Montaigne: What Was Truly Courageous?

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne; drawing by David Levine

Remarking on a painter he had hired to decorate his house, a man whose habit was to fill in the empty spaces around his central painting with “odd fantastic figures without any grace but what they derive from their variety,” Montaigne draws a comparison with his own writing. “And in truth,” he says, “what are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?”

By way of corroboration, he tosses in a line from the Roman poet Horace, Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne (a fair woman in her upper form ends in a fish), then winds up observing that while at least the painter begins with a strong, clear picture and adds the grotesques only as fillers around it, he alas, as a writer, is incapable of providing “a rich piece, finely polished, and set off according to art.” Only the grotesques.

Does he mean it? Is this a promising way to speak of a collection of essays that in its unabridged version runs to 1,300 pages? Grotesques, without “any other than accidental order”?

Montaigne, William Thackeray wryly observed, could have switched the titles of all his essays around for all the difference it would have made; the content was always the same. “Montaigne is a fog,” pronounced T.S. Eliot, “a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he insinuates.” Montaigne “has truly increased the joy of living on this earth,” enthuses Nietzsche. He was the “freest and mightiest of souls.”

How disorienting. Perhaps our puzzlement approaching Montaigne is that while on the one hand we immediately feel drawn into a relationship and recognize the warmth of an intimate voice, something we tend to equate with modern life, on the other we have no idea where that voice is going or why. What is this all about? And what could be less modern than stringing together dozens, scores, literally hundreds of quotations from the authors of Roman antiquity? (Mihi sic usus est; tibi, ut opus est facto, face, he cites the playwright Terence, shortly after giving us Horace’s mermaid—“This has been my way; as for you, do whatever you find appropriate.”) Montaigne seems familiar, sometimes too familiar—he appears to know and understand our inner lives—yet remains quite exotic, as if he inhabited a parallel world whose basic coordinates were obscure to us.

Whenever an acquaintance is both bewitching and bewildering, it’s as well to check out his background. How does or did this behavior fit in with the society that produced it? Was it normal perhaps? Or at least in evident opposition to the norms of the time?

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 on his family’s estate, Château de Montaigne, some thirty miles east of Bordeaux, and his infancy was anything but normal. The first surviving…

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