It is among the most playful, intriguing and profound thoughts, beautifully expressed: “When I play with my cat, how do I know she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?”
The thought is that of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French thinker and essayist, arguably the first chronicler of human consciousness in Western writing. It was Montaigne who invented the “essay” by his sustained writings on the hopes and fears, emotions, actions and reflections of a single human being and mind: his own. In earlier times, before the self-obsessed age in which we live, an absorption with the self and yourself might have been deemed a bad thing.
But Montaigne was not of the ilk that venerates the “I” and subjects all around it to an unsolicited exposition of that individual’s half-baked thoughts and feelings. Right at the start of the Essays, Montaigne addresses the reader and cautions of what is to come.
“You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted, a book which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private family one. I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design.” (From the complete and definitive translation into English by MA Screech, 1991, as is the question about the cat.)
Montaigne goes on to explain that these thoughts and writings are drawn from and inspired by life, his own life. He ends warmly:
“And therefore, Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain.” (Screech)
Death and disaster
Quite the opposite is true. In the 440 years since the Essays were first published, countless readers have drawn strength and reassurance from its humane wisdom, laughter from its affectionate understanding of the foibles of human nature, wonder at its philosophical insights and entertainment from its wide range of topics. Everything that Montaigne does is based on experience, deep reflection on that, and careful elaboration in a text adorned with quotes from Classical Greek and Latin literature. No surprise, that: his mother tongue was not French, but Latin, which he was raised to speak and write with a fluidity not often seen since Roman times.
Precisely because of the Latinate turns of phrase in his prose and Roman modes of thinking that show themselves in the essays, Montaigne is often mislabelled as a Stoic. It is true that he was stoic in the face of terrible events. His much-loved father died an awful death from a kidney stone, an affliction to which Montaigne himself was to succumb. His best friend, Etienne de La Boétie, was felled by the plague in his early 30s. A tennis ball killed his younger brother in the most freakish of accidents. And five of his children died when infants, the youngest being his first-born daughter, at only two months.
This catalogue of death and disaster prompted Montaigne to retire at 37, which seems ridiculously young to us. But at the time it was if not a venerable age, then certainly one not to be discounted (look at the list of early deaths above). On his father’s death, Montaigne succeeded to the family estate, withdrew from public life and sequestered himself in the round tower that served as his library and writing room. From there, he launched the essays – in actuality, a series of “assays”, attempts to determine, measure and test his ideas.
Ending in meditation
In the years from retiring in 1570 to dying in 1592, Montaigne continually refined his thoughts and words. Among the essays in Book I we have reflections on sadness, idleness, liars, “To philosophize is to learn to die”, the imagination, “On the Cannibals”, why we wear clothes, solitude, sleep, warhorses, smells and the length of life.
Book II ranges as widely, including essays on drunkenness, conscience, freedom of conscience, thumbs, virtue, anger, the monster-child, “On judging someone else’s death” and “How our mind tangles itself up”.
Book III offers riveting reading for our coronavirus-ridden times, in the essays “On three kinds of social intercourse” and “On the art of conversation”. It ends with a 64-page meditation, “On experience”, a summation of the lessons drawn from a life lived actively and thought about just as vigorously. Here is how it ends.
“The most beautiful lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles though and without rapture.
“Old age, however, has some slight need of being treated more tenderly. Let us commend it to that tutelary god of health – and, yes, of wisdom meet and companionable.”
Here he quotes from Horace’s famous Latin ode, which goes loosely in translation:
“Son of Latona, grant that I savour those things I have made ready, and with mind and vigour remaining, not sliding into unseemly senility in which the sound of the lyre is denied.”