Gazing Inward, Michel de Montaigne,

Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, France

Following a crisis in mid life connected with his anxiety about death, Montaigne wrote down an episode about a near death experience. In doing so, he faced his fear and overcame it. This freed him to live the rest of his life productively and creatively.

All the wisdom and reasoning in this world finally boils down to one point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a nobleman, wine grower, diplomat and a friend of the King of France. In 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, he gave up his position as a magistrate in Bordeaux and withdrew to his chateau in the Dordogne, where he intended to pass the remainder of his life in quiet repose. He based himself in the library of his tower, surrounded by his ‘learned Muses’. But he was not cut out for a life of idleness. By a quirk of circumstance he made himself the subject of his own investigations, writing his observations in the form of ‘essais’. In the process, he became the world’s first truly modern writer.

By the time the third and final volume of his ‘essais’ was published in 1588, virtually every literate person in France had read his work. In focusing on such a ‘frivolous and vain’ subject as ‘myself’, Montaigne had drilled down to the very core of his being and created a mirror by which others could recognise their own humanity.

Early Retirement

Montaigne had never intended to become a writer. He retired because he was exhausted by officialdom and overwhelmed by mounting personal loss. The first of his six daughters had died in infancy and only one would survive to adulthood. He had recently lost his much-loved father, and his younger brother. But it was the premature death of his best friend Etienne de La Boétie in 1563 that proved unbearable. He would later write of his deep bond with La Boétie in his essay on friendship: ‘We were co-partners in all things’. For four years they were inseparable and Montaigne’s testimony to their relationship is unique and moving: ‘If pressed to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed, except by saying: because it was him; because it was me.’

Heavy with grief and melancholy, Montaigne etched into the ceiling of his library a quote from Lucretius:

There is no new pleasure to be gained by living longer.

Montaigne had every reason to believe he might well be approaching the end of his life. France was in the midst of the Wars of Religion (1562-98), a brutal and bloody period of history in which Catholics were pitted against the Huguenots, a collection of French noblemen and followers of the reformation. Living on the border between Catholic and Protestant lands, he had witnessed the barbarity of military action: men ‘hacked and hewed to pieces…suffering a bullet to be pulled out from amongst their shattered bones’. Mob rule, assassination and execution were a part of life and if one survived the violence, there was always the Plague, which had taken the life of Montaigne’s dear friend La Boétie. The average life expectancy for men was thirty-three, and as Montaigne wrote, to reach old age was a ‘rare and singular’ achievement.

The Library

In the winter of 1571, Montaigne moved his books and writing table into the tower set in a corner of his family’s estate.The ground floor of his tower had a chapel, the second floor a bedroom and the third floor was reserved for his library. Here he installed more than a thousand fine books on five rows of shelves that curved between two windows facing his writing desk. He added various treasures: family heirlooms, statuettes, pictures, vases, amulets, African artifacts, all designed to stimulate his imagination. On the beams of the ceiling he had quotations inscribed. Most were taken from the classics, and written in Greek and Latin:

Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain

And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man.

– Pliny the Elder

How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely?

Euripides

Such retreats were fashionable for wealthy men. All over France and Italy, chambers in chateaus were being kitted out with reading materials and fancy adornments. They were the sixteenth century equivalent of man caves and Montaigne loved his.

Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide!

Montaigne preferred to be a ‘little difficult to reach and a little out of the way’. He disliked being involved in the running of his estate and was content to be away from his wife, Françoise de la Chassaigne. It seems theirs was an arranged marriage. Montaigne’s younger brother Arnault, a sporty army captain, was much more to Françoise’s taste and it is thought that she had an affair with him before his life was cut short early and dramatically by a blow to the head from a type of tennis ball. Françoise had her own tower at the other end of the rampart (which later burned to the ground) and from there she did most of the work of managing the estate; fortunately for Montaigne she had the better head for business.

A Crisis

At first the recent deaths of those close to Montaigne preoccupied him. They seemed random and senseless, and he found them personally threatening.

With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat?

He felt the philosophy of the ancient Stoics, the writings of Seneca, Epicetus and Marcus Aurelius, would assist him in his grief stricken and anxious state. Their approach to preparing for life’s difficulties was to pay attention and develop good habits of thought. The goal was to become indifferent to misery and the vicissitudes of life. They encouraged a preoccupation with death, to face what you feared head on in order to master it. As one Stoic said, if you entertained thoughts of death often enough, it could never catch you by surprise.

