|Portrait of Michel de Montaigne c. 1570|
At the age of thirty-eight, in 1571, the aristocratic Michel de Montaigne retired from public life and “servitude at the court” in order to spend in his château “what little remains of his life, now more than half had run out.” He passed the next ten years or so “in the bosom of the learned virgins . . . in calm and freedom from all cares.” He was able to afford this because he was rich. His father had been a soldier in the Italian wars, but his great-grandfather had made his fortune as a herring trader, had bought the estate in 1477, and become Lord of Montaigne. It appears that on both sides of the family he could trace among his ancestors some wealthy Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain or Portugal.
Retired into the company of Lucretius, Seneca, and Plutarch in his circular library lined by some 1,500 books, he read avidly and on many different subjects. While appreciating the wisdom of the ancient philosophers, he found some rather tedious as they dragged in a plethora of argument and long and useless discussions. He said he only wanted to read books that offered the results of learning and that would help him to live well and to die well. Yet in his memoirs he was pretty verbose himself, his text, as Dr. Johnson said in a different context, overloaded with Latin quotations.
So in the bosom of his learned virgins he wrote much about himself. He wrote about his likes and dislikes, and what he regarded his defects. He is credited for inaugurating a genre of writing now called the essay—from what he called trials or attempts, from French the word essayer. He wrote about the education of children, including common sense ideas that modern educators have long forgotten or may have never known but will undoubtedly rediscover, such as that if you indulge children excessively you will end up with monsters.
He also wrote about friendship, virtue, idleness, marriage, women, having babies, about the custom of wearing clothes, about the art of conversation, even about cannibals. He told his readers about his dietary preferences. He was not excessively fond of salads and fruit, except for melons. He liked his meat salted but his bread unsalted. He thought his preferences were subject to unpredictable changes, so that he sometimes liked radishes and sometimes did not, that he sometimes liked white wine and sometimes claret, and that he liked to mix his wine with half or sometimes a third part water. Eating too much made him uncomfortable, but he often ate greedily, though knowing that it was harmful to health and unmannerly, and that he even sometimes bit his tongue and fingers. His mouth often felt dry but he was rarely thirsty. He detested stuffy atmospheres and in particular smoke. He liked the winter better than the summer, disliked the discomforts of heat, was vigorous for his age and able to ride a horse for ten hours even when in pain. He liked to lie alone, without his wife, well covered in the winter.
He had little time for doctors, rarely consulted them, and did not think their advice was useful considering how little they knew. He said if a doctor told him not to eat or drink a certain thing, he would find you another one who would advise to do the opposite. He thought their cure was often worse than the disease, and he did not like their stinking remedies.
In 1578, about the time when he emerged from his circular library, he developed kidney stones, perhaps of uric acid and apparently familial. He bore his pain with great fortitude and advised others to do so. Since it could not be avoided, the pain was to be to be endured. At least when it went away it would leave him as he had been, no worse than before, rather than weakened and debilitated from another disease. He talked himself into resigning that having pain in his loin and passing (or changing the “a” to an “i”) gravel and blood was a test of character and indeed a friend.
About 1580, having left his Roman and Greek friends, Montaigne traveled to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, even to some pilgrimages, apparently in order to find a remedy for his kidney stones. His travels were interrupted in 1581 by the news that he had been elected Mayor of Bordeaux, a position held until then by his father, apparently hereditary and not requiring campaigning or debating. When the plague broke out in 1585 he again retired to his château. He died in 1592 of a throat infection. His remains may have recently been discovered in the basement of a monastery, but this is still wanting confirmation.
His reputation, after some 500 years, has continued to grow. His essays can be found in abridged paperbacks or in dusty hardcover books that tend to fall apart when touched. His complete works are available on-line by the courtesy of Gutenberg Foundation. A smattering of his wisdom may be gleaned from a selection of quotations, some paraphrased and rearranged according to their theme, as follows:
There is no passion as contagious as fear. He who fears shall suffer from what he fears.
My life has been full of terrible misfortunes that mostly have never happened.
My trade and art is to live. The greatest thing in the world is to know oneself. It is the mind that makes us wretched or happy, rich or poor. Everyone rushes elsewhere and into the future, because no one wants to face one’s own inner self.
It is not death, it is dying that alarms me. The ceaseless labor of your life is to build the house of death. Those who have compared our life to a dream were right . . . we were sleeping wake, and waking sleep. If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry: nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.
Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know. How many things we held yesterday as articles of faith that today we tell as fables. I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly. There is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge.
Make your educational laws strict and your criminal ones gentle; but if you leave youth its liberty you will have to dig dungeons for ages. In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page-boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk—they are all part of the curriculum. Children’s plays are not sports, and should be deemed as their most serious actions.
I quote others only in order the better to express myself. Unless a man feels he has a good enough memory, he should never lie. I do myself a greater injury in lying than I do him of whom I tell a lie. A wise man sees as much as he ought, not as much as he can.
When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her. You will never know as much about your cat as your cat knows about you.
If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love. An untempted woman cannot boast of her chastity. Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out. It is a market which has nothing free but the entrance. A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.
Poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul, impossible. Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows. The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. Wit is a dangerous weapon to the possessor if he does not know not how to use it discreetly. There are some defeats more triumphant than victories. Not being able to govern events, I govern myself. Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.
Covetousness is both the beginning and the end of the devil’s alphabet—the first vice in corrupt natures that moves, and the last which dies. One may be humble out of pride. He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak. There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees. It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief