Tag: Sarah Bakewell

Montaigne’s Rule for Reading: The Promiscuous Pursuit of Pleasure

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“His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: Pursue pleasure. ‘If I encounter difficulties in reading,’ he wrote, ‘I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.’”

— How to Live: A Life of Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) might have been the original essayist. George Orwell before George Orwell. Montaigne was well-read, smart, critical, and possesed a tendency to write in a personal tone—with references to and reflections on—his own thoughts and his own life.

Montaigne was known as a well-born French statesman during the time of the Reformation in Europe, when Catholic and Protestants were viciously fighting one another over the “one true church.” (The strong, violent ideologies at play ring familiar to those of us observing extreme religious terrorism today.) A century after the delivery of the printing press to the West, the Wars of Religion coincided with two historical periods that we now consider monumental —  the Renaissance and the Reformation. Such were the times molding a young Montaigne.

The son of a wealthy businessman, Montaigne was born on a chateau near Bordeaux (rough life) although his father did his best to keep him grounded — he forced Michel to spend some of his early years living with peasants in a cottage.

After a fairly rigorous education in the classics initiated by his family, a stint at boarding school, and a formal legal education, Montaigne went on to a career as a court adviser at Bordeaux Parliament, and then retired to his extensive personal library where he would begin to write. His personal essays — on topics ranging from death and the meaning of life to the cultural relativism inherent in judging Brazilian cannibals — would go on to influence every generation hence, starting with Shakespeare.

Montaigne became well-known for his devotion to skepticism in the tradition of the Pyrrhonians. In short: A constant withholding of judgment, a deep distrust of his own knowledge, and a desire to avoid ideology and overreaching.  In fact, one of the pillars of the Pyrrhonian style of thought was to construct both sides of an argument as cogently as possible before leaning one way or another, something reminiscent of Charlie Munger’s work required to hold an opinion and a foundation of modern legal training. This devotion of Montaigne’s, combined with the personal feel and wide-ranging topics of his writing, made him the first of his kind as a writer.

The Books That Influenced Montaigne

In the wonderful biography How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell, we learn a bit about the books that influenced Montaigne himself. As would have been the case for most of his contemporaries, his primary influences were classics from Greece and Rome. He started with the 16th century’s version of the Grimm Brothers: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and then moved on to Virgil’s Aeneid and some modern comedic plays. In other words, Montaigne started out with works of fiction:

One unsuitable text which Montaigne discovered for himself at the age of seven or eight was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tumbling cornucopia of stories about miraculous transformations among ancient gods and mortals was the closest thing the Renaissance had to a compendium of fairy tales…In Ovid, people change. They turn into trees, animals, stars, bodies of water, or disembodied voices. They alter sex; they become werewolves. A woman called Scylla enters a poisonous pool and sees each of her limbs turn into a dog-like monster from which she cannot pull away because the monsters are also her….Once a taste of this sort of thing had started him off, Montaigne galloped through other books similarly full of good stories: Virgil’s Aeneid, then Terence, Plautus, and various modern Italian comedies. He learned, in defiance of school policy, to associate reading with excitement.

From Fiction to Non-Fiction

As he got older, though, Montaigne turned more and more to non-fiction, to works of real life. In his words, reading non-fiction taught you about the ‘diversity and truth of man,’ as well as ‘the variety of ways he is put together, and the accidents that threaten him.’

The best material he had available to him were from the classical stylings of writers like Tacitus, historian of the Roman periods in the early years after Christ; Plutarch, the biographer of the eminent Greeks and Romans; and Lucretius, the Roman philosophical poet. In Bakewell’s biography, we learn what it was he loved about these authors:

He loved how Tacitus treated public events from the point of view of ‘private behavior and inclinations’ and was struck by the historian’s fortune in living through a ‘strange and extreme’ period, just as Montaigne himself did. Indeed, he wrote of Tacitus ‘you would often say that it is us he is describing.’

Turning to biographers, Montaigne liked those who went beyond the external events of a life and tried to reconstruct a person’s inner world from the evidence. No one excelled in this more than his favorite writer of all — the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived from around AD 46 to around 120 and whose vast Lives presented narratives of notable Greeks and Romans in themed pairs.

