I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.
In 1570, at the age of thirty-seven, Michel de Montaigne sold his position as magistrate in Bordeaux and retired to the country house in the Dordogne which he inherited on the death of his father. The decision was the outcome of an engulfing sense of melancholia and a desire to be free from the distracting pressures of public office: an existential crisis. He envisaged the somewhat austere round tower of his chateau as the practical and symbolic centre of a new life for himself: not merely a library to house a thousand or more books, nor only a study, but more a protected enclave. He saw the tower as an arrière-boutique, a backroom to which he could withdraw, a place where he could spy on himself from close up, a quiet space where he could think for himself and work on his life. In the following year, on the last day of February – his birthday – he had an inscription painted on one of the library walls to mark his project and confer upon it a certain objectivity. Composing, somewhat grandly, in the third person singular of the classical memoir, he proclaimed that he, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employment, intended (if the fates allowed) to make the tower an ancestral retreat in which he would live out a life dedicated to freedom, tranquillity and leisure.
In the same humanist spirit he had about sixty aphorisms carved on the long wooden beams. They were mostly taken, not from Christian theologians, nor from the Bible, but from the classical authors he had revered since childhood. They drove home a single philosophical disposition: the need for a disinterested and sceptical state of mind. One from Sextus Empiricus declared: To any reason an equal reason can be opposed; another, from Pliny the Elder, started: There is nothing certain except that nothing is certain. It was Montaigne’s intention to contemplate the precepts – he had them changed from time to time to mirror his own evolving thought – and apply them assiduously to his life. The practical pedagogy of the Stoics, as formulated by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, had seldom been applied with such dramatic and aesthetic immediacy. Less than a year after Montaigne’s premature retirement from the parlement at Bordeaux the tower had become the physical hub of what was to become a sustained and historically unprecedented enquiry into the nature of the self.
What lay behind Montaigne’s dramatic decision? No doubt, the reasons were complex, with overlapping motives. But, certainly, one powerful element was an alarming sense of his mortality, of his own life racing to its end. He had studied for years the Stoic philosophers and, at an intellectual level, had consciously embraced the idea that the art of philosophising was all but synonymous with the art of dying; but during the 1560s the purity of this ideal conception must have been shaken by his own harrowing experience. In the summer of 1563 Montaigne watched Étienne de La Boétie, his dearest friend, die from the plague that was then ravaging Bordeaux. He observed every fluctuating detail as La Boétie struggled against his delirium to achieve the rational calmness espoused by the classical philosophers. It was as if his friend saw himself as a second Socrates with Montaigne, as a reformed Alciabides, destined to be his philosophical witness, the friend who was there to witness and record the good death. The analogue of the two figures had been central to their short but intense relationship. Montaigne recorded that La Boétie had lived exactly thirty-two years, nine months and seventeen days. Did the cool mathematical figures put a certain consoling order against the consuming grief he felt for the rest of his life?
Then in June of 1568 Montaigne’s father died. It was followed a year later by the death of his younger brother from a trivial accident while playing a game of French tennis. The ball struck the young man’s head. Although there was no immediate sign of injury, six hours later he collapsed, never to regain consciousness. Two years after that, in 1570, Montaigne’s first child died at the age of two months and only a short time before that bereavement – the exact date is uncertain – Montaigne himself had lost consciousness and thought he was dying from a sudden accident when he was out riding. The black hulk of death loomed in every corner and with it came an alarming sense of life’s contingency. Montaigne’s withdrawal from public office was a need to examine more fully this stark and implacable reality, to acknowledge his sense of dread before it and to see what truths his experience might disclose.
