Even for those of us who are self-employed, and sometimes practically idle, the day after Thanksgiving seems more like a holiday than a work day. This morning it was clear and sunny, though at this time of year even sunny days can be distinctly wan. A trip to the gym to run my obligatory three miles—the locker room is almost like a temple, with lots of people fiddling with their togs, zipping up gym bags, heading to the shower … and no one saying a word.
Back home, I begin to sift through a pile of old New Yorkers and come upon Jane Kramer’s essay, “Me Myself, and I: What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?” It’s an interesting subject, though I don’t much like the subtitle. It seems to me that “modern man” can be characterized as fanatical, opinionated, pig-headed, all of which were the things Montaigne especially hated and railed against in his famous Essays. He was ever-fascinated by the things we don’t know, but only think we know or feign knowing, and returned to that subject again and again. At one point he complained, with respect to the need felt by many to choose sides amid the religious strife of his day: “We are not allowed not to know what we do not know.”
But if Montaigne were nothing more than a skeptic, endlessly reiterating how little we can really know about anything, his writings would not have endured as long as they have. His essays are often about things, not merely about our ignorance of things. Just take a glance at the table of contents: “Of sadness,” “Of liars,” “How the soul discharges its passions on false objects when true ones are wanting,” “Of solitude,” “Of warhorses,” “We taste nothing pure,” “Of smells,” “Of honorary awards,” and so on. At one point he writes:
I could wish that every one would write what he knows and as much as he knows, not about one subject alone, but about all others; for one may have some special knowledge or experience as to the nature of a river or a fountain, who about other things knows what everyone knows. He will undertake, however, in order to give currency to that little scrap of knowledge, to write on the whole science of physics. From this fault may spring grave disadvantages.
Montaigne has a point here, though I’m not sure he always followed his own advice. It’s not that he went overboard in padding his observations to make them sound more authoritative, but that he knew about a great many things which he kept to himself. Kramer’s mini-bio makes it clear that Montaigne was a man of the world, serving as mayor of Bordeaux, head of an estate a day’s ride east of the city, and sometime counselor to Henry IV, the future king of France. Yet to a large degree, his essays consist of references to classical authors such as Horace and Livy, well-turned nuggets of philosophic wisdom, things he has read about the customs of other nations, and generalizations about “human nature”—a thing that he felt did not exist. There is not much that brings us into direct contact with sixteenth-century Aquitaine to be found in them.
Similarly, we might approve when he remarks, All our efforts can not so much as reproduce the nest of the tiniest birdling, its contexture, its beauty, and its usefulness; nay, nor the web of the little spider. But that being the case, we might ask ourselves why Montaigne spent so little time describing such beautiful creations.
Perhaps it's because he took an overriding interest in the "inner" aspect of things human--and himself above all else--so that details of politics, husbandry, clothing, cuisine, or his natural surrounding fell by the wayside, too mundane to relieve his persistent melancholy.
We may be thankful that Montaigne had both the leisure and the talent to bring a well-developed sense of Gallic joie de vivre to those habits and foibles of human conduct that we exhibit repeatedly without reflecting much on them. (The first modern man? Maybe Kramer is right.) He considered conversation to be the supreme art, and turned his ruminations into internal dialogues, challenging his own assertions, wandering hither and yon, holding the "chain" of thought (such as it is) together by a supple prose style that remains umatched even today, (and makes Francis Bacon, to take an example from among his contemporaries, sound like a complete blockhead.) You can open the essays to almost any page with profit and amusement. (To read more than four in a row is sometimes difficult.)
The Italian savant Benedetto Croce once wrote a book called Shakespeare : Corneille : Ariosto. That always struck me as an odd trio, though perhaps the thrust of the book was to highlight differences rather than similarities. To my mind the trio that calls out for simultaneous analysis is Shakespeare : Montaigne : Cervantes. These writers differ in temperament but are more or less equal in stature, and they stand at the peak of their respective genres. (If it were necessary to include an Italian in the group, my candidate would be Castiglione rather than Ariosto, though his chapter would be a short one.) In the introduction to the edition of the Essays put out recently by the Modern Library, Stuart Hampshire offers a different trio for consideration—Montaigne, Diderot, Stendhal—whom he describes as “the three great monuments of secular French sensibility.”