On Living and Dying Before, During, and After a Pandemic.
"On Life: Or A Life of Montaigne..." by Sarah Bakewell
Let’s talk numbers. First, 1580 — our year of focus. 5.7; the magnitude of an earthquake that strikes the Dover Straits in 1580. 40,000 – the number of Spanish soldiers in 1580 invading Portugal in service of King Phillip, who was second of his name. Or 10 – the percentage of people in the city of Rome who died in 1580 from an influenza pandemic (approximately 8,000 dead — or roughly the average number of Americans killed by COVID every 5 or 6 days in 2022).
And there’s 57. That’s the number of single-sentence chapters that emerge in Michel de Montaigne’s ‘Essays’, published in 1580 France. Among the chapters, let’s pick a random four; ‘Of imagination’, ‘Of Smells’, ‘That To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’, or ‘Of Cannibals’. 22 is the number of years that it took Montaigne to write three books, totaling 107 individual essays, and 442-odd years later they’re still beloved by millions (and probably bought-and-never-read by millions, too).
But why, of all the bajillions of memoirs and stories out there, should we bother reading the anecdotes of someone who’s been dead for several centuries? It’s this question that forms the heart of Sarah Bakewell’s book, ‘How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Answers’. Far from the boring, academic sort-of-thing that you’d expect about a philosophy book set nearly half a millennium ago, Bakewell reveals a Montaigne that is fascinated with just about all of the same questions as we are now; how to eat well, how to thread a work-life balance, and then, of course, how to deal with a pandemic.
Montaigne was born as the heir of a wealthy French family who had made their fortune in the fifteenth-century trading herring (yes, herring). Following a popular child-rearing technique of the rich at the time, he was sent to live at the cottage of a peasant family for three years out on the outskirts of his estate, “… (to) draw the boy close to the people…” his father later said. When he moved back into the family chateau, the education continued (and never stopped). As a rule, his father made him learn Latin as his first language (even the servants, who all spoke French, were forbidden from talking to the child in anything but Latin). Following what the best-and-the-brightest were lauding at the time, young Montaigne was even woken up each morning by a musician (instead of, I guess, a bell or a rooster).
If this all sounds like the kind of spoiled, precocious upbringing you’d expect would lead to the 16th-century version of Succession’s Kendall Roy, you’d be surprisingly wrong. Somehow, Montaigne came out of it modestly (and never threatened to take over his father’s estate; he got it, amicably). He went through the motions of the era’s elite, and excelled. After studying law, he became a counselor of Bordeaux’s Parlement, and rose so far through the court of King Charles IX that he was offered the highest award of the nobility in France, the collar of the Order of Saint Michael.
Despite all of the accolades and comforts, life still ground the young Montaigne down. In 1563, a year after the awarded collar, his closest friend – the poet Étienne de La Boétie– died suddenly of the plague. The loss, by all accounts, was staggering. Reared by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers to see death as a pivotal moment for ‘beauty’, and truth, Montaigne instead watched his best friend slip in and out of consciousness for days while Boétie’s sharp mind was frenzied by hallucinations and delusions.
It was this loss, and a later near-death experience, that seemed to jostle Montaigne’s sense of stability apart. Once his public duties were ‘over’ in 1570, Montaigne secluded himself in his chateau tower – choosing a life surrounded by his books, quills, and an array of inspirational quotes painted on the ceilings in Latin. It’s then that he began writing the reflections that would lift his name beyond the quiet chateau in France.
Here we come up with the word Essay. Essayer in French means, roughly, ‘to try’, and it’s from Montaigne that we first see the usage of ‘essay’ in the modern sense (he uses ‘essai’). Bakewell describes the term, more concretely, as “(testing) or tasting… or giving it a whirl.”, and it’s this definition that seems to fit Montaigne’s work the best. If the standard philosophy book that we imagine is a heavy, serious, academic door-stopper of a tome, then Montaigne’s Essays twists in your hand like silly-putty. He was tired of the playbook used by other prominent thinkers and theologians at the time (and present), who were so keen on “… regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth…”, like all-knowing gods who had distilled the essence of life into an equation. Instead, he weaved together a vignette of questionings and half-answerings, permeated with almost comical anecdotes and asides that drifts in and out of focus, like a conversation with a close friend.
