By Philippe Desan

ISBN 9780691167879  Princeton  £29.95

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might be called, without being in any way derogatory, the standard view of Montaigne: the disinterested man of letters, withdrawn to his chateau, remote from the grubby affairs of the world, unmoved by politics and the bitter clashes of his time, putting up with kidney stones and writing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 Bordeaux stock. His great grandfather Ramon Eyquem, a busy merchant who made a comfortable fortune from salted herring and woad, among other things, bought the noble titles of Montaigne and Belbeys in 1477 for 900 Bordeaux francs. Henceforth the Eyquems could use the aristocratic title of Montaigne. Grimon Eyquem, Montaigne’s grandfather, was elected to the Bordeaux jurade in 1486 and became provost in 1503. Pierre, Montaigne’s father, was born in 1495, fought in the armies of Francois I and married in 1529. He was proud of his military service and upheld the ideals of a soldier’s life. In 1530 he became provost of Bordeaux.

            Montaigne’s forbears were not literary or intellectual.

            All the same, Pierre insisted Michel should speak only Latin at home. Even the servants had to use the classical tongue. Influenced by Erasmus’s ideas expressed in his De Pueris of 1529 and, of course, Rabelais’s ideas about humanistic education, Pierre wanted a formation which would equip his son for the life of an influential noble. He appears, like most middle-class parents in our time, to have been more concerned that his son should have an education for social advancement than intellectual accomplishment. He was educated at the Collège de Guyenne and in Paris where he attended courses as a “free auditor”. He rejected Aristotle, mostly, and was attracted to what Desan calls “more concrete questions such as the art of governing.”

            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 Bordeaux parlement in 1556. Local power was in the control of influential families. The sought-after prize was promotion to the Great Chamber or the two investigative chambers. Needless to say, the jostling for place led to bitterness, resentment, jealousy, recrimination and disappointment. Montaigne handled himself competently enough to be elected Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581. However, he was pushed into the position without his knowledge and not entirely enthusiastically by the political faction around Henri III. He was in Italy at the time of his elevation and didn’t hurry back. It took him forty-five days to ride the 1,500 kilometres from Rome to Bordeaux. A good horseman, with baggage, could cover ninety a day. Montaigne was now in the thick of things. Henri III was in conflict with the king of Navarre in Aquitaine. He was a public figure, required to take sides, but he was also the author of the first edition of the Essais, published in 1580. This was not a commercial publication. It was intended for private circulation among influential people. The second edition of 1582, however, was a different matter. Its publisher, Millanges, had little work and saw the opportunity of re-issuing the book by the now important local political figure. Few alterations were made by Montaigne. On the title page, the author is described as Mayor and Governor of Bordeaux. Millanges had typical instincts. Montaigne, however, was licking his wounds. He had been made mayor as a consolation prize for not having achieved his ambition of being an ambassador. While the 1580 edition had been aimed at the king and the influential members of Montaigne’s family in Bordeaux politics (and they were many) the second edition was, on the one hand, a commercial venture for Millanges and a  bid for greater recognition and influence locally for Montaigne.

            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 Paris publisher Abel L’Angelier in 1585. Millanges was mindful of his author’s public position. Presumably, it helped sales, though just what the print run was we don’t know. As Desan puts it: “What was at first a publishing expedient later became an authorial strategy.”

            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 France of the 1580s (oh, les beaux jours) because he offered a model of understanding distressing political events through the prism of enduring aspects of human endowment. Montaigne found an inspiring formula in his work. Together with the influence of Commynes this pushed him in the direction of “saying everything”, of making digression the essence of his form and by so doing to blend history with his own experience till the joins didn’t show.

            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 appeared in Paris in 1569. His father encouraged him in the work. Sebond argued that reason and theology were not incompatible, that the Bible and nature were both testimonies to god’s truth. Montaigne included an essay on Sebond in the first edition of his work. Desan describes it as “monstrous in its size and in its content.” It seems Montaigne was hedging his bets. Margaret of Valois was an admirer of the Catalan. Montaigne was a regular visitor to her court in Nérac. Her mother, Catherine de Medici, is reputed to have played a role in initiating the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Montaigne may have had good reason to retain Margaret’s complaisance. Perhaps this explains, at least to some extent, the chapter’s monstrosity.

            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 Picardy in 1568. An auto-didact, she discovered Montaigne’s work at the age of nineteen, in the serendipitous way the self-taught do, and was awed by it. In 1588 she wrote to Montaigne, who was staying in Paris, and the following day they met. She called herself his fille d’alliance (adopted daughter) and for the next five and a half decades, till her death in 1645, devoted herself to seeing his work published, distributed and noticed. She called his writing an orpehlin (an orphan) and saw herself as its foster mother. What was the nature of Montaigne’s relationship to her? Forimond de Raemond, who knew him, well described him as reserved almost to chastity in his marriage but “with other women he was extremely wanton and debauched”.  Montaigne said of himself “I like to sleep hard and alone.” He thought marriage no place for sensual sharing because of “a thousand foreign tangles to unravel, enough to break the thread and trouble the course of a lively affection.” Marriage was constraint and muddied waters. Only outside it could the needs of the body be satisfied.

            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.