Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” Bacon’s compositions tend to drive at a single conclusion, but Johnson’s “sally” is a nice fit for Montaigne’s meandering collection of thoughts, and those of his more whimsical descendants. Only a very brave or foolish exam candidate today would try to copy Montaigne instead of Bacon. The art of digression reached breathless heights in Samuel Butler’s 1890 essay “Ramblings in Cheapside,” which traverses turtle shells, the relation of eater to eaten, likenesses between common tradesmen and famous portraits, the worthlessness of most classical literature, the politics of parrots and the practical wisdom of slugs. Ramblings indeed. Where was I? Oh, yes: Montaigne.
Oddly, Montaigne learned to speak Latin before he learned to speak anything else, thanks to his father’s strict ideas about schooling. But he chose to write in French, which he expected would change beyond recognition within 50 years, rather than a more “durable” tongue. This is because the book was intended only “for a few men and for a few years.” Well, that plan backfired. Not only is “Essais” still in print, in many languages, more than 400 years later, it is also now extolled as a source of wisdom for the contemporary world — or at least the English-speaking part of it. (The French may have had enough of him.) Last year, to great acclaim, Sarah Bakewell, a British biographer and archivist, published HOW TO LIVE; Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer(Other Press, $25). And this year we already have two new books covering similar ground: WHEN I AM PLAYING WITH MY CAT, HOW DO I KNOW THAT SHE IS NOT PLAYING WITH ME? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life (Pantheon, $26), by Saul Frampton, a British lecturer; and WHAT DO I KNOW? What Montaigne Might Have Made of the Modern World(Beautiful Books, £14.99), by Paul Kent, a British radio producer.
It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”). Some of his critics accused him of, in effect, oversharing, in the manner of a narcissistic Facebook status update. One was appalled that he should think it worthwhile to tell his readers which sort of wine he preferred. Montaigne also happened to mention that his penis was small. Two 17th-century theologians who were instrumental in getting his “Essais” placed on the Vatican’s index of prohibited books, where it stayed from 1676 to 1854, accused him of “a ridiculous vanity” and of showing too little shame for his vices.
In the eyes of Rousseau, Montaigne had shared too little, not too much: he was not truthful about himself. But this charge reflects the fact that Rousseau was unwilling to allow that there had been any accurate self-portraits in words before his own “Confessions.” It was Montaigne, though, who was the real pioneer. The famous autobiographies of late antiquity and the Middle Ages — St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and Abelard’s “History of My Misfortunes” — bared all in order to help other sinners save their souls; unlike Montaigne’s “Essais,” they were professedly intended for sober religious purposes. And Renaissance autobiographies, like those of the artist Benvenuto Cellini or the mathematician and gambler Girolamo Cardano, tended to be published only posthumously.
Somewhat like a link-infested blog post, Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations, and can sometimes read almost as an anthology. His “links” are mainly classical, most often to Plato, Cicero and Seneca. Modern readers may find all these insertions distracting — there is, as it were, too much to click on — but some may be thankful for a fragmentary yet mostly reliable classical education on the cheap. (Montaigne should not, however, have credited Aristotle with the maxim, “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” The real source of this unromantic advice is unknown.)
Bakewell, Frampton and Kent all stress that the distinctive mark of Montaigne is his intellectual humility. Like Socrates, Montaigne claims that what he knows best is the fact that he does not know anything much. To undermine common beliefs and attitudes, Montaigne draws on tales of other times and places, on his own observations and on a barrage of arguments in the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition, which encouraged the suspension of judgment as a middle way between dogmatic assertion and equally dogmatic denial. Montaigne does often state his considered view, but rarely without suggesting, explicitly or otherwise, that maybe he is wrong. In this regard, his writing is far removed from that of the most popular bloggers and columnists, who are usually sure that they are right.
For Bakewell, it is Montaigne’s sense of moderation in politics and his caution in judgment from which the 21st century has most to learn. For Frampton, whose style is more academic than Bakewell’s (and not always in a good way), one of Montaigne’s most valuable insights is that self-knowledge is connected with the knowledge of others, and that empathy is the heart of morality. Kent concludes that the wisdom of Montaigne is a wisdom for Everyman, and that the “Essais” are a tool for thinking that anyone may use.
Maybe it is in pursuit of such egalitarianism that Kent’s prose works tirelessly to evoke the beery eructations of a British lout. To put such a slurry of slang, cliché and swearing in print comes across as artifice. Littered among the arch spellings, mangled names and frail grammar are slapdash attempts at iconoclasm: Proust is “onanistic tosh,” both jazz and opera are ridiculous. At a stretch, one can perhaps see Kent’s curious experiment as being in the candid spirit of Montaigne. But this contemporary version of uninhibited writing shows the limitations of the genre rather than its potential.
Montaigne can evidently still evince strong affection from authors after nearly half a millennium. So artful is Bakewell’s account of him that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration. But it’s not so clear that Montaigne’s often chaotic essays are all that digestible today unless one has a good guide to his life and context, like Bakewell’s or Frampton’s, close to hand. At the end of the “Essais,” Montaigne complained that “there are more books on books than on any other subject: all we do is gloss each other.” One wonders what he would make of his own inadvertent contribution to this state of affairs.
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