And so Montaigne duly contemplated death. He conjured up the many accidents that might befall him and his friends and tried to imagine what death itself would be like. But the more he thought about death, the more these thoughts plagued and imprisoned him, and produced a ‘melancholy humor’ that was out of character for him.

Far from the cultural idyll he had planned in his tower, his inactivity and morbid ruminations led to a crisis. And in the grip of this crisis he recognised the truth of the philosopher Lucan’s words: ‘Leisure always breeds wandering thoughts’. Montaigne’s thoughts were like a ‘runaway horse’ that produces

a hundred more troubles… and creates so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one on top of the other, without order or design; and so in order to reflect on their stupidity and strangeness at leisure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

In his casual attempt to write down the strangeness of his own experience the first of his essays were born.

Very early in his writing Montaigne set out to address the matter of death, which he saw as the essential philosophical problem. And it was the setting down of an event that went to the heart of the matter, that led to his liberation from anxiety.

The Accident

Two or three years before his retirement, perhaps in 1569 or thereabouts, Montaigne had come close to death after a riding accident. He hit the ground hard and fell in and out of consciousness, coughing up blood, so that ‘my first sentiments were much nearer to death than to life.’

Seeing him struggling for breath, his men did their best to carry him home in an upright position. As they drew closer to the castle, his vision blurred and he felt himself slipping away. ‘My stomach was oppressed with the clotted blood; my hands flew to it of their own accord, as they often do where we itch, against the intention of our will’. His men later said he was thrashing about and appeared to be trying rip his body apart. Yet Montaigne recalled feeling intensely calm, almost euphoric.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

To his family, who rushed out to him in alarm, he gave answers that were not coherent. His responses seemed not to come from himself, ‘I was not there at all’, they were ‘idle thoughts, in the clouds, set in motion by the sensations of the eyes and ears…’ All his words and actions were coming from his body, which was just an empty shell. He suffered no pain, nor any sorrow that he was about to leave his life, nor any lofty thoughts of God; ‘It was going to be a very happy death’. But despite being content to slip away, he awoke a few hours later with a clearer head and a body wracked with pain and eventually made a complete recovery.

On Death

Writing down this tangible memory was very different from his previous imaginings of death, which had only escalated his anxiety. This time he sought to clarify a lived experience and took care to reconstruct it as accurately as possible in order to learn from it. The insights he gained departed radically from the philosophy of the Stoics.

Montaigne learned that death had a friendly and seductive face; it was not something to be feared. In dying, he realised, one is almost gone before death arrives, like drifting off to sleep. There seemed no point then, in preparing for such a languorous, dreamy state. Death was an experience far more allied to nature than to philosophy or religion.

When the plague descended on his local village, Montaigne witnessed one of his labourers pulling the earth over him with his hands as he lay dying. ‘Was not this like covering himself up so that he might sleep more peacefully?’ he asked. ‘I never saw one of my peasant neighbours cogitating over the countenance and assurance with which he would pass this last hour’. Nature looked after you, it seemed. It was the philosophers, with their overthinking and their desire for control, who had the struggle. The conclusion he drew in his essay on death was simple:

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.

Although he had once thought, with Cicero, that ‘the whole life of a philosopher is a meditation on death’, he now changed his mind: ‘Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself’.

Renewal

This understanding freed Montaigne to live. He discovered death had a delicate, buoyant quality that could also be applied to living. His stoical pessimism was superseded by a new philosophy of existence that rejected despair, felt the simple fabric of existence and celebrated life. For the next twenty years Montaigne increasingly embraced sensory pleasure and exuberant living, discovering the antidote to death in the playfulness of his cat, the touch of a hand, the taste of wine.

This was a long way from hedonism. Montaigne’s life became an experiment in what it means to live a good life, one that is honourable, fully human and flourishing. And as he grew into this new life, the agency for its design shifted from God to self-responsibility: ‘The greatest thing in the world is to learn how to belong to oneself’, he wrote, and, ‘Whether you find satisfaction in life depends not on your tale of years, but on your will.’

The Essays

Montaigne quoted Pliny who said that ‘Each man is a good education to himself, provided he has the capacity to spy on himself from close up.’ And as he went about his daily life, the new writer in him spied and took notes. In his first edition he wrote:

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…I roll about in myself.

Montaigne’s writing is not confessional in the manner of Augustine. And he steers clear of autobiography, having struck from the record eight years of his wild living youth:

I cannot give an account of my life by my actions: fortune has placed them too low for that.

