Montaigne: A Life 
by Philippe Desan, translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal.
Princeton, 796 pp., £32.95, January 2017, 978 0 691 16787 9
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Montaigne​ presents an unusual case for a biographer: since his essays are full of personal details, his readers feel that they know him well already. He tells us that he lacks the impulse to cuddle babies, that he can scarcely tell the cabbages from the lettuces in his garden, that he loses and regains his temper quickly, that he enjoys sex only before going to bed and never standing up, that he knows no greater pain than that of a kidney stone blocking the urinary tract, and no greater relief than when the stone passes. These details stick. Whatever else you get out of the Essays, you will remember the kidney stones.

Montaigne insists on the veracity of his self-portrait. He writes, he declares, just the way he talks. To keep his book true to himself he will correct only the careless errors, not the habitual ones, so that ‘everyone recognises me in my book and my book in me.’ In a passage added late in life, he describes the effects of continuing self-description: ‘By portraying myself for others I have portrayed my own self within me in clearer colours than I possessed at first. I have not made my book any more than it has made me – a book of one substance with its author, proper to me and a limb of my life.’

This is a pose. It is also serious. For Montaigne, introspection provides a theme, a method, an approach to life. It befits his status as an amateur man of letters: since he lacks any particular expertise, he will write about himself. It accords with his scepticism: since all human knowledge is uncertain, let us explore what lies nearest to hand. We shouldn’t expect the results to cohere, since we are all bundles of self-contradiction, wise in some ways and foolish in others, brave at one moment and fearful the next, subject to change from year to year, from hour to hour. In his later writing especially, Montaigne is at ease with his limits, faults and errors, the more so since everyone has their own; his modesty has a Socratic side. Societies as well as individuals have blind spots. Who is worse, the cannibals who eat their enemies or the French who torture them? Montaigne’s frank self-revelation, fluid understanding of the self and cultural relativism can feel surprisingly modern. So can his views on gender: ‘I say that male and female are cast in the same mould: save for education and custom the difference between them is not great.’

Michel Eyquem, seigneur de Montaigne, was born in 1533 on the family estate in Périgord, thirty miles east of Bordeaux. His generous-minded father, Pierre, though not himself a man of letters, took pains to provide his heir with an exemplary humanist education, engaging Latin-speaking servants, waking the boy up with music every morning, sending him at the age of six to a humanist boarding school. In his early twenties Montaigne began a career as a magistrate, serving for more than a decade in the Bordeaux parlement (a regional court of appeals), where he formed the closest friendship of his life with his colleague Estienne de La Boétie, whose premature death in 1563 affected Montaigne deeply. In 1565 Montaigne married Françoise de La Chassaigne, like himself of a prosperous Bordelais Catholic family; they had six children, all daughters, one of whom survived infancy. After his father died, Montaigne gave up his position as a magistrate and retired to his country estate to devote himself to literature. He marked his retirement with a Latin inscription, still visible, in the antechamber to his tower study:

In the year of our Lord 1571, aged 38, on the day before the calends of March, the anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the court, the servitude of the Parlement and public offices, still in the prime of life, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins, where, in peace and security, he shall spend the days that remain to him to live. May destiny allow him to complete this habitation, this sweet retreat of his ancestors, which he has devoted to his liberty, his tranquillity and his leisure.

At this point Montaigne had published nothing apart from a French translation of the Catalan scholar Raymond Sebond’s Theologia naturalis. In the 1570s he began writing his essays, or ‘chapters’ as he called them, starting with brief, impersonal pieces and gradually developing the introspective, meandering style we think of as his. The first edition of the Essays, 94 chapters in two books, was printed in 1580. Later that year Montaigne set out on a long transalpine tour through Switzerland, Germany and Austria to Rome, with stops at mineral baths (good for kidney stones, it was thought). In his absence he was elected mayor of Bordeaux, and returned to serve four years in that office. An expanded edition of the Essays appeared in 1588, including 13 new chapters and many additions to the earlier ones. Montaigne kept adding to it in his last years, filling the margins of a copy of the 1588 edition; this invaluable book survives, known as the ‘exemplaire de Bordeaux’ or the ‘Bordeaux Copy’. After he died, in 1592, posthumous editions of the Essays were prepared by Marie de Gournay, a young intellectual and admirer of Montaigne’s who became his literary executor.

