Saturday, 27 April 2013

Great Thinkers - Michel de Montaigne

On Thursday I met someone new and quite fascinating...
Well, when I say that I met him, it would be more accurate to say that I was introduced to him by the BBC Radio Four series In Our Time, wonderful programmes that cover all manner of topics and which are available as podcasts to download, which I do, weekly, in addition to a dozen or so from Radio France Culture.  
 Michel de Montaigne 1.jpg

 So, this week I listened to an In Our Time episode devoted to Michel de Montaigne.
Rather a good-looking man, I think, not sure about the ruff though

Montaigne lived in sixteenth century France. Happily for him, he was born into a wealthy family that owned vast wine-producing estates in Aquitaine, and a magnificent chateau. He was also born into a world that was changing, expanding, flowering, France was undergoing the Reformation, Europe was opening up to the New Worlds, the Enlightenment was, well, enlightening people, all of which was sowing the seeds for new ideas and a whole new way if thinking. He was a real Renaissance man.

His family name was originally Eyquem, it was his great grandfather who, becoming lord of Montaigne, then acquired the name 'de Montaigne' which marked the family's rise in society. 

Montaigne's father was not considered to have been an educated man, despite his riches, and so he set out to raise his son's status by providing him with an extensive education along humanist lines, which is, perhaps, one of the most important duties of a parent. As a young infant, Montaigne was sent to live with his wet-nurse's family because his father wanted him to understand the common people for whom he would be responsible as a land-owner. On his return to the family home he was taught Latin by a German tutor who spoke no French, and who was ordered only to speak to him in that language, as were the servants and even his mother, which led to him acquiring a fluency by the age of six. He was also taught Greek by means of games and conversation, rather than by formal instruction. Why Latin and Greek? Well, at that time Latin was viewed as a living language by the educated folk, and as with any second language that one acquires, learning to speak it introduced the student to the whole culture of the Roman empire, which, with that of ancient Greece, was held in high esteem by sixteenth century thinkers.

It must have been a wonderful childhood for an intelligent and thoughtful young man, a comfortable life in the family chateau, with tutors employed to educate him and musicians employed to entertain him. It's little wonder that he flourished.

I can't help thinking that the world would be a better place if we all could enjoy such an enriching childhood, not wealthy in financial terms but one that is full of opportunities and experiences and, well one that  opens us up to a world of possibilities.

The beautiful souls are those that are universal, open, and ready for all things...
(Michel de Montaigne)

So, there followed a career, work, such mundane matters, and an arranged marriage to Françoise de la Cassaigne, who was not of his choosing, although they did produce six children, of whom only one survived, and following his death his widow appears to have done a great deal to preserve both his writings, his reputation and his soul. She lived in one of the chateau's towers, he lived in the other, and his mother, who seemed not to have approved of her eldest son's lack of interest in adding to the family's fortunes, occupied the middle ground between them.

Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out
(Michel de Montaigne)

 Montaigne retired at the age of thirty-eight. He took one of the rooms in his tower as a library, and settled down to think. And because his thoughts were so random and quite prone to wander off along different paths, (and who hasn't experienced that?) he began to make notes in an attempt to control the 'runaway horse of his mind', which became his essays. 

He wrote:
'In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.’

The essay was a hitherto unknown genre, Montaigne's random writings were the first of their kind because until then no-one really wrote such personal reflections covering so wide a range of topics,which is why they are so fascinating and so influential. If he were alive today he'd be writing an intelligent, informative, but tinged with personal snippets and thoughts, blog, wouldn't he? 

The essays also, of course, provide us with a great many thoughtful quotes.

 Mon opinion est qu’il faut se prêter à autrui et ne se donner qu’à soi-même
(Michel de Montaigne)

I think that it would be rather wonderful to be able to devote one's life to reading, thinking, writing, peaceful pursuits far from the corporate world, ah, the temptation to return to the peace, sanity and beauty of Brittany grows stronger daily

La plupart de nos occupations sont comiques. Il faut jouer notre rôle comme il faut, mais comme le rôle d’un personnage emprunté
(Michel de Montaigne)

 La forme de ma bibliothèque est ronde et n'a de rectiligne que ce qu'il faut à ma table et à mon siege, et elle m'offre dans se courbe, d'un seul regard, tous mes livres rangés sur cinq rayons tout autour.

