Michel de Montaigne embodies the Humanist ideal. Curious, measured, contemplative yet not unworldly, witty, free of prejudice, and urbane. But what does Montaigne have to tell us about how to think and live today? In forty short, erudite and lively chapters written over a single summer, Antoine Compagnon seeks answers to that question.
In A Summer with Montaigne, Compagnon invites his readers to join him as he strolls through Montaigne’s key contributions to our understanding of what is good and worthwhile in life. This engaging book, then, serves as both an introduction to Montaigne for readers unfamiliar with his work and a refresher for those who are already acquainted with his unique brilliance, vitality, and timeliness. Montaigne’s Essays deal with themes that remain relevant today, from the problems posed by religion, war, power and friendship to the absurdity of our fixations and peccadillos. As accompanies readers through the Essays, Compagnon never pontificates and is never austere, rather he approaches Montaigne with a sense of humor, admiration, and joy.
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About the Author
Antoine Compagnon is a Professor of French Literature at Collège de France, Paris, and the Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary degrees from King’s College London, HEC Paris, and the University of Liege.
Tina Kover’s translations for Europa include Négar Djavadi’s National Book Award-shortlisted novel, Disoriental, Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better, and The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adélaïde Bon. Kover is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for the translation of Manette Salomon by the Goncourt brothers.
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Because Montaigne deliberately portrayed himself as a plain-dealing man of leisure, one of the idle rich who kept himself secluded on the family estate and had withdrawn to the refuge of his library, we forget that he was also a public man deeply engaged in the affairs of the century in which he lived, and that he held significant political responsibilities during a troubled period in our history. He served as a negotiator between Catholics and Protestants, between King Henry III and Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV, a role from which he drew this lesson:
"In the little I have had to mediate betwixt our princes in the divisions and subdivisions by which we are at this time torn to pieces, I have been very careful that they should neither be deceived in me nor deceive others by me. People of that kind of trading are very reserved, and pretend to be the most moderate imaginable and nearest to the opinions of those with whom they have to do; I expose myself in my stiff opinion, and after a method the most my own; a tender negotiator, a novice, who had rather fail in the affair than be wanting to myself. And yet it has been hitherto with so good luck (for fortune has doubtless the best share in it), that few things have passed from hand to hand with less suspicion or more favor and privacy. I have a free and open way that easily insinuates itself and obtains belief with those with whom I am to deal at the first meeting. Sincerity and pure truth, in what age soever, pass for current." (III, 1)
His entire adult life was marked by civil wars — the very worst kind of wars, he reminds us readily, because they pit friends and brothers against one another. The decades between 1562 — when he was not yet thirty years old — and his death in 1592 consisted of a series of battles, skirmishes, sieges, and assassinations relieved only by brief truces.
How did he survive it all? He often wonders this in the Essays; this particular passage is from the chapter entitled "Of Profit and Honesty," which opens Volume Three, written after his harrowing experience as mayor of Bordeaux during a time of war and plague.
Profit and honesty: Montaigne addresses the question of public morality, or ends and means, the reasons of state. Machiavelli and political realism were the order of the day, incarnated in the person of Catherine de' Medici, the daughter of Lorenzo II, to whom Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince. The Queen Mother, widow of Henry II and mother of the last three Valois kings, had given the order that unleashed the worst atrocity of the era: the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre.
Machiavellianism asserts that it is permissible to lie, to break one's word, even to kill when it is in the best interests of the State, in order to ensure governmental stability, which is seen as the supreme good. Montaigne never became comfortable with this, denouncing dishonesty and hypocrisy wherever he found them. He invariably presents himself just as he is and says precisely what he thinks, disregarding etiquette. He prefers openness, directness, and loyalty to what he calls "the covered path". For him, the end does not justify the means, and he is never prepared to sacrifice private morality for reasons of State.
Such foolish behaviour, Montaigne realizes, has done him no harm — has, in fact, brought him success. His conduct is not just more honest; it is more profitable as well. If a public figure lies once he is never believed again; he has chosen an expedient over the long term, and he has made the wrong decision.
According to Montaigne, sincerity and fidelity to one's pledged word constitute a much more profitable way of behaving. If you are not driven to honesty by moral conviction, practical reason should be incitement enough.CHAPTER 2
How does Montaigne comport himself in conversation, whether an informal chat or an official discussion? He answers this question in the chapter "Of the Art of Conference" in Book Three of the Essays. Conference is dialogue, deliberation. Montaigne presents himself as a man amenable to hearing other people's ideas; open and accessible, rather than stubborn, narrow-minded, and unyielding in his opinions.