Plutarch was to Montaigne what Montaigne was to many later readers: a model to follow, and a treasure-chest of ideas, quotations, and anecdotes to plunder. ‘He is so universal and so full that on all occasions and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work.’

[…]

Montaigne also loved the strong sense of Plutarch’s own personality that comes across in his work: ‘I think I know him even into his soul.’ This was what Montaigne looked for in a book, just as people later looked for it in him: the feeling of meeting a real person across the centuries. Reading Plutarch, he lost awareness of the gap in time that divided them — much bigger than the gap between Montaigne and us.

The last point is, of course, fascinating. When we think about Montaigne, he seems a whole world away. 16th century France is a place we fill in our imagination with velvet cloth and kings and queens and peasants and history class. Impossibly far in the past. But that period was only 450 short years ago; Montaigne himself was reading authors 1,500 years or more before him! A far greater gap in time. Yet he felt their insights were as relevant as when they were written — a lesson we should all learn from.

The Lazy Reader

We can also get a glimpse of the kind of reader Montaigne considered himself: A pretty lazy one.

I leaf through now one book, now another,’ he wrote,’ without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments.’ He could sound positively cross if he thought anyone might suspect him of careful scholarship. Once, catching himself having said that books offer consolation, he hastily added, ‘Actually I use them scarcely any more than those who do not know them at all.’ And one of his sentences starts, ‘We who have little contact with books…’

His rule in reading remained the one he had learned from Ovid: pursue pleasure. ‘If I encounter difficulties in reading,’ he wrote, ‘I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.’

Although Bakewell, and we, suspect he was feigning some humility as far as his laziness; of the second point on pursuing pleasure, Bakewell writes that Montaigne took this philosophy of gentleness and freedom and, “Of this, Montaigne made a whole principle of living.”

Still curious? Pick up Montaigne’s Essays and Bakewell’s biography for more.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, one of the most erudite humanists of the 16th century, died on September 13th in 1592.

[B]orn in 1533 into the minor nobility of his family’s estate near Bordeaux. … His father, a man of ideas, entrusted his early education to a tutor who spoke only Latin and no French. Until he was six years old Latin was Montaigne’s native language.” (The Complete Works)

“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.”

— Emerson

Failing to find work which he considered useful, he retired. A Latin inscription on the wall of his study read:

[A]t 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.

Retirement wasn’t as fun as he thought and he soon found himself fighting depression. This is when he turned to writing. And so begins The Essays, (Gutenberg).

Montaigne reflected on themes “ranging from proper conversation and good conversation and good reading, to the raising of children and the endurance of pain, from solitude, destiny, time, and customer, to truth, consciousness, and death.” The breadth and depth of the essays shows that he looked at everything with curiosity.

“Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.”

— Montaigne

Calling the essays his ‘foolish enterprise,’ he recognized his writings were without precedent. Montaigne was studying himself. He writes:

The world always looks straight ahead; as for me, I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. Others always go elsewhere, if they stop to think about it; they always go forward … as for me, I roll about in myself. (The Complete Works)

And this is what he’s done in the Essays, apprenticing along a road yet to be created.

On Death

If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register, with a comment, of the various deaths of men: he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.

[…]

Nature herself assists and encourages us: if the death be sudden and violent, we have not leisure to fear; if otherwise, I perceive that as I engage further in my disease, I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find I have much more ado to digest this resolution of dying, when I am well in health, than when languishing of a fever; and by how much I have less to do with the commodities of life, by reason that I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, by so much I look upon death with less terror. Which makes me hope, that the further I remove from the first, and the nearer I approach to the latter, I shall the more easily exchange the one for the other. (The Complete Works)

On The Meaning of Life

All the whole time you live, you purloin from life and live at the expense of life itself. The perpetual work of your life is but to lay the foundation of death. You are in death, whilst you are in life, because you still are after death, when you are no more alive; or, if you had rather have it so, you are dead after life, but dying all the while you live; and death handles the dying much more rudely than the dead, and more sensibly and essentially. If you have made your profit of life, you have had enough of it; go your way satisfied. (The Complete Works)

Morals

“Everywhere in the Essays,” writes Stuart Hampshire, “one encounters a strong moral taste, coolly and sometimes ironically expressed, but immensely vivid and dominant.”

