The Man Within | The Weekly Standard

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The Man Within: Why Montaigne is worth knowing

From the page: “…Montaigne met La Boetie in 1558 in Bordeaux, where both were working as parliamentary lawyers. They bonded immediately. La Boetie was a potent influence on Montaigne and also, writes Frampton, on the Essays, for La Boetie’s death from plague in 1563 “created an absence that Montaigne attempted to fill with writing.” Frampton quotes Montaigne saying that he would have rather written letters than essays but had no one to send them to, lacking “a certain relationship to lead me on, to sustain me, and raise me up.” La Boetie’s death was the start of a difficult several years for Montaigne, in fact: His father died in the summer of 1568 and his younger brother, struck in the head with a tennis ball, died less than a year later. Shortly thereafter, Montaigne was pitched violently from his horse and himself almost perished.

By the summer of 1570, then, a reflective Montaigne was reconsidering his future. His career in Bordeaux had stalled after he was rejected for a position in the court’s high chamber, likely for reasons political and not performative. And so, after 13 years on the job, he relinquished his magistracy and retired to his estate, 30 miles east of the city, up the Dordogne River. A year later, on his 38th birthday, Montaigne commemorated retirement from what he called the wearying “servitude of the court and of public employments” by having a Latin inscription painted on the wall of his library–a place “consecrated,” the inscription read, “to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

It was here, in his library, that Montaigne set about recording his thoughts. The room occupied the third floor, just below the attic, of a tower at the southeastern corner of his chateau. His books, many of which were left to him by La Boetie, sat on a curving set of shelves crafted to fit the circular tower. “My library is round in shape,” he wrote, “and in its roundness offering me a view of my books, arranged on five shelves all around.” One imagines the seigneur at his desk, head hunched downward as he scribbled, glancing up momentarily in search of an elusive word and smiling at the bounty of books encircling him.

Frampton tells us that Montaigne’s earliest essays were “characterized by their obsession with battle plans and tactics, arquebuses, lances and the generalissimos of old.” In them the author praises Alexander, discourses on armor, and describes the Romans’ facility with the javelin. But warfare in Montaigne’s day was changing, and the loudest chord he strikes in these pieces is of wariness and despair. Firearms and shifting, diluted codes of honor had made 16th-century battle a strikingly impersonal and unpredictable thing, and the French civil wars between Protestants and Catholics, which raged as Montaigne wrote, were especially erratic and capricious.

“Monstrous war,” he says of them. “Other wars act outwardly, this one acts against itself, eating away and destroying itself with its own venom.” Society, trust, principle–they were crumbling. The lone certainty in such a world was that death, impulsive and unpredictable as it is, would arrive, one way or another, and the essentiality of preparing oneself to die thus became Montaigne’s obsession. One readied himself for death, Montaigne wrote, not by shying from it but attacking it head-on. The lessons of the Stoics, men like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, were instructive here, and into this traditional stoicism which counseled constancy and impassivity Montaigne also blended Lucretius’ teachings. Why “seek to add longer life merely to renew ill-spent time and be tormented?” Lucretius had wondered. Better to use whatever scant existence we have to lay a strong foundation for the death that is sure to come.

Interestingly, it was Montaigne’s retelling of his own near-death experience that eventually jostled his Stoic certainty. As he recounts his equine accident and subsequent convalescence in the essay “Of Practice,” he begins to perceive that the mind and body are necessarily conjoined and that, as Frampton describes it, “our ability to distance ourselves from our passions and our senses”–the sort of detachment the Stoics advocated–“is necessarily curtailed.” Montaigne’s fall from his horse, then,

   ‘becomes a momentous event in terms of the redirection of
   human knowledge that it suggests: away from a Christian
   humanist yearning for the afterlife, and back to the human,
   to the body, to the natural. And when he returns to “Of
   Practice” in his final additions to the essays .??.??.
   it is this rudderless yet intoxicating freedom that
   Montaigne emphasizes, seeing the process of
   self-analysis as something radically new.’

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