While his contemporaries recorded their great accomplishments or gave eyewitness accounts of their times, Montaigne delved into his feelings and experience, playing close attention to his shifting preoccupations while conversing with the great characters on his bookshelves: the kings, poets, philosophers, saints and statesmen. He used what he found as the basis for addressing the big questions. And the most essential question became ‘How to live?’

To explore this question, he meditated on a huge variety of topics, embracing everything that nourished him: sex, friendship, books, dancing, watermelons. He wrote over a hundred essays that brim with life, recording all the tastes and sensations that occurred to him: noting the wine and water of a town he visits bears the ‘smell of sulphur, a little saltiness’ or dreaming that he dreams, or that he ‘farted endlessly’ after various enemas. He flits from Plato’s understanding of prophetic dreaming to a disappointing dinner at the chateau: ‘a confusion of meats and a clutter of dishes displease me as much as any other confusion.’ Montaigne wrote about sleep, fear, happiness and sadness, death, education and children. His last essay was about experiences that inspire the wonder of human existence.

As he grew older, he became more indiscreet and his confessions franker. Recalling his first sexual encounter, he discussed ways to delay ejaculation and regretted that nature had done the most ‘enormous damage’ in making his penis so small.

Montaigne thought in the form of questions. By constantly asking how he could look at subjects differently or learn something new about himself, he overcame habitual, dulled responses. The very word essay in French means to test, to attempt or experiment. He was the first to lend this meaning to the word, in order to describe his type of free-floating, personal explorations which meander like a lively stream. Virginia Woolf wrote that in the whole of literature, the one writer who achieves the supremely difficult task of self-portraiture is Montaigne, who does so by

this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection…

Without the need to preach or to teach, he reflects and observes, dips into his reading, recalls conversations, entertains possibilities. ‘Off I go, rummaging about in books for sayings that please me’, he wrote. What comes across is the man: refreshingly frank and revealing of himself with a generous regard for all things human. As his biographer Sarah Bakewell suggests,

He’s one of those writers whose personality IS his book. He pours himself into it, and when you open the pages, he pours out again as fresh as he went in.

By the time his second volume of essays was published, his books were selling well. And despite saying that he wrote for himself or ‘for a few men and a few years’, he seemed modestly pleased: ‘The public favour has given me a little more confidence than I expected’, he said.

On Animals

Montaigne developed a generous philosophy untainted by dogmatic certainties. He had a profound love of animals, for instance, and cast aside the prevailing views that creatures were inferior to people, that they ate without pleasure, cried without pain, had no fear and did not possess a language. Cruelty nauseated Montaigne and he had no truck with moral superiority. He pointed out that animals communicated with their behaviour, and that we just needed to take the time to observe them to in order to understand them.

By a certain bark, the horse knows that a dog is angry, at another sound he is not afraid. Even in animals that have no voice, by the reciprocal kindnesses that we see between them, we can easily argue for another form of communication: their movements converse and discourse.

He enjoyed animal stories that highlighted their exceptional qualities: tuna fish can form themselves into a perfect cube; a kingfisher will carry its wounded mate on its shoulders for the rest of its life; parrotfish will chew through a fisherman’s line to free its own. We humans are not so special, or separate from other animals after all.

In one of the most famous moments in the Essays, Montaigne asks, ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’, suggesting that rather than the cat being his pet, perhaps he is hers? He later added: ‘We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.’ All creatures share a common world, he felt, and each had their own perception of it.

One critic has said of his musings about his cat, ‘All of Montaigne lies in that casual sentence’. It encapsulates his sceptical approach to knowledge. He was wary of falling prey to ‘regimenting, arranging, and fixing truth’. Like the Sceptics of ancient Greece, Montaigne wished to take everything provisionally and questioningly, and scepticism guided his work. His Essays are full of words such as ‘perhaps’ ‘It seems to me’ and ‘to some extent’, for the more he looked at the complexity of the world, the more puny our knowledge of it seemed. This led his famous self-questioning rebuke, ‘What do I know?’ The belief that nothing can be certain means the world can be opened to multiple points of view. Assumptions can be properly examined, all possibilities explored, allowing for more nuanced, original thinking to emerge.

On Travel

After nearly ten years spent in his tower as a virtual recluse, it was a decline in his health that forced Montaigne back into the world. At forty-seven he took up travelling for the spas that might cure his kidney stones, a painful condition that had killed his father and would eventually kill him too. He was also keen to travel for pleasure, writing that encounters with new people and places can ‘rub and polish one’s brain’.