Montaigne’s approach seems to be uniquely human, and ‘modern’, and quasi postmodern. In almost all of his work, you’re smacked with the sense of a person’s limitations in knowledge and understanding. He’s vocal about his own. Throughout his life he wrote about his ‘poor’ memory, often mimicking one of his other favorite philosophers, Seneca, in saying that “I’m full of cracks, and leak out on all sides.” You wouldn’t get the sense from his prolific essays, but Montaigne was self-described as lazy and, according to himself, “Extremely idle, extremely independent, both by nature and by art…”. He even pokes fun at his whole creative project, the Essays, writing that “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions.”
Doubt is a fundamental aspect of his writings. His doubt was so severe that Blaise Pascal — famed mathematician and renaissance man — fumed while reading The Essays, writing that “He (Montaigne) puts everything into universal doubt… he doubts whether he doubts…”. Pascal wasn’t exactly wrong.
While the era that Montaigne lived in was dominated by rigid adherence to Catholic doctrine, his insistence on self-questioning, and meandering around his own arguments, seems to have provided an alternative way of engaging with the world – one that wasn’t based on accepting the status quo. He gravitated towards an ideology known at the time as ‘Fideism’, which placed zero reliance at all on human reason as we think of it. Instead of applying scientific precision and calculated abstraction, he believed that ‘Truth’ was really only something to be discovered in faith – yet faith in the Church, or any of its dogma, is never a serious part of his writings.
So then what is faith, to him? In Bakewell’s book, it seems that the answer arrives at something more like faith in a way of living and approaching the world. Instead of moralizing, Montaigne chooses self-discovery and humility. While the ‘big’ philosophers busied themselves with topics such as God, sin, and the afterlife, Montaigne grounded himself firmly to the Earth – so much so that he made chapters out of issues such as ‘The Inequality Amongst Us’, ‘Anger’, and ‘Thumbs’.
He was radically committed to narrowing in on the little moments that made life worth living. Bakewell writes that “He was less interested in what people ought to do than in what they actually did.” And so he focused on the things that people actually did – like obsesses about their clothing, and wondering how to deal with a parley.
Out of this formed a commitment to what he called a “Gay and sociable wisdom”; a life committed to easygoingness, relaxation, and ferocious curiosity. It was in service of life being “an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself”, one where anguish, ‘duty’, and ‘grown-up’ responsibilities were all far less important than freedom and individual expression. He was not an avid proponent of our modern infatuation with work; “Nothing costs me dear except care and trouble… I seek only to grow indifferent and relaxed”, he wrote. And Bakewell, looking back on Montaigne’s time as the appointed mayor of Bordeaux, mentions that his philosophy towards work was one where “… one should do a good job, but not too good a job.” It’s the kind of thought that might get you sent to the manager’s office.
His thoughts toward individual freedom were not frivolous, or egotistical. They stemmed from a real belief that order and meaning begin with freedom – and not the other way around. He recognizes the deep human aversion to coercion – professional or otherwise. “What I do easily and naturally I can no longer do if I order myself to do it by strict command,” he writes, “I stand up well under hard work; but I do so only if I go to it of my own will, and as much as my desire leads me to it.” Anyone who has been forced to do anything at all can recognize themselves in what Montaigne writes here; you love your creative hobby or passion when you do it on your own terms, but once it’s forced upon you by coercion or greed, the work becomes almost oppressive.
The beauty of his writing is that while we read his words, what we’re really noticing is the element of his lines that resonate in our own lives – as if we were peering back into a mirror, tracing what we recognize to be us. Many people have been startled by this, across several centuries. Nietzsche famously loved the Essays. So, too, did the novelist Virginia Woolf. After reading the collection two centuries later, the writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said lovingly of Montaigne’s work that “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life.” Like a long unspooling ball of yarn, the voice of the Essays dangles through countless generations, waiting to be held up and examined by new hands.
As pointed as he is in some moments, his writing is also ripe with paradoxes. And it’s the paradoxes that should leave us scratching our heads. At one moment he appears to be the uber-individualist, and in yet another he’s a communitarian. As he huddled in his 16th-century version of the man-cave, he wrote “Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide…”, going further in another declaration, he wrote “Let us cut loose from all the ties that bind us to others; let us win from ourselves the power to live really alone and to live that way at our ease,” – the kind of line that you’d hear from an Ayn Rand protagonist.
