Thursday, January 05, 2012

Question everything

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) read Lucretius, and practiced a Lucretian style of life, at least after he retired from politics to become a gentleman farmer and writer. By all accounts, his Essays have been enormously influential on modern writers. I found strands of Montaigne's DNA in almost every writer I came to admire.

I will admit to never having read the Essays.

I tried once, as a young man. I gave it a real go. But did not get far. As I recall, I found the essays too much of a jumble, too indecisive, too filled with "I think," "perhaps," it seems to me," "I don't know." Back then I was looking for something more assertive, more focused, more sure of itself. I was a young man looking for a young man's book.

I don't know why I never gave Montaigne another try. He remains a lacuna in my reading, even though the tentativeness that put me off as a young man would suit my temper now. But I have been reading Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which has been garnering prizes and good reviews. It seemed an appropriate follow-up to The Swerve.

I would imagine that Montaigne's essays might now seem rather unexceptional. The best-seller lists are filled with "how to live" books. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of pop paperbacks purporting to guide us to health, happiness and peace of mind, all of which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. New Age bliss has never been a goal of mine.

Apparently, there is one great difference between the current proliferation of "how to live" books and Montaigne. Certainty. Most contemporary authors are quite certain they know the path to bliss, in far less than twenty steps, and for only $12.95. Montaigne is not so prescriptive. His subject is himself. Question everything, he says, including whatever it is he has to say.

And context. Montaigne lived during the horrendous religious wars that racked France following the Reformation, wars characterized by their viciousness and arbitrary brutality. Catholics and Protestants alike were convinced they possessed the Truth, and had the right -- duty, even -- to impose the Truth on others, by fire, sword and rack. Meanwhile, there was Montaigne, sitting in his tower, surrounded by his books, counseling peace, temperance, and "I think," "perhaps," it seems to me," "I don't know."

(More tomorrow.)