His preference for moderation lead him to despise cruelty and violence.

[A]mong all other vices, I cruelly hate cruelty, both by nature and by judgment, as the extreme of all vices. But this is to such a point of softness that I do not see a chicken’s neck wrung without distress …(The Complete Works)

Worst of all is the cruelty that often supports opinions.

Should the regular means [of support] be lacking, we support them with commends, force, fire, and sword … There is a certain strong and generous ignorance that concedes nothing to knowledge in honor and courage, an ignorance that requires no less knowledge to conceive it than does knowledge. … After all, it is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them.(The Complete Works)

Doctors

“The simpler and less artificial the social system,” writes Henderson, “the less the oppression and cruelty.”

Even within his own society he respected and admired craftsmen and working men for their good sense and decency and distrusted the more polished and educated members of professional classes, each with their own pretenses. (The Complete Works)

Indeed, Montaigne lambasts the whole medical profession. Their knowledge is opinion, theories that are neither tested nor testable.

Everyone competes in plastering up and confirming this accepted belief, with all the power of their reason, which is a supple tool, pliable, and adaptable to any form. Thus the world is filled and soaked with twaddle and lies. (The Complete Works)

“It is not in Montaigne but in myself, that I find all that I see in him.”

— Pascal

On Solitude

In his essay On Solitude Montaigne

Takes up a theme that has been popular since ancient times: the intellectual and moral dangers of living among others, and the value of solitude. Montaigne is not stressing the importance of physical solitude, but rather of developing the ability to resist the temptation to mindlessly fall in with the opinion and actions of the mob. He compares our desire for the approval of our fellow humans to being overly attached to material wealth and possessions. Both passions diminish us, Montaigne claims, but he does not conclude that we should relinquish either, only that we should cultivate a detachment from them. By doing so, we may enjoy them—and even benefit from them—but we will not become emotionally enslaved to them, or devastated if we lose them.

“On solitude” then considers how our desire for mass approval is linked to the pursuit of glory, or fame. Contrary to thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli, who see glory as a worthy goal, Montaigne believes that constant striving for fame is the greatest barrier to peace of mind, or tranquility. (The Philosophy Book)

Montaigne is more interested in shaking off the desire for glory in the eyes of others than whether we achieve it or not. The approval of others should not be our motivation. He goes on to recommend

that instead of looking for the approbation of those around us, we should imagine that some truly great and noble being is constantly with us, able to observe our most private thoughts, a being in whose presence even the mad would hide their failings. By doing this, we learn to think clearly and objectively and behave in a more thoughtful and rational manner. (The Philosophy Book)

Caring too much about what other people think corrupts us. He argues we either end up imitating evil (see Gresham’s Law) or become so consumed by our pursuit that we lose our reason.

“The most beautiful lives to my taste are those which frame themselves to the common model, the human model, with order but without miracles and without extravagance.”

— Montaigne

Still Montaigne remains a mystery to most people. The most accessible account of Montaigne is Sarah Bakewell’s book, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. She brings him to life.

This is a good starting point if you think you might want to read The Essays but don’t think you’re up for the challenge of 1,000 + pages. But making you work for it is part of the pleasure.

In The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, Jeremy Adelman writes:

If there was one author who captured Hirschmann’s imagination, it was Michel de Montaigne. The highly personal vignettes, meditations, and moral reflections shook Hirschmann to his core. He immediately grasped the power of the essays — Montaigne questioned absolute forms of knowledge by submitting everything to the interrogating eye of the observer, starting by looking at himself, turning himself over and over to capture the multiple points of perspective or the multiple forms of the self. “We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves,” Montaigne wrote. “Whoever would do what he has to do would see that the first thing he must learn to know is what he is.”

Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.