Philippe Desan’s biography aims to debunk the familiar picture of Montaigne as an aristocratic sage in retirement. ‘The literary and philosophical constitution of the Essais,’ he writes,

was influenced by Montaigne’s need to realise his political ambitions and aspirations. We have to demystify the conventional image of the essayist isolated in his tower, far from the agitations of his time, playing with his cat and inquiring into the human condition. Even when he retired from society, the author of the Essais aspired to rejoin it and resume his political service.

In place of the conventional image, Desan substitutes a portrait of the essayist as a minor politician. As he tells it, Montaigne left the magistracy having been turned down for promotion and bored with the work. He published the first edition of the Essays as a bid for royal patronage and employment. His trip to Rome was ‘not a tourist trip, but a political trip on behalf of the king’: he was angling for an ambassadorship, which he never received. Instead he was appointed mayor of Bordeaux, a ‘political compromise that was made at his expense’. His mayoral term was not a success; caught between irreconcilable pressure groups, he failed in ‘establishing his way of seeing politics’. Only in his last years, after his political ambitions had come to nothing, did he fully invest his hopes in his literary career. The introspective turn in his later writing resulted from his lack of political agency. ‘He turned inward on himself because he could not act. Introspection was simply one way of escaping politics.’

The book situates Montaigne’s career within a family history of social ascent. The Eyquems were Bordeaux merchants, not country gentlemen. Michel’s great-grandfather Ramon and grandfather Grimon made the money, trading in woad, wine and salt fish. Ramon Eyquem bought the estate at Montaigne in 1477, and Grimon enlarged it; they lived and did business mainly in the city. Pierre was the first of the family born at Montaigne, and the first soldier. After serving in Francis I’s Italian wars he returned to Bordeaux, where he was elected to its jurade (city council) and other municipal offices, serving as mayor between 1553 and 1556. Michel was the first to drop the bourgeois surname Eyquem and use only his noble surname, ‘de Montaigne’. The 16th-century French nobility was a heterogeneous and expanding class. In theory you were noble or you weren’t; in practice there were ambiguities and gradations. The old or upper nobility, the noblesse d’épée, was a small hereditary class containing descendants of the medieval knightly families who had provided military service to the crown in exchange for landed estates. Montaigne belonged to the larger and more permeable class of lower nobility, claiming a place in two ways: by inheriting his father’s seigneurial estate, and by becoming a magistrate, which made him a member of the noblesse de robe, or a robin. A magistrate’s office conferred noble status, according to the official explanation, because the king’s justice was royal and therefore should be administered by nobles. The real reason was that the crown sold the offices, and the title was an incentive. Montaigne’s uncle purchased himself a seat in the Bordeaux parlement in 1535, and Pierre Eyquem bought his eldest son a seat in a new tax court established in Périgueux in 1556. This court was dissolved after two years, and its officers, including the 25-year-old Montaigne, were transferred by royal command into the parlement of Bordeaux, where they were unwelcome and treated badly by the incumbent magistrates, because this expansion diluted their authority and income. Places in the magistracy were not sinecures; as a junior member of the Bordeaux parlement Montaigne worked hard at the routine business of writing up case reports. To their purchasers they conveyed an income and a career path, as well as the prestige of the title. A robin might be promoted within the regional magistracy; he might, with connections and talent, rise to an administrative position at court, which had use for capable new men. But to be perceived as noble in a fuller sense, it was not enough to hold a magistrate’s office or own a seigneurial estate. Your family had to be known to have ‘lived nobly’ on its estate for at least a hundred years: that is, to reside principally there, and to derive its main income from land rather than from commerce. Here Montaigne’s claim was tenuous. In 1571 the family had owned the estate for almost a hundred years, but Pierre had been the first Eyquem to make an effort to live nobly at Montaigne, and even he spent considerable time in the city. Montaigne’s retirement inscription declared not only his literary ambitions but his intent to live on his lands in a manner in keeping with the title he had recently inherited. Unsurprisingly he does not dwell on his family’s bourgeois origins. In describing his château as the ‘sweet retreat of his ancestors’ he gives the impression that they had been at Montaigne for time out of mind.

In the 1570s Montaigne’s noble status was reinforced by various honours. In October 1571, several months into his retirement, he was made a knight of the Order of St Michael, a royal distinction which placed him in the ‘middle-level nobility to which he did not belong when he left the parlement’. It is not obvious why Montaigne, then obscure, received this honour; Desan proposes that it was conferred at the behest of his neighbour the marquis of Trans, a grander noble with a bigger château, who advanced Montaigne as an act of patronage. In 1573 he became an ‘ordinary gentleman of the chamber’ of Charles IX, an honorary post without pay or duties. In 1577 he received an analogous courtesy appointment from Henry of Navarre, the Huguenot leader who would become Henry IV of France. Montaigne was proud of these honours. The title page of his 1580 edition of the Essays reads: Essais de Messire Michel Seigneur de Montaigne, Chevalier de l’ordre du Roy, & Gentilhomme ordinaire de sa Chambre. In a late portrait he wears the heavy double-stranded golden necklace of the order.