In his travel journal he observed that some people travel only to return. They become silent and suspicious, eat the same food they eat at home and judge as inferior all customs that differ from those in their own village. This was not the way to do things, he wrote. Better, to start without any fixed idea as to where we are going, or when we will return. The journey is everything. And it is most fortunate if we have a close companion to join us, as pleasure is best shared. At all times Montaigne tried to blend in with the locals, to behave, dress and eat like them. And he took care to never travel the same road twice, which was merely wasting time that could be spent discovering fresh wonders.

He travelled to Eastern France, Austria, Switzerland and Germany for the spas and his love of the classics drew him to Italy. In Rome he walked the streets of the long dead men who inspired him.

I like thinking about their faces, their bearing and their clothing, I mutter their great names between my teeth and make them resound in my ears.

Like many tourists, he was annoyed to discover so many of his fellow countrymen in the city, and gave them a wide berth. While in Rome he met the pope, inspected Aristotle’s untidy handwriting in the Vatican library, witnessed a circumcision, and left having been made an honorary Roman citizen. Later reflecting on his experiences in his essay ‘On Vanity’, he wrote that what he had come to find most rewarding in life was ‘variety and the enjoyment of diversity.’

On Cannibals

Montaigne’s taste for novelty made him curious about the New World. In his essay ‘On the Cannibals’, he described his encounter with three Tupinamba Indians from Brazil who practiced cannibalism. They were on display for the royal visit of King Charles IX to the city of Rouen and Montaigne was included in the royal party. The king was only twelve at the time and after speaking with him at length they wondered why so many men with beards ‘should submit to obey a child’. What intrigued Montaigne is that they also spoke of men as halves of one another. After being given a tour of the city they had been struck, they said, by the way some men were ‘full and gorged with all kinds of things’, while their ‘other halves’ starved and begged on their doorsteps. How was it, they wondered, that after suffering such inequality and injustice, the starving men were not seizing the sated ones by the throat, or setting fire to their houses?

Montaigne was impressed by the gentleness of the Indians and their evident perplexity at the indifference to poverty that was on display. In considering their practice against the general barbarity of his own time, he wrote:

I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead, more barbarity in tearing apart by rack and torture a body still sentient, in roasting him little by little and having him bruised and bitten by pigs and dogs (as we have not only read about but seen in recent memory, not among enemies in antiquity but among our fellow-citizens and neighbours—and what is worse, in the name of duty and religion) than in roasting him and eating him after his death.

He used the Indians to criticise his own apparently more civilised society, a country torn apart by a religiously motivated civil war. The cannibals only ate the flesh of dead people, whereas in sophisticated Europe religious enemies were burned alive at the stake. ‘I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own.’ He felt they provided a mirror to help jolt his fellow Frenchmen from their self-satisfaction.

Montaigne was fond of using such examples of diverse customs from different cultures to persuade readers that what they take for granted is only what they have become ‘accustomed to’, trying to refresh eyes and brains that had become dulled and blunted by habit.

Ending

Right to his final years, Montaigne continued to work on his essays. He became enamoured with the idea that the ‘source of human happiness’ was ‘living happily, not…dying happily’. The essays moved from being simple distractions to a way of reliving his life: ‘I want to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I seize it…The shorter my possession of life, the more deeply and fully I must make use of it.’

This was the first time a writer had focused on the actual experience of living, or viewed life as providing lessons to be learned. His writing is utterly modern in the way it accounts for the autonomy of the individual, and a sense of the self, while acknowledging cultural difference and relativity of values. These were seismic shifts.

Although he never abandoned the philosophy of the Stoics, Montaigne’s writing, and indeed the way he lived, became a rejection of their view that life was something to be relinquished and that the senses and the body had to be overcome. The essays are full of Montaigne’s delight in the ordinary, the sensuous, the human body and all its functions; after all, ‘On the highest throne in the world, we sit only on our own bottom.’

He advocated for active, rather than passive living, underscoring the value of the present. Life itself is reason enough for living, he said. And he wrote in one of his last notes that death would represent just a few bad moments at the end of such a life.

Nietzsche, who was never given to flattery, called Montaigne ‘this freest and mightiest of souls’ and said of him: ‘That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth….If I were set the task, I could endeavour to make myself at home in the world with him.’

