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Montaigne: A Life
by philippe desan
translated by steven rendall and lisa neal
princeton, 832 pages, $39.95

When faced with a biography that could as well stop a door as fill a shelf, one’s first question is always, “Does the subject merit this exhaustive treatment?” There are a few historical characters about whom one wishes to know everything, but not very many. One would like to know, for example, what Hitler or Stalin had for breakfast, even though such information would add nothing to one’s historical understanding and in effect be perfectly useless. Of most authors, however, a biographical essay suffices, and indeed requires more real intellect to write well than a lengthy recitation of every known fact about its subject. Stefan Zweig (who wrote a book about Montaigne) used to say that the art of writing was more in knowing what to leave out than what to put in, and his first drafts were often six times longer than his final version.

At first sight, Michel de Montaigne, who after all wrote a book of a thousand pages both about and to please himself, might be thought unworthy of minute biographical examination. But though his book was about himself, it was only so in a special sense, that is to say in a sense of his own creation, and his life was so extraordinary (to say nothing of the times in which he lived), and he was of such enduring cultural significance, that a long biography seems both just and appropriate.

Philippe Desan is not a stylist—or perhaps I should say that his translators are not stylists. At best the prose is serviceable rather than elegant, and at times, especially when dealing in abstractions, it is somewhat clotted:

Determining Montaigne’s modernity is supposed to consist in locating in the Essais what we have become today. As if the questions that the author of the Essais asked were also our questions. There is no need to say that such a procedure can be gratifying, because it offers proof of a development or an implacable evolution toward progress and wisdom. Montaigne has finally been appropriated by philosophy.

One knows more or less, though perhaps not exactly, what this means, but one hardly reads it with pleasure. Moreover, what it says is clearly mistaken and wrongheaded. We do not think that Shakespeare is universal because we subscribe to a Whig interpretation of history according to which Shakespeare’s characters are a step on the ascent to our enlightened selves, but because, after four centuries of sweeping transformations, our existential position in the world, and our reactions to it, have not changed very much. Jealousy, ambition, despair, and pride are still as they are portrayed by Shakespeare in Othello, Macbeth, Lear, or Coriolanus; it is rather the implacable lack of progress and superior wisdom that strikes us when we read Shakespeare.

No doubt this is deeply disconcerting to some, who therefore wish to ignore or deny it, or to devise schemes for creating the New Man who will not suffer from these defects, but for others (among whom I am one) it is consoling. Thanks to this apprehension of an unchanging reality, I come no longer, in the words of Dr. Johnson, “to pursue the phantoms of hope” or “expect that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow.” I am content to be discontent, if by discontent we mean aware of the inescapable imperfections of our own condition.

It is part of Desan’s purpose to “liberate” us from this universalizing way of reading Montaigne, to make Montaigne more a man of his own time than a man for all time, by demonstrating how important was his involvement in the political life of his turbulent times to the creation of his literary work. If Montaigne wrote in his tower, it was certainly not an ivory one, at any rate not until late in life. He was a parliamentarian, an administrator, a soldier, a bureaucrat, and a courtier, all before he was a philosopher. According to Desan, Montaigne’s writings took on different, often political, purposes as his career changed or developed, and he would never have thought of himself as the kind of man that most of us believe he was—that is to say, someone who shut himself away from the world in a disinterested search for truth.

When the author says, however, that “we have to demystify the conventional image of the essayist isolated in his tower, far from the agitations of his time, playing with his cat and inquiring into the human condition,” I think he sets up a false dichotomy between the particular and the universal. No human being lives in a world of complete abstraction (or abstractions), as if free from all circumstance whatever. To say that a man is affected by his surroundings and the times in which he lives is to say nothing more than that he is a man—for a man without any particular circumstances could not exist and is literally unimaginable (this is one of the reasons why heaven is so difficult to imagine and hell so easy, because the latter at least has events). But not every man who takes part in public events and writes about them is read more than four hundred years after his death, even by people who have no special interest in the times in which he lived or in events that he witnessed. For every thousand readers of Montaigne, there is only one person who makes the French wars of religion his special subject. Montaigne is not principally of antiquarian interest, though he may be that as well.

In the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne says:

See the horrible impudence with which we bandy divine reasons about, and how irreligiously we have both rejected them and taken them again, according as fortune has changed our place in these public storms. This proposition, so solemn, whether it is lawful for a subject to rebel and take arms against his prince in defence of religion—remember in whose mouths, this year just past, the affirmative of this was the buttress of one party, the negative was the buttress of what other party; and hear now from what quarter comes the voice and the instruction of both sides, and whether the weapons make less din for this cause than for that.

Here Montaigne is clearly referring to particular historical circumstances: namely, the succession by the Protestant Henry of Navarre (albeit that he thought Paris was worth a Mass) to the French throne after the murder of the Catholic Henry III. Under the Catholic Henry, it was lawful for Protestants to rebel; under the Protestant Henry, it was lawful for the Catholics to rebel.

When I read this, however, it takes me straight, and no doubt strangely, back to my visit to Mogadishu in Somalia. I visited shortly after Somalia had become a client state of the United States, having been shortly before a client state of the Soviet Union; whereas Ethiopia had moved in precisely the opposite direction. The voice and instruction still came from both sides, but with the plus and minus signs, as it were, reversed. What remained unchanged, however, was the enmity between the two states that resulted in costly, bloody, and absurd armed conflict.