"I hail and caress truth in what quarter soever I find it, and cheerfully surrender myself, and open my conquered arms as far off as I can discover it; and, provided it be not too imperiously, take a pleasure in being reproved, and accommodate myself to my accusers, very often more by reason of civility than amendment, loving to gratify and nourish the liberty of admonition by my facility of submitting to it." (III, 8)
Montaigne assures us that he respects the truth, even when it is spoken by someone unlikeable. He is not arrogant, and does not see contradiction as a humiliation. If wrong, he prefers to be corrected. What he does not like in his conversational partners is conceit; people who are overly sure of themselves or intolerant.
Montaigne seems, then, to be the perfect enlightened gentleman: liberal, respectful of others' ideas, without ego; never seeking to have the last word. In short, he does not see conversation as a battle to be won.
Soon enough, however, he does add a qualification: if he does concede to an opponent, it is out of politeness more than a desire to improve himself, especially if his sparring partner is self-important. In these cases, he yields, but without altering his private convictions. Isn't this a falsehood on his part, despite his endless exaltation of sincerity? He tends to give way to his bolder adversaries, and even to others, without resisting, out of sheer courtesy — so that they can continue to disabuse and enlighten him, he says. We must cede our arms to the other, or at least let him believe we have done so, so that he will not hesitate to give us his opinion in the future.
"Nevertheless," Montaigne continues, "it is hard to bring the men of my time to it: they have not the courage to correct, because they have not the courage to suffer themselves to be corrected; and speak always with dissimulation in the presence of one another: I take so great a pleasure in being judged and known, that it is almost indifferent to me in which of the two forms I am so: my imagination so often contradicts and condemns itself, that 'tis all one to me if another do it, especially considering that I give his reprehension no greater authority than I choose; but I break with him, who carries himself so high, as I know of one who repents his advice, if not believed, and takes it for an affront if it be not immediately followed."
Montaigne regrets that his contemporaries do not argue with him more, out of an aversion to being argued with themselves. Because they do not like to be contradicted, because it humiliates them, they refrain from contradicting others, and become more firmly entrenched in their own certainties.
One final point: if Montaigne gives in easily to others, it is not only out of courtesy and to encourage his conversational partners to speak freely to him; it is also because he is not always sure of himself. His opinions are changeable, and he sometimes disagrees with himself. Montaigne loves argument, but he does not need anyone else to provide it. What he detests above all are people who are so arrogant that they take offense when someone else contradicts them. If there is one thing Montaigne loathes, it is smugness, conceit.CHAPTER 3
Scattered throughout the Essays are remarks on instability, the changeability of things in this world, and man's inability to understand this. But nowhere are Montaigne's views on change so clear as here, in the opening paragraph of the chapter "Of Repentance" in Book Three. Here, Montaigne summarizes the wisdom he has earned and which has enabled him to write his book, and introduces the paradox of stability in changeability.
"Others form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is but that's past recalling. Now, though the features of my picture alter and change, 'tis not, however, unlike: the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own. Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion. I cannot fix my object; 'tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness; I take it as it is at the instant I consider it." (III, 2)
Montaigne begins, as he often does, by professing his own humility. His intentions are modest; he does not claim to be teaching a doctrine, unlike almost all other authors, who wish to mold and instruct. He is simply telling his own story, as a human — and, in fact, he presents himself as the polar opposite of an ideal man; he is "ill fashioned enough," and it is too late to change. He should not, he says, be taken as an example.
And yet, he seeks truth — but it is impossible to find it in such an unstable, turbulent world. Everything flows, as Heraclitus said. There is nothing solid on the earth; not the mountains or the pyramids, nor the wonders of nature, nor the monuments built by man. The object moves, and the subject does as well. How can we ever have a solid and reliable understanding of it all?
Montaigne does not deny the truth, but he doubts that it is accessible to man alone. Famously sceptical, he chose as his motto "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?"), and as his emblem, a set of scales. But ignorance is no reason for despair.
"I do not paint its being," he continues, "I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute, I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune, but also by intention. 'Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations."
In the end it is about resigning ourselves to the human condition, accepting our own misfortune. Life is about becoming, rather than being. The world can change in an instant, and so can I. In the Essays, an account of his thoughts and experiences, Montaigne makes a point of noting how much, and how often, everything changes. He is a relativist; one might even say a perspectivist: at any given moment, I have a different point of view on the world. My identity is changeable. Montaigne never found a "fixed point," but neither did he ever stop searching for one.
