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Rediscovering Michel de Montaigne

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What do you know about Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)?

He was a nobleman, government official, mayor of Bordeaux and wine grower who lived in the Perigord area of southwestern Frances for six decades.

His mother descended from a Spanish Jewish family that lived in Aragon at the height of the Inquisition in the late 15th century. Three members of his family were burned at the stake. They were prominent Marranos who had gone through the motions of conversion, but continued to practise Judaism secretly.

Daniel J. Boorstin, in his book The Creators writes, “The Marrano memory could not have been lost on Michel. He frequently expressed his sense of the injustice done to the Jews, which confirms his doubts on force as an effective agent of persuasion.”

In recent years there has been a spirited renewal of interest in Montaigne and his singular achievements.

For 36 years, a hideous religious civil war between Catholics and Protestants had turned France into a charnel house.

In 1571, having witnessed such atrocities as “make me blanch with horror,” Montaigne retired from society. He built a quiet, bucolic study, began to write his essays and modestly adopted for his motto “Que sais je?” “What do I know?”

In her splendid recent book about Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell explains that there was no precedent in literature for his essays – casual, formalistic reflections. They were mostly brief and “Into them he put whatever was in his head: His tastes in wine and food, his childhood memories, his playful cat and the way his dog’s ears twitched when he was dreaming. All of this, as well as terse accounts of the political, social and religious events around him.”

He hated cruelty in any form. He abhorred bigotry and attacked the persecution of witches. He was so pantheistic in his vision that he could write, “There is… a certain respect and a general duty of humanity not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants.”

What follows are ideas from his essays that provide the thrust of his thought on many subjects:

• Man is certainly stark mad. He cannot make a flea, and yet he will make Gods by the dozen.

• How many things that served us yesterday, as articles of faith, today are fables?

• Few men dare publish to the world the prayers they make to Almighty God.

• Nothing is so firmly built as that which we least know.

• Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.

• As to fidelity, there is no animal in the world so treacherous as man.

• The man who tries to please the multitude is never done.

• The greatest thing in the world is to know how to be self-sufficient.Emerson called Montaigne the most honest of all writers. He wrote, “Cut these words, and they would bleed.”

Boorstin, in summing up Montaigne’s life and thought, offers this tribute: “His enduring miracle to me is this, who picks up his essays in whatever time or circumstance finds them contemporary.”


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