Me and Michel Chapter Four

‘Life is pain Highness, anyone who tells you different is selling something.’

The Dread Pirate Roberts, from the film, Princess Bride


Life is hard. It always has been. It was hard for Michel de Montaigne, a respected ‘seigneur’, or lord, with his own vineyards and lands producing revenues and every opportunity for a comfortable life. He lived in a chateau near Bordeaux, close to where we’ll be cycling, and he was twice elected mayor of the city. He had a wife, a daughter, and many friends. He was a magistrate, and a diplomat, held in high esteem by kings and princes…

Life is hard. It always has been. It was hard for Michel de Montaigne, a respected ‘seigneur’, or lord, with his own vineyards and lands producing revenues and every opportunity for a comfortable life. He lived in a chateau near Bordeaux, close to where we’ll be cycling, and he was twice elected mayor of the city. He had a wife, a daughter, and many friends. He was a magistrate, and a diplomat, held in high esteem by kings and princes.

But Montaigne lived – as we do – in troubled and violent times. As a teenager, he witnessed atrocities in his home city – executions, murders and riots – first hand. The Wars of Religion, fought between Catholic and Protestant factions, ravaged the country, sprouting random violence and rogue bands of soldiers who attacked and killed without discrimination or mercy. He had his fair share of personal tragedy, too. His wife gave birth to six daughters, but only one – Léonore – would survive beyond infancy. If that was hard on Montaigne, pause a moment to reflect on his wife’s lot. The pain, the grief, and the continual pressure to produce children, and no doubt a male heir in particular, was probably immense. He scarcely mentions any of this in the Essais, who knows why, but part of the reason may have been that infant mortality was such a common tragedy in his day.

He lost his most intimate friend and soulmate, Étienne de la Boétie, to plague, the pandemic of the period. Millions had died in the fourteenth century and the disease continued to make regular comebacks. Montaigne had to leave his home for months and take his family on the road to escape one of the outbreaks. And there were other dangers. He saw his beloved father’s painful death caused by kidney stones – the same disease that would one day kill Montaigne – and soon after, his younger brother, Arnaud, died at twenty-three after being hit on the head by a tennis ball, ‘leaving neither visible bruise or wound.’

A tennis ball in those days was made of leather stuffed with wool, but was hardly a lethal weapon.

After all his travails – some commentators say because of them – Montaigne, decided to withdraw from the world. And though he was sometimes called back to the fray in his role as a trusted go-between, he managed to carve out enough time in his study and his circular library, situated on the top floors of a squat tower in the walls of his chateau, to write what would one day become his world-famous Essais, three volumes of reflections written over twenty years designed, as he put it himself, to record ‘some traits of my character and of my humours.’

It’s a modest claim, one that belies both his motives and his achievement. When he first sat down to write the Essais in 1572, having just turned thirty-eight years old, Montaigne was fighting his own demons. Average life expectancy for a man in his day was thirty-three, and though he says melancholy was not natural to his character, he’d lost his best friend, his father, his brother, and then his first child only a short time before he began writing. He freely admits his thoughts were agitated and he compares them to a runaway horse, or a shapeless lump of flesh.

‘When I recently retired at home, I was determined, as much as I could, to stay out of things and to spend whatever life I have left to live in peace and solitude. I thought I could do my mind no greater favor than to let it be free, to leave it alone. But I find that, on the contrary…it gives birth to so many chimeras and bizarre monsters, one after the other without order or purpose, that, to appreciate how ridiculous and strange they are, I have started to keep a list of them with which, in time, I hope to embarrass it.’

                                                                                    On Idleness

The word ‘essai’ means something like to ‘try’ or ‘attempt’ in French. Montaigne used the term for a new kind of writing that allowed him the freedom to take a stab at all kinds of subjects from cannibals to coaches, idleness to sleep, the education of children, liars to fear. One hundred and seven essays, as we now understand the word, on pretty much whatever took his fancy. But there was always one ‘seeing eye’, one sensibility, and just one individual under examination, himself.

It is human nature, as expressed in his own thoughts and feelings, but also in his books, that fascinated him. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on Homer or Odysseus, preferring Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ with juicy gossip about the nobles of the Roman and Greek worlds. Michel de Montaigne cherry-picks whatever he comes across in his mind and in his library. If the ancients bore him, he tosses their work aside and carries on writing his essais regardless. A Sceptic where received opinion is concerned, a Stoic in the face of adversity, an Epicurean when it suited his mood, his work is questioning and curious, rambling and often funny. There is no unified or consistent Michel de Montaigne who emerges from this process, rather a sensibility in constant flux. What I loved about him when I first picked up the Essais, what I still respect and admire, is his implacable opposition to anything that vaguely resembles l’idée fixe – the fixed idea.

He recognises that he is a being in perpetual motion and that change is the natural order of things, so any kind of permanent or reliable truth is elusive, even impossible. Montaigne’s lasting legacy is the right not to know anything, and the duty to question everything. His attitude to both his work and his life is summed up in an aphorism he tagged on to much of his work and that has come to characterise him for generations of readers – ‘Que sais-je?’ ‘What do I know?’

Over the centuries, he has attracted a host of luminaries, acolytes, and fellow travellers, many of whom have written about their relationship with him in terms both personal and profound.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist and writer, had this to say on reading the Essais: ‘It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.’

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote this in 1874:I know of only one writer whom, in point of honesty, I can rank with Schopenhauer, and even above him, and that is Montaigne. The fact that such a man has written truly adds to the joy of living on this earth.’

Virginia Woolf wrote an essay on Montaigne in 1925 where she says: ‘By means of perpetual experiment and observation of the subtlest he achieved at last a miraculous adjustment of all these wayward parts that constitute the human soul. He laid hold of the beauty of the world with all his fingers. He achieved happiness.’

In uncovering just how many fans Michel has had over the centuries, I came across the novelist Stefan Zweig’s homage, and whilst I’m proud to say I attempted to read it in French, I have to confess a translation app did most of the heavy lifting. In his assessment of Montaigne, he said this:

‘It is first necessary to have oneself doubt and despair of reason, of the dignity of man, to be able to praise the exemplary act of one who remains standing in the chaos of the world…It was only when fate made us brothers that Montaigne brought me his help, his consolation, his irreplaceable friendship.’

Zweig’s short biography of Montaigne was the last book he wrote. He was living high in the mountains north of Rio de Janeiro, an Austrian writer, and a Jew, forced into exile by Naziism and the war in Europe, depressed and despairing of humanity. By all reports, Zweig found a dusty copy of the Essais in the cellar of his house in the autumn of 1941, and it preoccupied him in the final months of his life, so much so that he dedicated his remaining time to writing an appreciation of the author of the Essais as his final creative act. In February 1942, he and his wife Lotte were found dead in their home. The cause was barbiturate overdose.

Zweig’s suicide note read, in part:

‘… to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless.’

Finding myself beyond my sixtieth year, and in search of a home, Zweig’s words are chilling. But despite misplacing my mojo, and my sense of humour, I feel sure the loss is temporary and I will recover myself in time.

Somewhere, somehow, an orchard will one day appear. I’m sure of it, and if in the meantime I am only one amongst many, many, others to find a confidant, a companion, and some consolation in Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and his Essais, that’s not a problem. I’m content to share. Besides, I have the advantage over these luminaries in still being alive – just. And I have quality time with the man himself, just the two of us on the open road. That’s a rare treat, even if I will be doing most of the peddling.