“So many cities levelled with the ground, so many nations exterminated. But it is to such a degree of softness that I cannot see a chicken’s neck slit without trouble, and I cannot bear to hear the cry of a hare beneath the teeth of my dogs, though the chase is a stirring pleasure.
Our terrorists and torturers would not have surprised him. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and other Christian atrocities, witnessed plenty of killing and public execution. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.
They present textual problems because of their author’s technique of revision and accrual over three editions—making new pearls out of old irritations—but they delight because of the breadth and brightness of his being. “We are, I know not how,” Montaigne wrote, “double in ourselves.” W. Auden would borrow that line for For beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there is the supreme difficulty of being oneself.
The soul, or life within us, by no means agrees with the life outside us.
Though Montaigne claims to have forgotten much of it later in formal schooling (where he got his experience of how not to educate children), his mind remained well stocked with so much classical culture that his essays are veritable anthologies of quotation and allusion.
From his early reading of Ovid, he learned that the first principle of reading is pleasure, and also that the world is a strange and magical place, constantly changing.Immune to dangerous idealism, he invented his wonderful from a seemingly complete being.“The soul that entertains philosophy,” he wrote, “ought by its health to render the body beautiful too.” He loved health but hated doctors, and there’s something therapeutic about reading him in barbarous times. Eliot argued, “Montaigne is just the sort of writer to provide a stimulant to a poet; for what the poet looks for in his reading is not a philosophy—not a body of doctrine or even a consistent point of view which he endeavours to understand—but a point of departure.” He had Shakespeare in mind, but also himself. this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection—this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.It was a world in which science, superstition and medicine melded together.In 1560, for example, Montaigne would witness the trial of Martin Guerre, or the man who pretended to be Martin Guerre. Desan covers all this very well and with more context than Bakewell’s book—though, as I say, the context sometimes seems best suited for specialists.If one has the courage to ask her what she thinks, she is always saying the very opposite of what other people say.We are at liberty to discover more than one Montaigne, including the political freethinker who saw beyond the sectarian wars of his own century to something like our postcolonial perspective.With him there were also two others, of less learning, to attend me and to relieve him.They conversed with me in no other language but Latin.It is what it is, and the human part of it appalls as much as it edifies. Escaping Nazism in World War II, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig found solace in the In a time such as that of the Second World War, or in civil-war France . How do I ensure that I go no further in my speech or actions than I think is right? “He has none of the rolling tirades and the beautiful verve of a Schiller or Lord Byron, none of the aggression of a Voltaire.” His constant assertions that he is lazy, feckless, and irresponsible make him sound a poor hero, yet these are not really failings at all. * I devoured Sarah Bakewell’s popular book partly in procrastination while slogging through a very different biography. Philippe Desan’s weighty, authoritative tome appeared in France in 2014 as .They are essential to his battle to preserve his particular self as it is. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. If Montaigne’s renewed popularity owes something to books like Bakewell’s, Desan disdains the popular and would give us Montaigne in his own time.