Montaigne’s​ political career took place against the background of the French Wars of Religion, which began in 1562 and continued off and on through his lifetime. The conflict can be understood as a series of wars or as one long intermittent one: four decades of sieges, battles, mob violence, negotiations, assassinations, persecutions and reprisals between France’s Catholic majority and Protestant minority. The religious divide ran through Montaigne’s family; his sister Jeanne and brother Thomas became Protestants. In Gascony, Bordeaux remained under Catholic control while much of the surrounding countryside was controlled by Protestants. As a locally prominent Catholic, Montaigne put himself at risk whenever he rode between his estate and the city. While he never saw combat (with other Catholic nobles he joined the king’s army at the siege of La Fère in 1580, but did not fight) the fighting came to him. In 1586 his lands were overrun by the soldiers of the Catholic League, who were besieging the Protestant stronghold of Castillon five miles away. In national affairs Montaigne was a politique, a supporter of the central monarchy rather than the militant factions on both sides. In the three-cornered power struggle that dominated French politics in the 1580s, he was trusted by Henry of Navarre, and by the French king, Henry III; he was distrusted by the militants of the Catholic League.

Desan’s biography aims to set Montaigne in social and political context, and in this it succeeds. For readers of the Essays, it is worth knowing that Montaigne’s château was ‘more like a big house’; that his writing was never a full-time occupation; that 102 other Frenchmen were named to the Order of St Michael in 1571, an unusually high figure. Desan subjects Montaigne’s self-presentation to scrutiny: his encounter with the ‘cannibals’ (Brazilian natives) probably took place not in Rouen in 1562, as Montaigne claims, but in Bordeaux in 1565. The book includes nuanced observations about social class: whereas Montaigne had failed to distinguish himself intellectually among his fellow robins, he stood out once he moved into aristocratic circles, where a lower standard obtained. ‘A mediocre member of parlement, he became a brilliant gentleman.’ Desan is generous about Marie de Gournay, who has often been slighted by Montaigne’s later admirers: ‘Her main misfortune was to be a learned woman in a period dominated by men of letters.’

The book would have benefited from more rigorous editing. In providing context it can be thorough to a fault. A chapter on ‘How Montaigne Never Became an Ambassador’, for instance, includes 25 pages on ambassadorial appointments, credentials, pay, expenses and debts. Since the point of the chapter is that Montaigne never became an ambassador, this material might have been abridged. There are moments of oddly aggressive diction. Desan has the dying La Boétie ‘throwing a bit of Cicero in Montaigne’s face’; Montaigne’s longest chapter, the ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, is ‘a chapter monstrous in its size and in its content’; the Bordeaux Copy is described as ‘the manuscript part of the Essais that arrogantly dominates the short chapters in the 1580 edition’. Perhaps overliteral translation is in evidence here. Repetitions abound:

Let us note first that the endpoint of this voluntary exile was Rome, and not the other cities he visited, which were only stages on the way to the capital of Christianity. Montaigne’s journey to Rome must not be confused with his movements through other Italian cities before arriving there or after his first stay in the Eternal City, that is, between 30 November 1580, and 19 April 1581. The author of the Essais knew from the outset that his travels would take him to Rome, the end of his journey.

Desan regards Montaigne’s Catholicism as a function of his socially conservative instincts. He was ‘born a Catholic and was determined to remain one, not by personal choice but by customary obligation and respect for traditions’. Later, he writes that ‘Montaigne never converted to the Calvinist faith, because for him religion was an integral part of culture. Faith was for him a custom, so to speak.’ Such formulations make Montaigne’s religious stance seem less sincere and considered than it was. Montaigne partitioned his faith from his otherwise general scepticism by a simple manoeuvre: he declared it exempt. All branches of human knowledge are subject to error, but the teachings of the Catholic Church are not a branch of human knowledge. They are God-given:

Our religion did not come to us through reasoned arguments or from our own intelligence: it came to us from outside authority, by commandments. That being so, weakness of judgment helps us more than strength; blindness, more than clarity of vision. We become learned in God’s wisdom more by ignorance than by knowledge. It is not surprising that our earth-based, natural means cannot conceive knowledge which is heaven-based and supernatural; let us merely bring our submissiveness and obedience.

