September 21, 2017
On this day in 1592 Michel de Montaigne died. Montaigne came from a patrician Bordeaux family, one which obligated him to many political responsibilities, but in his late thirties he retreated to the tower rooms of the family estate to write the first two books of his Essays. When these were published in 1580 -- a third volume was published in 1588 -- they introduced a new literary genre to European letters.
Montaigne's tower retreat or "solitarium" has evolved into something of an icon for bibliophiles, and is today a popular museum for the literary traveler. On the first floor Montaigne had a chapel; on the second floor he had his bedroom (though he had others, and five daughters); on the top floor, a round room "of sixteen paces in diameter," amply-windowed and 1000-volumed, was his library. Here he would read write and dictate, carving into the roof-beams forty-eight quotations from what he had written. The dedicatory carving, taking its special place above the fireplace, might cause a sigh in all book lovers:
In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public enjoyments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins [Muses], where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat, and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.
Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof-beam carvings convey his general frame of mind:
Late in life, Montaigne was obliged to return to political life as mayor of Bordeaux, performing his duties with efficiency and indifference. In "On Controlling One's Will," one of the last essays in his final collection, he proudly agrees with his detractors: "They also say that my term of office passed without leaving any trace or mark. That is good!" He goes on to recommend such detachment to all:
- The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge.
- I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine.
- Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head.
- Not more this than that -- why this and not that?
- Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool.
- Man, a vase of clay.
- I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me.
- What inanity is everything!
He who does not gape after the favor of Princes, as after a thing he cannot do without, is not greatly piqued by the coolness of their reception and countenance, nor by the inconstancy of their affections. He who does not brood over his children or his honors with slavish fondness, will manage to live comfortably after he has lost them.