But his withdrawal had another powerful source; it was to do with his growing despair with the state of society. Montaigne belonged to the first generation with no memory of a united Christendom. It was his fate to live through a grim period of disintegration in which the high ideals and political hopes of the early Renaissance dissolved into the brutal chaos of a civil war. (The civil war in France began in1562 and continued well after Montaigne’s death in 1592.) Like Petrarch before him, Montaigne constantly held up an earlier classical period running from Socrates to Seneca, before which he judged his own age as diseased, as one of honoured corruption and institutionalised bigotry. And yet, though he had chosen to retire from public office and retreat into his private life, no full escape was possible. Even in the refuge of his solitary tower, Montaigne was aware of atrocious events happening in his own grounds, though he proudly refused to add any further fortifications to his chateau or hide his silver spoons. He was ever anxious that his own estate might be attacked by marauding gangs which had been released like a further toxin from the collective pollution. His writing became, in part, a protest against the prevailing barbarism. He wanted to expose the dissociated consciousness of tribal thinking, where the unexamined opinion that happened to dominate could, with a smirking conscience, annihilate the unexamined opinion that happened to oppose it. He despised the inflated rhetoric of binary division and the reactive behaviour that it so easily engendered. Nowadays, he was to write, you can fill men with nothing but wind and then bounce them about like balloons.
A treasured word was nonchalance. It was a quality he sought to cultivate in himself. The word, deriving from the Latin non chalere, denoted not being hot or not glowing, and extended, metaphorically, from the sense of immediate physical heat to that of the inflamed temper of the intolerant and indignant person. Montaigne’s writing was directed at all those who were over-heated, whether the cause was rational or irrational. Although he claimed, at times, he was solely writing for his own illumination and that, like Socrates, he could be an authority for no one but himself, in its social context his work has to be seen as defiantly untimely and deliberately oppositional. His essays consistently oppose all forms of dogmatic pre- judgement and the contagious mania of over-heated characters – all those who, driven by a few unexamined dogmas, could burn heretics at the stake and hurl their dissident books (like On Voluntary Servitude, the early subverting work of his friend La Boétie) to the flames. A certain nonchalance was a psychic protection against the glowing intensities of fanaticism. For Montaigne the word was part of a cherished lexicon of human modesty. Other related terms were: ordinate, private, domestic, humble, sceptical, simple, natural, naïve, and obscure.
It may well be significant that the year Montaigne started to write his first essays was 1572, the year of Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre, that explosive event in the city of Paris which was to deepen and intensify the French Wars of Religion for decades. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the artist Giorgio Vasari to celebrate the slaughter of the Protestant heretics. In the background of Vasari’s fresco the dead body of the Huguenot leader, Gaspard de Coligny, can be seen falling ignominiously from an upstairs window, while in the foreground armed Catholics happily butcher any Calvinist they can lay hands on. Historians dispute how many were killed but the highest estimate gives the figure of thirty thousand. That Vasari’s painting commemorates the event makes its own point. It was as if, unnoticed by his more passionate and committed contemporaries, Montaigne’s intimate creative response to the collective mayhem was to withdraw even further into his private life, adopting an even more sceptical cast of mind and embarking in the very same year on his great experiment: the essays. There is a plague on man, he wrote some time later, the opinion that he knows something.
Montaigne’s literary experiment continued for the rest of his life. The first two volumes of essays were published in Bordeaux in 1580. Then in 1588 he published a massive revision of the earlier edition adding a new third book. At his death in 1592 he had again revised the entire work, constantly adding new material by scrawling in the margins of the earlier versions. The last revisions were finally brought together and published posthumously in 1595.
Essays was an apt term for, while what Montaigne was attempting to do developed through the continuous act of writing, the notion of assaying remained constant. Significantly, that word appears three times in the short opening essay. In the OED assaying is given a rich cluster of meanings and associations; it refers to testing (metals), to making trial, to touching, to tasting food, to examining, to trying with affliction, to making an assault, to assailing with language. Later the word came to refer to an imperfect first draft. All of these senses pertain to Montaigne’s evolving project. He tests positions, interrogates situations and motives, examines numerous exemplars, draws on his own sensory experience, struggles dialectically with and against language, and incessantly revises all that he writes – as if he viewed each essay as an approximate draft, never perfect and always requiring further assaults. The word ‘assaying’ also accommodates the almost bizarre heterogeneity of his themes.
Montaigne’s topics range widely from sadness to solitude, from books to thumbs, from cannibals to warhorses, from smells to prayers. The essays are open meditations upon whatever stirred the author’s huge curiosity about life. It would seem that Montaigne deliberately kept his project large, compendious and untidy. He delights in his own unsystematic disposition. The many parts never quite cohere. The titles are often misleading (though never changed in numerous subsequent revisions) and are left in an arbitrary sequence. Their length varies wildly, from less than ten sentences to that of a fully developed treatise. The complete book is, thus, something of an over-size monster with a multitude of dangling limbs and an uncertain motion. Nevertheless the generic title fits; each essay is an assaying.
