Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

A New Man

Montaigne: A Life, by Philippe Desan (Princeton, 796 pp., $39.95)

The story of Michel de Montaigne is that rare case, a political life that ends in success. Not, admittedly, the success that Montaigne sought. Nothing succeeded so well for Montaigne as failure. “My world is done for, my form is emptied,” he wrote shortly before his death in 1592. “I belong entirely to the past.”

Montaigne wrote this in the margins of what scholars call the Bordeaux Copy, a print copy of the fifth edition of his Essais. Published in Paris in 1588, the fifth edition was the last to appear in Montaigne’s lifetime. The 1588 edition added a third book of 13 chapters and 600 revisions to the two books and 94 chapters of the first edition of 1580. This expanded the text by about a third, and the Essais from one volume to two.

No sooner did the 1588 edition appear than Montaigne started to revise it. The Bordeaux Copy’s text is thick with corrections and underlinings, its margins dense with expansions and explanations. The emendations are the work of a man very intent on merging a literary form that will belong to the future — the essay — with its author’s image.

That Montaigne is a philosophical stance, not a historical personality. He stands for the Renaissance in France, and the philosopher in the character of Hamlet. He stands at the head of the line of belles-lettres, and head and shoulders above the religious violence that preoccupied his contemporaries. What he stood for in his lifetime seems incidental. This is the desired effect of the Essais in their posthumous form, the sixth edition of 1595. But that is the affect Montaigne’s conversational tone conveys, and the result of an editorial process as much autobiographical as literary.

The flyleaf of the Bordeaux Copy carries Montaigne’s handwritten instructions for the printer of the next edition. The printed title page omits Montaigne’s public offices and titles, even though the inheritance and pursuit of public office defined his life. What remains is our image of Montaigne as the philosopher of private experiences, writing in his private tower, describing instead of prescribing, a conversationalist not an orator.

Philippe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life is an elaborate, exhaustive, and frequently brilliant restoration of Montaigne’s life to its times. Born in 1533 on the family estate near Bordeaux, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne seemed destined for public life. Michel’s great-grandfather, having made a fortune in herrings, bought the Montaigne estate and noble title. Michel’s father was the mayor of Bordeaux. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes, came from a merchant dynasty of Sephardic Jewish extraction. He rarely mentions her in the Essais, but his father figures prominently.

Montaigne was raised to “live nobly,” in standing as in thought. “In my youth I studied for ostentation,” he was to claim in one of his last essays, “later, for recreation, never for gain.” But ostentation and gain were inseparable. The intellectual currency of humanism was fungible, and was most valuable at the royal court. His father, following Erasmus’s advice in De Pueris (“On Boys,” 1529), chose Latin as Michel’s native tongue. Even the valets and maids had to speak it to him. After that, from the age of six to 13, Michel boarded at the best school in the region, the College of Guyenne, for more Latin, some Greek, and a little French, too.

The rest of his education is obscure. Desan is surely right to suppose that Montaigne studied law at Toulouse, where he had relatives on his mother’s side, and perhaps in Paris, too. The essay “Of Cripples” implies that Montaigne was in Toulouse in 1560 and attended the trial of the false Martin Guerre, a soldier accused of usurping a fellow soldier’s identity.

At the time, the law courts were the forum for the usurpation of the old “nobility of the sword” by the parvenu “nobility of the paper” — families like Montaigne’s. In 1556, family connections secured Montaigne a magistracy on a local court at Périgueux. A year later, he joined the parlement, or provincial court, at Bordeaux. His marriage in 1560 to Françoise de La Chassaigne was a treaty between two families. Marriage, Montaigne wrote, was “a bargain,” made for “procreation, alliances, wealth.” Only one of their six daughters survived infancy. His wife does not appear much in the Essais, either.

Another “paper friendship” shaped Montaigne’s political and literary development. Étienne de La Boétie was a little older and a lot more successful as a lawyer. Montaigne knew La Boétie first on paper, through La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, a founding work of French political philosophy. They were friends for little more than three years, until La Boétie’s death, probably from dysentery, in 1563. Montaigne idealized their friendship as a union of souls — “because it was he, because it was I” — but Desan identifies a creeping annexation, on paper, of La Boétie by Montaigne.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, defined friendship in relation to utility, pleasure, and virtue, with virtuous friendship the only true friendship. Montaigne, in the late essay “Of the Useful and the Honorable,” notes the decline of noble values and the rise of the utility-minded, mercantile bourgeois. Desan detects this drift in Montaigne’s relationship to La Boétie. Montaigne, the erudite but unspectacular lawyer, felt pleasure at finding a brilliant companion; he idealized pleasure as a virtue. After La Boétie’s death, Montaigne edited his friend’s works. In the process, Montaigne reworked a virtuous friendship for its utility. La Boétie became an asset to Montaigne’s literary persona and its “commerce” with politics.

