to ask, “What’s the problem?” We are what we are; let’s accept that:

It is against nature that we despise ourselves and care nothing about ourselves. It is a malady peculiar to man, and not seen in any other creature…. It is by a similar vanity that we wish to be something other than we are.

For fifteen hundred years, Christian civilization had been built on the assumption that we can and must become other than we are. The Essays propose the most sweeping revaluation of Western values since the Confessions, and succeed because they meet Augustine on his own psychological terrain. In essay after essay Montaigne uses Christian interiority against itself, entrancing us with what he finds within and getting us to laugh at our pretense of self-mastery. (Long before Twain, Montaigne knew that nothing withstands the assault of laughter.) But above all he makes it seem pointless to talk about anything but ourselves—our very selves, not “man” or the “soul.” The “nature of all things”? Who could possibly know anything about that? The nature of God? The same, and besides, don’t you see the violence and cruelty brought on by arguing about such things? So let’s stop talking about God, shall we? Let’s talk about you. There, isn’t that better? As a student of mine put it, Montaigne’s genius was to divert us with ourselves.


National Museum of Versailles/AISA Everett Collection

Blaise Pascal; anonymous portrait, seventeenth century

Pascal, Montaigne’s greatest reader and most formidable critic, took the full measure of his challenge to Christianity, and the Pensées are largely a manic attempt to refute him. The Church had early on devised ways to cope with Greek philosophy, first by rejecting it and later by domesticating it. But how in the world could it respond to this shameless, slippery defense of amor sui? Montaigne was different from his Renaissance predecessors, the philosophers who placed humans at the center of the cosmos, or the artists whose figures, all bulging muscles and twisting torsos, had a Promethean air. He actually agreed with Augustine, and Pascal, that Prometheanism was the human problem. But his chosen adversaries were the popes and Protestant divines who pretended to speak for God, and the scholastic theologians who pretended that their syllogisms could unlock metaphysical truths about Him and His creation. These people were the source of our troubles, Montaigne thought, and especially of the religious wars then tearing France apart. The antidote to their fanaticism lay not in loathing and surrender of the self, or in humanistic self-perfection. It lay in reconciliation with the imperfect selves we already are. No one before Montaigne had dared to say that.

Pascal’s response was powerful in its own right. He didn’t deny the truth of Montaigne’s psychology, in fact he adopted it wholesale, and the Pensées are full of unattributed quotations and paraphrases from the Essays. He accepted that we are inconstant and easily distracted creatures, but wasn’t amused, seeing in this the sign of an unhappiness that our anxious, idle divertissements could never lift. What he did deny is that Montaigne told the whole truth about us. The air-brushed self-portrait we find in the Essays leads us to think that Montaigne never dreamed of transcendence, never longed to escape his time or his station or his physical and psychological limitations. He relished sublime moments when they came, such as his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, which was cut short by the latter’s death and inspired Montaigne’s achingly beautiful essay “Of Friendship.” (Bakewell has a superb chapter on this episode.) But by his own account he did not seek out such moments or expect them from life; they were happy accidents, nothing more.

The yearning for transcendence only shows up in his stories and anecdotes about others, where it appears as a psychological mutation, a misfortune, or, most often, as the result of social indoctrination by zealots and despots. That part of you that experiences hope and guilt, that dreams of a beyond, that’s willing to die for the greater good—that’s not really you, he says, because it’s never been me. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Pascal knew Montaigne was cheating: to most humans, curiosity about higher things comes naturally, it’s indifference to them that must be learned. Under the pretext of authentic self-disclosure, Montaigne was peddling a new, and truncated, ideal of human nature.