No doubt many other examples could come to a well-furnished mind: the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, for example. Also what comes to mind—or rather to my mind—is Whitehead’s famous dictum that metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct: but he adds (in true Montaignesque fashion) that the search for metaphysical justifications is no less instinctive than our beliefs.

What Montaigne describes, then, is certainly particular to a time and place, but it is far more than merely particular, and it stretches credulity to believe that Montaigne did not know this or intend his example to cast light on a universal human condition. And if it be objected that what might be called ideological manipulation and hypocrisy are not human universals, because there may be tribes of isolated people somewhere on earth who do not indulge in them, they are nevertheless sufficiently common phenomena among humans who have reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of material civilization that they may be taken as universal. Would any reasonably intelligent and realistic observer of human life expect them to disappear soon from the human repertoire?

This is not to say that Montaigne is some kind of unscrupulous immoralist or lazy relativist with no idea of right and wrong, as he has sometimes been taken to be in the past (the Essays were on the Index of Prohibited Books for 180 years). No one today could read the Essays and believe that. His reflections are a call to honest and sometimes painful self-examination. When we learn how easily self-interest may make black white and white black, we feel obliged to examine more closely our own most passionately held opinions of the moment to ensure that they are not the product of self-deception and self-interest.

Moreover, a passage such as the one cited above is an implicit invitation to examine the whole nature of politics. Can it ever be a straightforward struggle for the implementation of an ideal? No, implies Montaigne, for not even our pleasures can be unalloyed. He is at one with Keats when the latter says “Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,” for “the weakness of our condition makes it impossible for things to come into our experience in their natural simplicity and purity.” There is something painful in excessive joy, says Montaigne, which always carries its own decay within it. With Montaigne, nothing is an unalloyed good.

He is not one to hold, however, that there is no difference between good and evil. Good exists for Montaigne, but not the good. A man who cites classical sources 1300 times in the Essays, and whose mother tongue was not French but Latin (his father allowed him to be addressed in no other tongue until he was six years old), can hardly be described as a contemptor of learning. But at the same time Montaigne is a stern critic and fierce opponent of what he calls pédantisme, in which a dry accumulation of learning is pursued for its own sake. For him, there must always be a dialogue or dialectic between books and life. He would have approved of Sir William Osler’s dictum three centuries later about the education of doctors: “He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.” He is wisest, then, not who experiences or reads most, but who reflects best on what he has experienced and read.

Reflection can never be at an end, which is why Montaigne was revising and adding to his great book until the very end of his life, and would have continued to do so had he lived twenty years more. Its lack of system, its lack of clear doctrine, is precisely its point: “Grey is theory,” said Goethe, “but green is the tree of life.”

Montaigne’s famous skepticism, and his apprehension that reality itself had many contradictory aspects, was no doubt deepened by his experience of France’s religious wars of the sixteenth century, which lasted the major portion of his adult life. He remained a Catholic, though whether from deep belief, calculation, sentimental attachment to the religion of his youth, or sheer inertia is unclear (he was sometimes regarded as a heretic). No one could have lived through these times, however, without pondering deeply their meaning and the lessons to be drawn from them. But from any experience, diametrically opposed lessons can be drawn, for lessons from human affairs are not like the conclusion of a syllogism. Montaigne, who sometimes acted as a go-between in the wars, wrote against the procrusteans of all beliefs who want to reduce the conduct of life to simple rules: “Those people must be jesting who think they can diminish and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible. For our mind finds the field no less spacious in registering the meaning of others than in presenting its own. As if there were less animosity and bitterness in commenting than in inventing!” He might just as well have come to the conclusion that the only way to end the wars was to kill all the Protestants.

Who can read the above passage without thinking of the current disputes within Islam as to the real and indubitable meanings of the Qur’an and the hadith, and what conduct they command? The desire to base our conduct on indubitable authority, and thereby avoid the necessity of judgment (freedom and moral responsibility are anxiety-provoking), so that in effect we are only obeying orders, does give rise—despite Desan’s sneer—to one of our questions, just as it did for Montaigne. Moreover, it is unlikely that the question will be settled in the near future. Montaigne is above all and pre-eminently the philosopher of the permanent necessity of judgment.

Montaigne would certainly not have agreed with his biographer that “universality demands the erasure of temporality.” When, for example, he quotes Tacitus to the effect that “as formerly we suffered from crimes, so we now suffer from laws,” he could not have been unaware that his France and Tacitus’s Rome were not identical. Indeed, it is the main prop of Desan’s historicizing thesis that Montaigne was so deeply implicated in and concerned with the public affairs of his time that his thought was a reaction to them. But unless he saw underlying parallels between his France and Tacitus’s Rome, connected in some way to human nature, why would he have quoted Tacitus in the first place? Montaigne quotes him having just written: “We have in France more laws than all the rest of the world together . . .” And afterward he says: “And yet we have left so much room for opinion and decision to our judges, that there never was such a powerful and licentious freedom.” The analogy is clear.

Again, when Montaigne says (in Of Anger), “Plutarch is admirable throughout, but especially when he judges human actions,” he is appealing to universality: for how could he himself judge that Plutarch judges human actions well unless there were a subsisting vein of constancy that most of us know by the name of human nature?

Desan’s biography is the product of immense and admirable erudition, and no one who is not a specialist—and probably even someone who is—will fail to learn much from it. But I am afraid that it also illustrates one of Montaigne’s points, one of his chevaux de bataille, in fact: that learning is not wisdom.

Theodore Dalrymple is a contributing editor of City Journal.