This is fideism: minimising the role of reason in religious knowledge, and maximising the role of faith. While orthodox in Montaigne’s day, a fideistic stance like his will not satisfy most post-Enlightenment readers, religious or secular. Modern Christian apologists tend not to choose this ground to defend because it offers nothing to convince non-believers, who regard all churches as human institutions. Since Montaigne’s fideism looks unsatisfactory to most of us, it’s easy to doubt whether it could have satisfied a thinker as sophisticated as he was. Hence readings of Montaigne as a stealth atheist, or Desan’s view of his religion as cultural or customary. (A similar temptation arises for readers of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, which also relies on fideistic arguments.)

These doubts increase when we consider Montaigne’s generally secular reference points – he quotes more often from classical than from Christian sources – and when we come across passages such as this one on the durability of popular errors:

At first the individual error creates the public one: then, in its turn, the public error creates the individual one. And so, as it passes from hand to hand, the whole fabric is padded out and reshaped, so that the most far-off witness is better informed about it than the closest one, and the last to be told more convinced than the first … It is hard to stiffen your judgment against widely held opinions. At first simple folk are convinced by the event itself: it sweeps over them. From them it spreads to the more intelligent folk by the authority of the number and the antiquity of the testimonies. Personally, what I would not believe when one person says it, I would not believe if a hundred times one said it. And I do not judge opinions by their age.

How can Montaigne not be thinking of the Gospels? But here we must be careful not to pull him across the Enlightenment divide. You may suppose that Montaigne was too clever not to apply his scepticism or his cultural relativism to his religion. The fact remains that he did not. Whatever problems he saw in the Roman Church, Montaigne never lost confidence that its authority is divine. This is what makes and keeps him Catholic. He was contending mainly with Protestants, not unbelievers, and took the common Catholic view (standard then, still extant today) that Protestantism, by denying the institutional authority of the Church, puts its adherents on a slippery slope that leads to unbelief. He understood his fideism as a bulwark against the Protestant supremacy of the individual conscience. We accept the Church’s authority on divine warrant, not on the basis of our own slender reason; and having accepted it we must accept it entirely, without cavilling or concessions:

We must either totally submit to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity or else totally release ourselves from it. It is not for us to decide the degree of obedience we owe to it.

Moreover I can say that for having assayed it; in the past I made use of that freedom of personal choice and private selection in order to neglect certain details in the observances of our Church because they seemed to be rather odd or rather empty; then, when I came to tell some learned men about it, I discovered that those very practices were based on massive and absolutely solid foundations, and that it is only our ignorance and animal-stupidity which makes us treat them with less reverence than all the rest.

Why cannot we remember all the contradictions which we feel within our own judgment, and how many things which were articles of belief for us yesterday are fables for us today?

Vainglory and curiosity are the twin scourges of our souls. The former makes us stick our noses into everything: the latter forbids us to leave anything unresolved or undecided.

This passage shows an uncompromising side to Montaigne, and a tactical one. It shows how his partition between scepticism and religion held firm: by an echt Catholic trust in Church authority over individual reason. Montaigne accepts what a Protestant or a non-believer would deny, that there are good grounds for each point of Catholic observance even if you don’t see them yourself; having been enlightened on some of these points by learned men, he takes the full edifice on trust. To prefer one’s own mutable and fallible judgment is vainglorious. To an individual, such picking and choosing brings no rest but a perpetually troubled conscience; to French society it brought chaos, as the late civil wars had shown. In this way Montaigne’s deflationary view of reason supports rather than corrodes his faith.

For all the inconsistencies, tensions and changes within the Essays, Montaigne is consistent in this stance. As Donald Frame observed in his 1965 biography, Montaigne

constantly speaks and acts like a Catholic; if he is perfidious, he must be a thoroughgoing fraud. His fideism … was acceptable to the Church of his time and was not even criticised by the papal censors when they examined his book in 1580-81; he could hardly know that its unorthodoxy a hundred years later would contribute to placing it on the Index of Forbidden Books. Nor is it his fault that later admirers applied his critique of philosophy and of other religions to Catholicism, which he had set above the reach of reason.

Montaigne was a committed Catholic without being a militant one. To his credit, he managed to live through the French wars of religion without hating the other side. His anti-providentialism cut both ways: if you take winning a battle as proof that God favours your cause, what do you say when you lose the next one? He maintained Protestant connections, up to the highest levels; in December 1584 Henry of Navarre visited his château, and Montaigne writes of him admiringly in the Essays. On his foreign travels Montaigne attended services at Lutheran churches and spoke to their ministers.