Since retreating to his tower twenty years before, the quotations inscribed on the ceiling of Montaigne’s library had grown on the joists and beams organically, like a tree. They were reminders of his decision to shift from the public sphere to a more meditative existence, in keeping with the Stoic Seneca’s repeated urgings to his fellow Romans to retire in the second part of their lives in order to discover themselves. But just before his death, Montaigne reached up to one of the first inscriptions he had written on the ceiling,

Nec nova vivendo procuditur ulla voluptas – There is no pleasure to be gained by living longer

and scratched it off. In a life now full to bursting, it no longer applied.

Music

Tourdion – quand je bois du vin clairet (French Traditional from Renaissance), Short Tailed Snails

What better way to celebrate the wine loving, grape growing Montaigne than a drinking song? Montaigne wrote at length about wine, and changed his taste from white wine, to red, then back again. He had this piece of advice for his readers:

If your doctor does not think it good for you to sleep, to drink wine, or to eat of a particular dish, do not worry; I will find you another who will not agree with him.

Short Tailed Snails formed in the year 2010 in Heidelberg, comprising Regina Schmidt (voice, Chrotta, Schruti Box), Ines Hartig-Mantel (wind instruments, hurdy-gurdy, percussion, voice), Bert Brückmann (guitar, cister, bass guitar) Ismael Bou (percussion, frame drums, Riq, Tabla) and Michael Schneider (cello, double bass).

The tourdion is an early Renaissance dance from a song first published in 1530 by Pierre Attaignant, three years before Montaigne’s birth. It is highly likely he knew it.

When I drink claret (Bordeaux) wine

When I drink claret (Bordeaux) wine

My friend, everything turns, turns, turns, turns…

Now, I also drink Anjou or Arbois.

 

Let’s sing and drink:

Let’s declare war on that wine flask!

Let’s sing and drink

My friends; let’s drink…

Connection

Montaigne’s reputation grew rapidly following the publication of his essays and the first English translation by a language tutor called John Florio was published in 1603, shortly after his death. Shakespeare was an acquaintance of Florio’s and it is possible that he read parts of the very first manuscript. It is definitely known that he read much of the work. Scholars have noted that he foraged through the essays to pick or choose a turn of phrase or an idea to use in his plays. It seemed he worked into King Lear Montaigne’s complaint about geriatric greed from his essay ‘Of the Affection of Fathers to their Children’. And Edmund expresses an idea of Montaigne’s that things regarded as the ‘natural order’ are only ‘custom’. Montaigne was the first to make the argument, asserting that much of what was believed to be determined by fate or by God was simply a social tradition.

Shakespeare was particularly taken with ‘Of Cannibals’, and Montaigne’s description of a ‘golden age’, the life described by the Tupinamba who lacked many of the corrupting elements that blighted the modern world:

…no kind of Trafficke,

No knowledge of Letters,

No intelligence of numbers,

No name of magistrate, nor of politike superiorities;

No use of service, of riches, or of povertie;

No contracts, no successions, no partitions,

No occupation but idle…

He put this vision to use almost verbatim in the words of the courtier Gonzalo who, in The Tempest, fantasises about colonising the island on which he is shipwrecked and turning it into his idea of a perfect society:

I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things; for no kind of traffic

Would I admit; no name of magistrate;

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,

And use of service, none; contract, succession,

Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;

No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;

No occupation; all men idle, all…

The Tempest, (II, I, 148-155)

And it is no accident that Caliban is an anagram of Canibal, the word for cannibal in Spanish.

Scholars are divided on the depth of Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne. Certainly, his later works feature protagonists who are increasingly uncertain and self-questioning, a phenomenon that was entirely new in literature but very much part of Montaigne’s vision. Yet as Bakewell observes, the many parallels that have been drawn between the writers can be taken too far:

The similarities may just be because both writers were attuned to the atmosphere of their shared late-Renaissance world, with all its confusion and irresolution.

Notes

The tower in the Périgord region that Montaigne loved so much still presides over his old estate and is open to visitors. A tour is offered only in French so I caught just a general gist of what was said. But no information is needed to soak up the unique personal space of one of the world’s greatest writers. The books and adornments may have long gone but here is his door, his window, the Latin and Greek inscriptions on forty-six oak joists in the library.

In one of his essays, Montaigne mentioned the actual physical effect of the tower on his writing. It provided the solitude, stillness, and break from external stimuli necessary for inward focus, with room to pace, which always helped his thinking. Yet it was close enough to the chateau for him to catch the sounds of its daily life and hear mass without having to leave his bed. The chatter of birds poured in from windows that offered a view of the labourers in the vineyard below. The tower cocooned but did not isolate him.