What would a world of such people look like? To judge by Montaigne’s self-portrait, it would be a safer, gentler, and more easy-going place, where toleration of everything but cruelty—for him, the cardinal sin—would be the norm. But it would be a world without heroes or saints or sages. Conscious of fortune’s caprice and death’s finality, Montaigne’s ideal man would be indifferent to glory; aware that his feelings are naturally and marvelously inconstant, he’d renounce self-mastery; and knowing how subject his knowledge is to moods and the limits of his experience, he’d only smile at the pretense of Aristotle or even the ancient skeptics, who were wrong to think they knew they knew nothing. After all, who knows? Above all he’d learn to relax, knowing that truth just isn’t that important, that ideas “are true and sound enough if they are useful and pleasing.” (The “what, me worry?” school of philosophy was founded by Montaigne, not William James or Richard Rorty.) And even if he were totally ignorant, would that be such a tragedy?

The least contemptible class of people seems to me to be those who, through their simplicity, occupy the lowest rank…. The morals and the talk of peasants I find commonly more obedient to the prescriptions of true philosophy than are those of our philosophers. The common people are wiser, because they are as wise as they need to be (Lactantius).

For this American, at least, this passage has a disturbingly contemporary ring.

Stated in a positive sense, Montaigne was the first liberal moralist. Ancient virtues like valor and nobility, and Christian ones like piety and humility, were unattainable for most people, he thought, and only made them vicious and credulous. But rather than say that directly, a suicidal act, Montaigne sang a song of Montaigne, giving himself virtues that we accept without question today as being more reasonable and attractive: sincerity, authenticity, self-awareness, self-acceptance, independence, irony, open-mindedness, friendliness, cosmopolitanism, tolerance. He was an idealist, though, not a realist. And his ideal reshaped our reality. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the reason Montaigne knows us so well is that he made us what we are (or at least what we profess to be).

But he did not entirely remake us. His psychology, for all its capaciousness and alertness, was limited by a certain blindness to the human desire for something more, something beyond. What must not be, cannot be. Yes, heroes can do damage; but does it follow from this that we should live like valets? Montaigne considers this possibility and doesn’t blink:

I am attached to the general and just cause only with moderation and without feverishness…. I would easily carry, in case of need, one candle to Saint Michael and one to the dragon.

In whatever way we can put ourselves in shelter from blows, even under a calf’s skin, I am not the man to shrink from it. For it is enough for me to spend my life comfortably.

I am content to enjoy the world without being all wrapped up in it, to live a merely excusable life.

The value of the soul consists not in flying high, but in an orderly pace. Its greatness is exercised not in greatness, but in mediocrity.

Something in us, or at least many of us, flees this mediocre life, the life beneath the calf’s skin, and not simply out of melodramatic quixotism. Pascal understood that, which is why, in this respect at least, he was the wiser psychologist. “L’homme passe l’homme,” he wrote, man surpasses himself. This causes us endless problems, but it also keeps us dissatisfied with a mere animal existence. Montaigne uses many animal examples in the Essays, sometimes to remind us that we aren’t gods, sometimes to show that we’ve become worse than beasts, but always to persuade us that we need to live more as they do, our heads down, sniffing the ground rather than baying at the moon. Pascal saw trouble ahead:

It is dangerous to show man too often how much he resembles the beasts, without showing him his grandeur. And it is even more dangerous to show him too often his grandeur without also his baseness. It is more dangerous still to let him ignore both.

By refusing to recognize the grandeur in our desire for transcendence, our urge to understand what is, to experience rapture, to face and overcome danger, to create something bold and lasting, Montaigne offered no guidance for coping with it, let alone directing it to good ends. And his silence had consequences. The Essays not only inspired a skeptical Enlightenment that aimed to make modern life softer, freer, and more humane, with some success; they also, through Rousseau, helped inspire a Romantic cult of the self that beatified the individual genius and worshiped his occult powers—also with some success. The easy inner reconciliation Montaigne offered his readers has proved as impossible for them to attain as sainthood was for his Christian contemporaries. Suggesting, perhaps, that the most we can ever hope to achieve is reconciliation to the fact that we will never be reconciled.

This Issue

March 24, 2011