Frisks, Skips and Jumps

Colin Burrow

  • Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle
    Cambridge, 303 pp, £45.00, March 2003, ISBN 0 521 82168 1

In November 1619 René Descartes retired into a ‘stove’ in order to reflect on the foundations of our knowledge of ourselves and the world. From his meditations he produced the bloodless certainty of the cogito: ‘I think therefore I am.’ The rest is intellectual history.

In 1571 Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write his Essays. He was 38. From the windows he could see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about sixty maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him. In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. He insisted that he only augmented his Essays and did not correct them (this is not quite true), on the grounds that each state of his book represented a state of himself: ‘My first edition dates from 1580: I have long since grown old but not one inch wiser. “I” now and “I” then are certainly twain, but which “I” was better?’

Many of his early essays are dry affairs, culling precepts and exempla about cowardice and mercy, death and philosophy into elegant but on the whole unoriginal digests. As the project progressed, and Montaigne read and wrote and relaxed into the therapy of writing, these five-finger exercises became something much greater. The later essays move beyond the simple juxtaposition of authorities, not only to wonder about the foundations of human knowledge, but to display a profound and mobile curiosity about more or less everything, including his own changes of mind: ‘I want to show my humours as they develop, revealing each element as it is born.’ He speculates on whether he is playing with his cat, or she is playing with him. In ‘On the Lame’, he engages in some unhealthily extended musing on how he came to believe that cripples are better sexual partners than anyone else (he cites the ancient belief that nutriments can’t get to their legs, and so gather in the sexual organs instead). He also gives evidence that dogs might think. As the Essays grow and go on (and some of them go on rather a lot) they deliver more and more of Montaigne’s life: how his open and honest physiognomy led to his release by a band of soldiers in the civil wars; that he likes to open his bowels straight after he gets out of bed; that he prefers fish to meat; that he has a small penis; that an entrepreneurial valet stole some pages of his Essays. And we meet and grow familiar with a cast of real and semi-fictionalised characters: Montaigne’s great dead friend Estienne de La Boëtie, whose appropriation by political radicals Montaigne repeatedly seeks to resist, and his great classical hero, the Theban general Epaminondas, on whose life and actions Montaigne substantially elaborates.

One maxim inscribed on his library walls was from Sextus Empiricus: ‘To any reason an equal reason can be opposed,’ and if any principle can be said to underlie the Essays, this might be it. Montaigne above all does not seek to inculcate principle. Through their mingled musings, exemplary tales and character sketches, the Essays present not a clear set of values (although they do attach great weight to mercy and friendship) but a shifting pattern of dispositional preferences extended through space (more than a thousand pages) and time (more than two decades).

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