As Montaigne’s project developed over the course of two decades it became much more intimate and reflexive in character. While some of the early essays are somewhat dry, derivative and over-dependent on citation, the later essays move freely under their own impetus; they are often of greater length, more colloquial in style, more digressive in movement, more autobiographical in content. Montaigne’s work developed out of a Renaissance tradition of essay writing, a scholarly commentary on books employing a formal framework of authoritative quotation and allusion. Opening with an exemplary illustration from a classical author, the essay would examine a familiar ethical theme and come to a prescriptive or anecdotal conclusion. Montaigne began here – the complete essays house no less than 1,264 quotations – but, then, through the regular discipline of assaying/essaying/saying he stumbled upon a further, more intimate direction. He began to inspect his everyday experience and see himself as the very centre of the work. A profound revolution in self-consciousness and self-expression was underway.
By the time he had completed his first two books in 1580, the emerging autobiographical intention had become both clear and urgent. An inner daimon was now guiding him. He knew exactly what he was after, where the solitary project in the tower was leading him and why, in spite of certain nagging hesitations about the charge of presumption and vanity, it mattered. It was most probably at this critical moment in the process of editing that he quickly penned the somewhat perfunctory preface that accompanied the first two volumes. He addressed his reader thus: You have here … a book whose faith can be trusted … here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. Here drawn from life, you will read of my defects and my native form so far as respect for social convention allows. But the disconcerting fact is that most of the essays in the first edition fall far short of the declaration. For, with a few significant exceptions, there is little exploration of his identity, few forays into his inner life. It would seem that the preface written for the first batch of essays was more prospective than descriptive. It pointed not to what Montaigne had achieved, but more to where the project was leading him. At this stage the self-portrait consists of a few gestural marks, a few guiding pencil strokes – a preliminary sketch. The full portrait is still to come.
Having discovered the emerging form of his experiment Montaigne began to write more openly about all aspects of himself, both physical and metaphysical. At the same time he turned back to the earlier essays and extended what he had written. Tellingly, many of these revisions added further autobiographical material. Thus the essay entitled Sadness in the first edition reads like a one dimensional treatise composed in the humanist tradition. It is short, impersonal and crammed with historical exemplars and authoritative quotations. But by the second 1588 edition Montaigne had added the following opening sentence: I am among those who are most free from this emotion; and at the end had inserted: Violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments. The revisions scrawled in the margins of the original essay and inserted into the new edition herald the new autobiographical key. The essay now begins and ends with the first person singular – the author as prime authority. Modest revisions, but they reveal a determined reflexivity of attention, which will culminate in a conception of the essay as a vehicle for personal enquiry and open the way to the genre of humanist autobiography. In a sense, Rousseau’s Confessions begin here.
Montaigne became more and more aware of the originality of his enterprise and in the later essays (and in the continuous revisions) often drew attention to it and defended it. He knew he was extending both the classical and Christian tradition of working on the self. In one of the many late revisions he wrote: It is a thorny undertaking – more than it looks – to follow so roaming a course as that of our mind’s, to penetrate its dark depths and its inner recesses, to pick out and pin down the innumerable characteristics of its emotions. It is a new pastime, outside the common order… For many years now the target of my thoughts has been myself alone: I examine nothing, I study nothing but me; and if I do study anything else, it is so as to apply it at once to myself, or more correctly, within myself. The new pastime sets a further agenda for the understanding of the self, especially in relationship to the life of feeling, imagination and sentience. It is strikingly Augustinian in its preoccupation with dark depths and inner recesses, but the manner is more humanist, the method open-ended, the emphasis psychological. Committed to the reality of this world rather than to the uncertainty of the next, there is no morbid guilt, no histrionics, no fear of eternal torment. The goal is eudaimonia: a search for health and wholeness, for flourishing. It is the very antithesis of Dante’s world-picture and represents a major advance on Petrarch’s hesitant self- analysis in Secretum.
On Repenting, a late essay, is one of the finest formulations of Montaigne’s thorny undertaking. In the opening paragraph a kind of syllogism is unfolded:
All things are in constant change I am part of all things Therefore I am subject to constant change.
