MONTAIGNE: A Life
By Philippe Desan
reviewed by Alan Dent
reviewed by Alan Dent
Almost eight hundred pages, including just short of a hundred of notes, divided into three parts and eleven chapters, this biography was long in gestation, is minutely thorough and offers a different perspective from most lives of its subject. In his introduction, Desan discusses what might be called, without being in any way derogatory, the standard view of Montaigne: the disinterested man of letters, withdrawn to his chateau, remote from the grubby affairs of the world, unmoved by politics and the bitter clashes of his time, putting up with kidney stones and writing according to his whim a more or less new form: the discursive essay; exploring whatever subjects seemed to provide him with the greatest opportunity for calm reflection on what it means to be human. Desan acknowledges those biographers who have recognised the role politics played in Montaigne’s life, including his writing life: Alphonse Grün, Bayle Saint-John, Théophile Malvezin and Donald Frame. Yet these are the few exceptions. It’s probably true that neophyte students of Montaigne are introduced to the putatively above-the-fray character and that undergraduate essays at least (ironically) most commonly rehearse the idea of his charming literary purity.
Montaigne came from elevated
Montaigne’s forbears were not literary or intellectual.
All the same,
It’s hard to conclude, therefore, that as a young man, Montaigne had in mind to become a writer, or to pull back from the world of power and influence.
“In my youth,” Montaigne wrote, “I studied for ostentation; later for recreation, never for gain.”
He started as a show off, became a hedonist and expects us to accept his studies were without calculation. Perhaps we should take the disclaimer with a degree of scepticism: while it may be true he didn’t expect any direct advantage from intellectual work, it seems unlikely he didn’t imagine his education would help him follow his ancestors into a significant position of local power.
Born in 1533, Montaigne entered the
One chapter of the 1580 edition was modified in a telling way
for that of 1582: in Of
Prayers, he made changes which tilted the piece towards
Catholicism. He tried, in the preamble, to place himself above the
bitter religious conflicts of the time. Clearly, he was taking into
account that he was a public figure and his writing not, therefore,
the work of a private citizen. Millanges advertised the second
edition as “revised and enlarged” (plus ça change). Desan remarks:
“The second edition… of 1582 should… be considered a political
document rather than a literary work.” Montaigne didn’t evolve a
literary strategy until he was taken up by the
Montaigne was an unflinching Catholic but a humanist. The latter made him try to find the golden mean (the aurea mediocritas of Horace’s Odes, a significant reference for humanist thinkers). Though the Affair of the Placards, the Massacre of Mérindol and the St Bartholomew’s Days Massacre were behind him by the time the first edition of Essais appeared, the War of the Three Henrys was yet to come and he wouldn’t live to see the Edict of Nantes. He lived and was a leading public figure in his region during a very dangerous time. It’s estimated some three million people died in the religious wars. He played a canny game as mayor. As he put it in 1585: “Outside the knot of controversy I have maintained my equanimity and pure indifference.” His book, peppered as it was with Greek and Latin quotations, was useful in portraying him as a man of moderate judgement, erudition and non-violent propensities.
In the early 1580’s Montaigne clearly intended to further his
political career. There is no suggestion at this time of withdrawal.
He may have written later, “All the glory that I aspire to in life
is to have lived it tranquilly..Since philosophy has not been able
to find a way to tranquillity that is suitable for all, let everyone
seek it individually.” Yet this is something of retrospective view.
At the time of the religious conflicts, a public role, even a minor
one, was hardly a route to tranquillity. By 1588, he was effectively
forced out of public life. He spent the last four years of his life
in his tower. His motto, or one of his famous pair, “I abstain” (the
other, of course, was “What do I know?”) seems most appropriate to
these final years than to the preceding five and half decades.
Montaigne had long been influenced by Commynes whose
Mémoires constituted an
original form; neither history nor mere personal reflection they
offer arguably the best testimony on the reign of Louis XI. Yet the
discovery of Tacitus dislodged the Frenchman from his pinnacle. The
historian of Tiberius enjoyed great popularity in the
Montaigne had a strong interest in history. A significant proportion of his library was historical works and he remarked: “History is more my quarry..” He defined history in the broadest terms so it embraced anthropology and all musing on culture. Paradoxically, this led to a literary form in which history, in the strict sense, fell away, to be replaced by the stories Montaigne had culled from his reading and which in his essays became what Desan calls “the universalization of self.” Does this suggest he was a far-gone egotist who recognised no reality beyond himself? Estienne Pasquier wrote of him: “..while he pretends to disdain himself, I have never met an author who esteemed himself more than he.” This may mean simply, of course, that he esteemed himself as an author. It certainly doesn’t imply that his technique of returning to his own experience as the touchstone for insight was the expression of a pathological inability to appreciate the boundaries of his selfhood.
“Authors communicate with the people by some special extrinsic mark; I am the first to do so by my entire being..” he remarked. Desan thinks this is a tardy reflection on his own work rather than a choice; that he did try to find his extrinsic mark. Desan doesn’t argue so, but perhaps the form of the Essais represents a failure: they took their digressive shape and put their author at their centre because Montaigne wasn’t able to work out a style distinctive enough to make him a new Erasmus.
Montaigne’s first foray into literature, of course, wasn’t
original work but his translation of Raymond Sebond’s
Theologia Naturalis which
In 1588, Montaigne spent a few hours in the Bastille. There was ostensible peace between Henry III and duc de Guise but nonetheless, the League’s hold on the capital put under threat anyone who diverted from their extreme Catholicism. Though brief, his incarceration was mortifying. It helped ensure his withdrawal from public life. In the four years left to him he made huge annotations to what is known as the Bordeaux Copy. The 1595 edition runs to 408,790 words 22% added by hand to this copy. The Montaigne of the commonplace myth is the one of his last four years. Yet, though the additions and alterations to the Bordeaux Copy were vast, the essays were conceived and written, in their primary form, long before events he had no control over made him retreat from public life. This is, perhaps, Desan’s central argument: if we think of Montaigne as a writer remote from worldly concerns, and in particular, not interested in power, we are likely to misinterpret the work. This is a book, however, about the life rather than the writing. There is no significant discussion of the essays, nothing that amounts a critique of Montaigne as writer and thinker, which is perfectly acceptable in a biography.
Montaigne had his Max Brod. Marie de Gournay was born in
Paris in 1565, daughter of the king’s treasurer. The family moved to
Marie de Gournay was a remarkable woman: a feminist in an age of absolute male dominion, a writer herself, and in her devotion to the task of editing , correcting and promoting the work of her adopted father, nothing less than an angel. How much does Montaigne’s reputation owe to her? His work would not have disappeared without her efforts, he was too well-connected for that; but Desan says her encounter with Montaigne “allowed the Essais to be “transported” from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.” Perhaps, then, Montaigne does owe something of his endurance and significance to the efforts of a woman working against the odds to make a contribution to the intellectual life of her time; perhaps we should never celebrate him without also raising a toast to her.
Henceforth, this book will be required reading not only for Montaigne scholars but for anyone with a passing interest in his work. In correcting the misleading view of him as a literary purist, untouched by the desire for power or advancement, Desan requires us to read the essays in a new way. Surely this will lead, in time, to revised interpretations. In the meantime, immersion in the extraordinary detail of this work is a delight, and a revelation.