 As one who not only has a bedroom, kitchen and sitting room  full of books (and let's not mention those in the bathroom), but also a home in France that contains at least four times as many and which are, in that contradictory way of the world, the ones that I often wish to pick up and browse while I'm here in England, I am envious of Montaigne's library. One day my books and I will be reunited under one roof...

Where were we? Illness overcame Montaigne, he succumbed to a kidney disorder which he'd inherited from his paternal genes, and which he refused to entrust to the medical profession. Instead he set off traveling in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, partly in search of a cure, taking the waters in spa resorts such as Bagni di Lucca, but also in a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto, and of course, he wrote extensively about his experiences and of his impressions of the different cultures and customs that he encountered, although he didn't intend for his journal to be published, and so it would not have been, had it not been discovered in a chest and published in 1770 as Journal de Voyage

And then the good people of Bordeaux elected him mayor and he had to return to resume his responsibilities back in France, during which time the Black Death arrived and, as it spread, decimated the population of Europe. It was undoubtedly a difficult time all round.

A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears
(Michel de Montaigne)

In 1592, aged 59, Montaigne died during the celebration of mass that he'd requested. His heart is, apparently, preserved in the church at Saint Michel de Montaigne. I know that I've glossed over a great deal of his life, probably some of the important parts, including his great friendship with Etienne De La Boétie who wrote a brilliant book opposing governments and declaring that the real power lies in the hands of the people, which was rather a radical opinion four hundred years ago, about whom, when Montaigne was asked to explain their bond said

If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I 

 and such was their bond that when, in 1563, La  Boétie lay dying from the plague, Montaigne was at his deathbed.

So, this is my personal view of the man, influenced by those aspects that struck me, his upbringing and education, his withdrawal to his tower to think and to write, his essays that contain much that resonates with me, his fairness and decency and his loyalty to his family, his wife, his religion and his best friend. Montaigne has influenced generations of people, he is considered to have been one of the greatest philosophers of all time, despite his sceptical assertion "What do I know?"     

Le scepticime représente un moment important de l'évolution de Montaigne. La devise qu'il fait graver sur une médaille en 1576 "Que-sais-je" signifie la volonté de rester en doute pour rechercher la vérité. La balance dont les plateaux sont en équilibre, la difficulté de juger.

He was a great believer in 'Live in the Here and Now'.

Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee
(Michel de Montaigne) 

 J’ai un dictionnaire tout à fait personnel ; je « passe » le temps quand il est mauvais et désagréable ; quand il est bon, je ne veux pas le « passer », je le goûte à nouveau, je m’y arrête. Il faut « passer » le mauvais en courant et s’arrêter au bon
(Michel de Montaigne)

which is, I think, a pretty good way to approach life
N'est-ce pas?

PS The family chateau was sold in 1860 to one of Napolean III's ministers and unhappily destroyed in a fire in 1885, following which only Montaigne's tower survived, probably not a miraculous event, I daresay les pompiers were ordered to save it before the rest of the building. This is the rather magnificent chateau that was built to replace it

1 comment:

  1. Now I came back to do your post about scallops justice and read it properly and now I find there's this one about lovely Montaigne and another more recent to boot! And you with a working life too...

    Have you read Sarah Bakewell's 'How to Live - A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer'? It's been one of my favourite books of the last few years I think. Of course it inspired me to get M's complete essays which has sat fatly on the shelf ever since without being much opened at all, but one days I'll redress that.

    I've just been thinking a bit about him and Molière, and that there was comfort and good cheer in French culture and writing then which I'm afraid I've never found in anything produced after the Revolution, when everything seemed to go cold and weird and over-intellectual or melancholy to the point of mawkish... but I'm probably talking specious rubbish from very limited knowledge.


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