But the conclusion is not left as a logical proposition – logical propositions never satisfy Montaigne – rather, it is viewed as an autobiographical challenge. For if it is true it follows that any author committed to offering a genuine self-portrait, rather than a stylised icon, will have to evoke the uncertain and ever-changing flux of being, the turbulent stream of consciousness, the inexorable movement of inner life. With a certain élan Montaigne turns the ancient Heraclitean notion of the cosmos as flux inwards, gives it a reflexive twist and so enters uncharted territory: I am unable to stabilise my subject: it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness. I grasp it as it is now, at this moment when I am lingering over it. I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another… but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt this account of myself to the passing hour. The shift of direction from the outside world to the inside is as original as it is dramatic. Suddenly, the task is to track the racing moment from minute to minute as it is experienced by the somewhat indeterminate subject, to chart not being but becoming. Time has freed itself from both Providence and Fate to become the baffling medium of our contingent existence. In a sense life has become existentially problematic. Montaigne described himself as a new figure: an unpremeditated and accidental philosopher. Something very close to the modern identity emerges at this point: labile, temporal, elusive and without clear boundaries.
It was part of Montaigne’s emerging method – if method is not too clinical a word for his unsystematic writing – to keep his description close to the details of experience, however strange or deviant. Eschewing deductive chains of logic, he struggled to think in the thick of things, to make explicit whatever truths lay implicit in the dark manifold of life, to find words for the obscure and shifting sensations of the body, of the psyche-soma. He has been described as one of the first phenomenologists: a man amazed at his own existence and wanting to make a record of it.
He knew a certain kind of language was crucial to the realisation of his project. He was critical of all forms of rationalism and suspicious of verbal abstractions: I do not recognise in Aristotle most of my ordinary actions; they have been dressed up in another robe for the use of the school. For Montaigne a propositional language, shaped by the laws of deductive logic, could never penetrate or represent the multifarious nature of the human world. A set of logical concepts could only ever simplify, reduce and give birth to mental illusions and one-dimensional systems. As his own kind of assaying developed, Montaigne saw what he needed was a sinuous language which, like vivid and idiomatic speech, presupposed a trust between speaker and listener and which made unrehearsed revelation possible: a vernacular language which was exploratory, which could digress, circle back, move forward and make unexpected discoveries, where manner and matter were one and indivisible.
Montaigne located two prior models for his enterprise. The first of these, and for him by far the most seminal, lay in the indirect teaching of Socrates. Here was a philosopher whose search for self-knowledge took the form of open dialogue. In the intimate exchange between particular individuals exacting questions were posed and provisional answers proffered. The whole transformative experience rested on an immediate speaking and a careful listening, on the idiosyncratic presence of each participant, on the reciprocity between this person and that person. It was unique, of the moment and the outcome often had no definitive resolution – as if subsequent dialogues might rub out any emerging insight or change the original premises. Montaigne wanted to keep close to the spirit of this practice, to use the dialect of speech to release the dialectic of exploration.
The second model was the Christian confessional. Montaigne endorsed both the private form of the Catholic sacrament and the Protestant form of public confession. While radically different from the Socratic elenchus, the confessional yet depended on an authentic speaking out and on a relational dynamic: a sincere speaker finding words for the concealed inner life and an engaged listener. Montaigne wanted to retain that confessional voice – strangely, there is no reference to Augustine’s Confessions – but was determined to extend the range, to move across the full spectrum of human experience and to add to the limited register by bringing in the voices of wit, irony, irreverence, scepticism and practical common sense.
He wanted a confessing, he said, that was both high and low. His aim was to confess a many-sided life, to unmask one odd specimen of humanity, his ordinary self. The two models, working in relationship to the notion of eudaimonia and also, no doubt, in relationship to Montaigne’s memory of his sustained conversations with La Boétie, fused to give birth to a third: autobiographical assaying, essaying and saying – a prelude to autobiography and the first poetics of identity.
Some of the confessing stays close to the surface, but for Montaigne the surface matters because it is a manifest part of life. Part of his self- revelation consists in listing traits, proclivities and foibles. In this way we learn more about Montaigne than any previous author before him. No detail is too trivial to escape his documentation. Thus we learn he has restless feet, that he scratches his ears, that he loves talking with a booming voice and can be garrulous, that he bites his tongue when eating ravenously, that he suffers from gout, kidney stones, diarrhoea and migraine. We learn he enjoys wine (drinking up to five glasses a night), eats unsalted bread, loves radishes (dislikes them and then loves them again). We learn the buzzing of a fly disorientates him, that he dislikes the evening dew and that he can hold his urine for ten hours. We learn that he has a shocking memory, a rather small body (often being mistaken as a servant) and a small penis (after which confession he writes the portrait I owe to the public is complete). Baldly listed such catalogues can become tedious, but more characteristically, Montaigne offers a richer introspective understanding of himself when he examines the conjunctions and disjunctions between different elements in his own experience or frankly explores, in the open manner of Sappho and Catullus, his own sexuality. It is in these accounts that the literary autobiographer and the philosophical phenomenologist emerge.
In one account he examines with remarkable perspicuity the accident in which he nearly lost his life. The analysis has an almost scientific objectivity. He sounds like a doctor noting symptoms: I must not overlook the following. First, the account lists all the involuntary symptoms after his fall, finding parallels to them in other states such as that of sleep and sexual arousal. He observes that even when he spoke he had no knowledge of what he was saying, that his remarks were devoid of intentionality. After analysing his unconscious actions, he turns his attention to his feelings: my condition was most agreeable and peaceful: I felt no affliction either for myself or others; it was a kind of lassitude and utter weakness, without any pain. I saw my house but did not recognise it. Montaigne then considers his return to normal consciousness, the way in which he suddenly felt the pain running through his body, and the way in which, after a number of days, his memory involuntarily recalled the actual moment of the fall with all the details that surrounded it. His analysis is sharp, detailed and culminates in a long defence of such introspection: this account of so unimportant an event is pointless enough but for the instruction I draw from it for my own purposes: for in truth, to inure yourself to death all you have to do is to draw nigh to it. Now, as Pliny says, each man is an excellent instruction unto himself provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close quarters.
The account discloses the complexity of Montaigne’s project, the many perspectives it brings to bear on life. At one level it simply examines immediate or remembered experience: it looks without preconception in order to see. It is phenomenological. At another level it is ethical, for it is part of a larger enquiry (inspired by Socratic literature) into how to live well and how to meet death. At a deeper level it is existential, a speaking and spelling of the self as it is caught up in the hurly-burly of carnal life – Montaigne in his defence goes on to declare: it is not what I do that I write of, but of me, of what I am. And part of this ontological affirmation is implicitly dialogical – the account simply ends with a challenge to any other Socratic soul to speak out in a similar manner: If any man knows himself to be thus, let him boldly reveal himself by his own mouth. Thus the gauntlet is thrown down to his reader and the conditions established for the future exploration of the self.
Montaigne is large and contains multitudes. Try as we will, it is impossible to catch him in our conceptual nets. Chameleon-like, he is always jumping and changing colour. In this essay I have concentrated on the autobiographical impulse which informed his mature work, the open nature of his enquiry and its rich idiomatic voice. Nevertheless, Montaigne remained loyal to his inherited faith and was deeply committed to the voices of the ancient world: Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Tacitus, Ovid and many others. He never broke the habit of quotation and citation. He was, also, as interested in biography as much as autobiography, in the nature of society as much as in the nature of himself. All these things were an intimate part of him too. His being was not only inside but outside in the world, part of history, culture and biology. Contradictions and ambivalences abound. To any reason an equal reason can be opposed. It would seem he was a man who thrived in a world which was incorrigibly plural, who could flourish in a collective age of warring doctrines without the protection of dogma or any form of definitive resolution. Life, he said, must be its own objective, its own purpose. Its right concern is to rule itself, govern itself, put up with itself.
Montaigne had learnt the art of living both creatively and reflexively. His assaying and essaying were a way of saying: be true to your experience, live within the multiplicity of things and keep the many gates of your mind open. That is why he is a paradigmatic figure in the story of the self and why his retreat to the tower is one of its key chapters.
All quotations from Montaigne have been taken from Michel de Montaigne: the Complete Essays translated by M. A. Screech, Penguin Classics, 1991. For further details on the story of the self see www.peterabbs.org