In 1568, Montaigne’s father died, and he inherited the family estate and title. In February 1571, Montaigne, then 38, retired to the tower of the family chateau with his books and started writing his Essais. In the inscription over the bookshelves in his study, he described himself as “weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments,” and as wishing to spend the rest of his life in “freedom, tranquility, and leisure.” But the Essais, Desan argues, were intended as an “entrance to politics” during the barbarism of the French Wars of Religion.

Geographically, Desan notes, Montaigne lived “at the heart of the religious discord of his time.” Southwestern France contained a substantial minority of Huguenots, as French Protestants were known. In 1571, the year of Montaigne’s ostensible retirement to his tower, Charles IX elevated him to the rank of knight of the Order of St. Michael. Charles IX and his successor, Henry III (1574–89), used the Order as a “political tool,” to “attract allies” and retain the loyalty of mid-level provincial lords, such as Montaigne, who remained silent about the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 and about the mass executions of Protestants in Bordeaux that followed.

Montaigne understood that, rather than ancient virtus, modern politics required Machiavelli’s virtú, amoral self-interest. One of the chief pleasures of Desan’s biography derives from its portrait of Montaigne as a practiqueur, a negotiator exploiting the utility of his friendships amid massacre and famine. Both ambitious and cautious, he secured royalist regional patrons, the Foix-Gurson family, while stepping lightly between Charles IX and his Protestant rival Henry of Navarre. It is, Desan writes, “sometimes very difficult” to determine whether Montaigne acted as a negotiator in a series of civil wars or as a “double agent in the service of a third political force,” the Foix-Gurson family.

The first edition of the Essais offered what Desan calls a “new approach to post-Machiavellian politics.” But Henry III, as his sister Margaret of Valois said, was “of such a humor that he was offended not only by effects but also by ideas.” In the 1580s, Montaigne’s political career foundered. In the 1588 edition of the Essais, he extricated himself from the quicksand of religious politics. The obsolete politician reinvented himself as a private philosopher, a martyr only to his kidney stones.

In a late essay, Montaigne criticized Henry III for lacking “a middle position”: The king was “always being carried away from one extreme to the other.” Montaigne tacked between the extremes of a fanatical age, but at a cost. Like Henry III, he “affected and studied to make himself known by being unknowable.” In his handwritten revisions to the 1588 edition, the political Montaigne disappears. A new and final Montaigne emerges, the public man who speaks as a private individual.

Machiavelli whispers in his prince’s ear. Francis Bacon, domesticating Montaigne’s essay to English, builds sentences with the balance and force of mathematical formulae. But Bacon, while a better lawyer than Montaigne and a more successful politician, was a worse human being. Montaigne is a conversationalist, a free associator of ideas offering an ideal of friendship. As Philippe Desan shows, this implicitly radical exploration of his inner freedom makes him a perpetual companion, for the same reason that Bacon never was.

Erich Auerbach observed that Montaigne created “a new profession,” the man of letters, and “a new social category,” the non-specialist “writer” who addressed the mass of the laity, not the fellow specialists of the clergy. Auerbach, noting that the Protestant reformers had earlier addressed themselves to the laity, identified the vernacular version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) as a forerunner of Montaigne’s essayist persona.

Montaigne adopted the literary style of the new religious personality, but not its social forms. Formally and politically, Montaigne remained a Catholic. Yet the Essais do not discuss the theological principles for which Europe’s Christians were slaughtering one another. Montaigne contemplates death like an ancient. Death is a philosophical terminus, not the anteroom to heaven or purgatory. In a world of religious war, the only predestination is that all men shall die. Montaigne, like Hamlet, considers what a later age called the “problem of commitment.” In this, as in much else, the Essais are “a mirror and critique of their time” — and ours.

– Mr. Green, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, teaches politics at Boston College.

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