The best image for his relationship to the world might be that of horseback riding; of the mount upon which the knight keeps his balance, his precarious seat. Seat — that is the key word. The world moves, and I move; it is up to me to find my seat in the world.CHAPTER 4
The Indians of Rouen
In 1562 in Rouen, Montaigne met three Indians from France Antarctique, the French colony in the Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro. They were presented to King Charles IX, then aged twelve, who had expressed curiosity about these people indigenous to the New World. Montaigne then had a conversation with them.
"Three of these people, not foreseeing how dear their knowledge of the corruptions of this part of the world will one day cost their happiness and repose, and that the effect of this commerce will be their ruin, as I presuppose it is in a very fair way (miserable men to suffer themselves to be deluded with desire of novelty and to have left the serenity of their own heaven to come so far to gaze at ours!), were at Rouen at the time that the late King Charles IX was there. The king himself talked to them a good while, and they were made to see our fashions, our pomp, and the form of a great city." (I, 30) Montaigne is a pessimist. Coming into contact with the Old World will cause the New World, once young and innocent, to break down; it has even happened already. The paragraph above falls at the end of "Of Cannibals." Montaigne has just depicted Brazil as a land from some golden age, like the mythical Atlantis. The Indians are primitive, not in the sense of cruelty but because they are natural and untamed — and it is we who are barbarous. If they eat their enemies it is not to feed themselves, but to obey a code of honour. In short, Montaigne forgives them for everything — and us for nothing.
"After which," he continues, "some one asked their opinion, and would know of them, what of all the things they had seen, they found most to be admired? To which they made answer, three things, of which I have forgotten the third, and am troubled at it, but two I yet remember. They said, that in the first place they thought it very strange that so many tall men, wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king ('tis like they meant the Swiss of the guard), should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command."
In the type of inversion that Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) would later popularize, it is now the Indians' turn to observe us; to wonder at our customs and note their absurdity. The first of these is "voluntary servitude," as discussed by Montaigne's friend Étienne de La Boétie. How is it possible that so many strong, grown men willingly obey a child? By what magic are they made to submit? According to La Boétie, the prince would fall from power if his people simply ceased to obey. Gandhi would later promote passive resistance and civil disobedience in these same terms. The Indian will not go so far as that, but he finds the divine right of the Old World inexplicable.
"Secondly [...] that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses."
The second outrage is the inequality that exists between the rich and the poor. Montaigne paints the Indians as, if not communists avant la lettre, at least disciples of justice and equality.
Strangely, Montaigne fails to give us a third reason for his Indians' indignation. What could reasonably be expected to follow one political wonder and a second social one? We will never know for certain, but I have always had my own guess on the subject, which I will share some other time.CHAPTER 5
A Fall from a Horse
This is one of the most moving passages in the Essays; it is rare for Montaigne to talk about an event in his life, a private moment, in such detail. The story is about a fall from a horse, and the loss of consciousness that followed.
"In the time of our third or second troubles (I do not well remember which), going one day abroad to take the air, about a league from my own house, which is seated in the very centre of all the bustle and mischief of the late civil wars in France; thinking myself in all security and so near to my retreat that I stood in need of no better equipage, I had taken a horse that went very easy upon his pace, but was not very strong. Being upon my return home, a sudden occasion falling out to make use of this horse in a kind of service that he was not accustomed to, one of my train, a lusty, tall fellow, mounted upon a strong German horse, that had a very ill mouth, fresh and vigorous, to play the brave and set on ahead of his fellows, comes thundering full speed in the very track where I was, rushing like a Colossus upon the little man and the little horse, with such a career of strength and weight, that he turned us both over and over, topsy-turvy with our heels in the air: so that there lay the horse overthrown and stunned with the fall, and I ten or twelve paces from him stretched out at length, with my face all battered and broken, my sword which I had had in my hand, above ten paces beyond that, and my belt broken all to pieces, without motion or sense any more than a stock." (II, 6)
Montaigne normally speaks about his readings and the ideas they inspire him, and depicts himself in broad strokes rather than recounting stories from his own life, but here he touches upon a personal event. The narration is rich in detail; the circumstances are precisely given: this happened during the second or third civil war, between 1567 and 1570. During a brief respite, Montaigne has left his home for a leisurely ramble astride a gentle mount, with only a few companions and without leaving his own property.(Continues…)
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