Montaigne the politician comes across as a serviceable attendant lord: moderate, prudent and trustworthy, occasionally useful to the great and willing to be of use. His loyalty to the monarchy was as firm as his Catholicism, and was evidently based on more than self-interest. As mayor of Bordeaux, his concerns were mainly pragmatic: trying to reduce tax evasion, getting a lighthouse repaired, managing competing interests in the wine business. By his own admission he was not an especially zealous public servant, but he was neither incompetent nor corrupt. The closest he came to prominence in national affairs was in 1584-85, when he attempted to serve as a negotiator between Henry of Navarre and Henry III. The negotiations never took place.

Some aspects​ of Desan’s account are better attested than others. His portrayal of Montaigne as a minor political figure is convincing in its details. It is less clear that Montaigne aspired vainly to become a major figure in French politics, or that disappointed political ambitions prompted the introspective turn in the later Essays. While Desan consistently sees the glass half empty in Montaigne’s public career, one could also see the glass half full. Montaigne left the magistracy because, having come into his inheritance, he could afford to. He accepted a burdensome position as mayor out of duty to the crown and his fellow citizens, and got through four years of it with his reputation and integrity more or less intact. He gained and kept the trust of three successive French kings. He solidified his family’s ascent into the nobility, and maintained his estate through the hazards of civil war.

Did Montaigne himself see his public career as a failure? He discusses the subject most fully in the mid-1580s essay ‘On Restraining Your Will’, where he describes his capacity for Stoic detachment: ‘I have been able to engage in public duties without going even a nail’s breadth from myself, and to give myself to others without taking myself away from me.’ This is not self-deprecation; it is the attitude he recommends. Detachment prevents undue disappointment. ‘Whoever does not gape after the favours of princes as something he cannot live without is not greatly stung by the coldness of their reception nor the fickleness of their wills.’ Some have charged him with showing insufficient zeal in office. ‘As far as appearances go, they were not all that wrong … Yet from this natural languor of mine one should not draw evidence of incapacity (since lack of worry and lack of wit are two different things) and even less of ingratitude.’ He concludes equivocally:

Now I was not satisfied, either, with my conduct of affairs: but I did achieve – more or less – what I promised myself I would, and I far exceeded what I promised to those whom I was dealing with, since I prefer to promise rather less than I can do and hope to do. I am sure I left no injury or hatred behind me: as for leaving any regret or desire for me, I do at least know that I never much cared for that.

One could say that this is the way an ineffectual mayor would justify himself: when you can’t boast of your achievements, claim that you never promised any. Desan writes that in recommending a detached approach to public affairs Montaigne ‘confesses his lack of commitment, which he transforms into a positive attribute’. One could also take Montaigne’s claims of detachment at face value. Perhaps he really hadn’t wanted the job; perhaps four years in office gave him a realistic sense of the intractable problems he faced, the limits of the office and of his own abilities.

To understand how Montaigne’s mind worked, the place to start is not with his political ambitions but with his reading. He thought with and through his favourite writers: Plutarch, Seneca, Virgil, Lucretius, Horace, Catullus, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle. The Essays are woven through with quotations, around which Montaigne meditates. Sometimes a single passage will prompt a lengthy reflection; sometimes Montaigne collects quotations around a theme like entries in a commonplace book. Old and new, ancient history and current events, lived and literary experience are juxtaposed. Describing the agony caused by his kidney stones, Montaigne thinks of Tiberius: ‘Oh what a past master of the art of torment was that fair emperor who used to bind his criminals’ pricks and make them die for want of pissing!’ He loved poetry, and gives the last word in his book to Horace:

Frui paratis et valido mihi,
Latoe, dones, et, precor, integra
Cum mente, nec turpem senectam
Degere, nec cithara carentem.

Here’s what I crave most, son of Latona, then:
Good health, a sound mind, relish of life, and an
Old age that still maintains a stylish
Grip on itself, with the lyre beside me.

Desan’s project makes best sense as a learned supplement to the received picture, which it assumes you know. The original French subtitle, ‘une biographie politique’, makes its emphasis explicit; the change in the English edition to Montaigne: A Life looks like a publisher’s decision to broaden the book’s appeal.

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Vol. 40 No. 6 · 22 March 2018

I was pleased to see Tobias Gregory’s review of my translation of Philippe Desan’s Montaigne, but rather less pleased to find my name misspelled (LRB, 8 March). We translators get little enough press, and I would especially regret LRB readers not knowing I was involved.

Steven Rendall
Les Barthes, France

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