Yet he, like Whitman’s famous line, ‘contained multitudes’. At his Bordeaux chateau, he famously kept the doors unlocked, and the property unguarded – all while the countryside was vandalized by pillagers, mercenaries, and rival Christian factions. He was even held up and robbed at one point. Fortunately, his rhetorical skills got him released. To him, his focus on the self and on others was not at odds. As much as he lobbied for a “… back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude,” he also reiterated that “My essential pattern is suited to communication and revelation. I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship.” If a person from our age sat him down and asked him ‘introvert, or extrovert?’, he’d probably shrug and say, ‘well, I’m all of it!’.
In the decades before and after the first publishing of the Essays, France and Europe was in turmoil. The monarchy’s stranglehold on the French state seemed to be loosening, and across Europe, the Catholic Church’s dominance was being challenged by a strengthening and militant Protestant revolution. It was a moment in time when the old order was decaying before people’s eyes. Commonly held truths were being questioned; the fundamental tenets of morality were being discussed. For the people of Montaigne’s generation,
“They had to watch the ideals that had guided their upbringing turn into a grim joke,” Bakewell says – “The Reformation, hailed by some earlier thinkers as a blast of fresh air beneficial even to the Church itself, became a war and threatened to ruin civilized society.”
It was in the midst of this crisis that Montaigne was appointed mayor of Bordeaux. He reluctantly agreed. He must have sensed that much larger forces than himself were at play – like kings, armies, and seemingly both God and Satan. And as far as we can tell, his administration was ‘moderate’ in the sense that he didn’t do much of anything beyond the basics --like whatever the 16th-century version was of giving stump speeches and kissing babies. Yet for Bakewell, this isn’t the negative mark that you’d expect. On the contrary, she seems to find his approach a success.
Writing on one of the closing pages of her book, Bakewell says that
“Montaigne, affecting ease and comfort, contributed more to saving his country than his zealous contemporaries. Some of his work was directly political, but his greatest contribution was simply to stay out of it and write Essays. This, in the eyes of many, makes him a hero.”
It's worth questioning that last word; hero. What does it mean to be a hero? Are heroic acts made of cunning and courage, like King Arthur knights, and martyrs on the front-line of a protest? Or can it be something else too, like whittling away some words on a paper in the hopes that someone, generations from now, will gain something from having picked it up? Yes, and No. It’s answerable and unanswerable. It appears that Montaigne would probably land on both sides, or lift a shrug again and say, ‘maybe?’.
There might just be a limit to where the doubt and moderation can lead. Montaigne was deeply committed to his Ataraxia — the ancient Greek concept of ‘equilibrium’ and balance. Moderation, to him, was beautiful, and human. But as Nietzsche rightfully pointed out, “Moderation sees itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.” To us – the unlucky, or maybe lucky heirs of a moment characterized by rapid flux – this faith in moderation is almost revolting. Dramatic times seem to call for equally dramatic solutions. But the hint of some other lesson lingers in Montaigne; that the little moments of reflection, self-awareness, and the preservation of a vibrant inner-world form the bedrock of a liberatory future. It’s the kind of thought that leads Montaigne to write that
“When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time… I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.”
You can almost imagine Montaigne in the modern age, surrounded by the pain and suffering caused by illness, and war. Would he retreat from the headlines into his solitary retreat; a cozy bungalow in the countryside, or a cabin at the banks of the Alps? We can’t know precisely. But there is one moment I’d like to leave you with — one that should sit all too familiarly with us.
During the summer of 1585, Montaigne – then dredged from solitude into being the mayor of Bordeaux – learned that an epidemic, the bubonic plague, had spread through the city. Sitting on horseback at the edge of town, he had a decision to make; strut into the village and attend the ceremonial transfer of power that was his due to be his last act of mayor? Or walk away — back towards the Chateau?
The stakes were apparent; life, or death. Thoughts of going through the philosophic ‘beautiful death’ must have crossed his mind, like that of Socrates when he calmly took the poison hemlock. And there was the heroism, too, of rushing into the town and standing with the aggrieved city as hundreds died. It was clearly the ‘honorable’ thing to do. It was maybe, by our ethics, ‘duty’ for a public official to do so, too.
But then what good was it to throw one’s life away? Wouldn’t it be better to fight another day? Is it ‘gay and sociable’ to die for no apparent reason, other than the honorifics demanded by the French King?
By the end of the epidemic, 14,000 people would die of the plague in Bordeaux. But not Montaigne. Faced with the decision, he took the reins and trotted home.
Thanks for reading Reading Left! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.