Although the books in his library were his main source of stimulation, so too were the paintings he had commissioned. Most of these are featured in his study, an ante-chamber just off the library, which bears the traces of the murals: Venus mourning the death of Adonis; a shipwrecked sailor washed ashore beside a temple to Neptune, a combat scene. Because the library did not contain glass in the windows, Montaigne would spend cold days here, beside its fireplace. A Latin inscription dated the year he retired dedicates the room ‘to his freedom, to his tranquility, and to his leisure’.

The chateau built by Montaigne’s grandfather in the fifteenth century was burnt to the ground in 1885 and rebuilt in a fantasy Loire style, far removed from the original fortified, Périgord house. Only the tower and the sixteenth century outbuildings containing the stables and wine stores are original. At the request of his wife, Montaigne’s heart was removed and preserved in the parish church of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne nearby.

It was not until the late eighteenth century that the tower started to become a site of literary pilgrimage. Until then, it had grown dilapidated, the chapel used as a potato store. Inscribed on the walls of the study are the signatures of hundreds of visitors.

One visitor with a weakness for literary pilgrimages was Virginia Woolf who had a life-long admiration for Montaigne. She admired him for his truth seeking and for having found a way to write from a place of doubt and uncertainty. He was her kindred spirit, a ‘great master of the art of life,’ one who ‘stands out from the legions of the dead with […] irrepressible vivacity.’ After her visit to Montaigne’s tower in 1931 she expressed her joy in a letter to Ethel Smyth, writing of ‘the very door he opened’ and the footsteps ‘worn in deep waves up to the tower’.

I visited in mid summer, when the grapes were starting to grow heavy on the vines and nearby fields were bursting with sunflowers. Everything was blooming and buzzing and as irrepressible as the great man himself.

Weblinks

The essays of Motaigne can be read on Project Gutenberg.

A wonderful article about Montaigne by Jane Kramer in The New Yorker.

A pithy introduction to Montaigne’s philosophy in this School of Life clip.

In Alain de Botton’s A Guide to Happiness series, he talks about the problems of self-esteem through Montaigne’s eyes.

Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Montaigne’ can be read here.

For centuries the resting place of Montaigne’s body remained a mystery but according to this article it seems likely that it has recently been found.

A battle scene from the French Wars of Religion featured in the film The Princess of Montpensier (2010) gives a good sense of the violence of Montaigne’s times.

See here for details about visiting the Montaigne’s tower.

Explore wine in the region including from the Chateau Michel de Montaigne.

Sources:

Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live – or – A Life of Montaigne In one Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Chatto & Windus, 2010

Bakewell, Sarah. ‘The Essay’, Montaigne biographer on the writer’s cat, scepticism and animal souls, BBC Sounds

Frampton, Saul. When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me? Montaigne and being in touch with life, Faber and Faber, 2011

Kramer, Jane. ‘Me, Myself, and I: What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?The New Yorker, September 7, 2009

Montaigne, Michel. Complete Essays, Translated by MA Screech, Penguin, 1993

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader Vol 1, Penguin, 2015

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  1. Cathy on

    Lovely essay Jo.

    Montaigne is such a favourite. Easy to read, logical, elegant, comical.
    His words are as fresh as this morning and speak to us down the centuries.

    I often think of his reflection on death:

    ‘I hope death finds me planting my cabbages; neither thinking about it, nor the unfinished garden.’

    Best wishes and thanks for your lovely writing.

    Reply
    • Jo Wing on

      Hi Cathy,

      Thank you for sending that wonderful quote of Montaigne’s about death and cabbages. He was very funny and so disarming. To read him is to know him in quite an intimate way, and yes, his words are still remarkably fresh. Warmest wishes to you Cathy, and thanks for reading.

      Reply
  2. Bob Ashworth on

    Some years ago Bernard Levin listed, in The Spectator, “the must reads before you die”. Montaigne’s essays was at or near the top. That’s how I first got to know and read Montaigne’s amazing words and thoughts. In September 2012 I visited the Montaigne home; I was there alone on a warm sunny day. There is a statue of him in a small square in Rue des Écoles in Paris. Your blog has been printed off and added to my collection.
    Great stuff.
    Bob

    https://images.app.goo.gl/h26AREqUgPUePbnj9

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    • Jo Wing on

      Montaigne’s tower is a very moving place to visit, isn’t it? I regret that I didn’t read the essays before I went but it left a vivid impression and I’m able to revisit it very clearly in my mind. I’m touched you enjoy these attempts of mine and want to keep them. Thank you Bob.

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