It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate… no use of service, of riches or of povertie… no apparell but naturall… no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falshood, treason, dissimulations, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would hee finde his imaginarie common-wealth from this perfection?
– Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) Of the Caniballes, translated by John Florio, 1603.
The original Château de Montaigne is no longer in existence – except for the Tower where Michel Eyquem had his library and study. It was on this day in 1571, in this “citadel” looking out upon the vineyards, that he began his nearly decade-long self-imposed refuge of reading, thinking and writing. During the next nine years he wrote the first two of his books of essais, a form he did not invent, per se, but for which he is justly famous, developing and refining the personal, discursive eloquence and rich flexibility we associate with the essay form.
His mother’s family were conversos, Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism. Pierre, his father, possessed definite ideas about his son’s education, and had a family fortune inherited from trade in wine and salted fish, to carry it out. Michel was given to peasants to rear for the first three years of his life, so as to know the life of the commoner, and then tutored and addressed only in Latin to learn what would become his first language in both speaking and writing.
Although Montaigne wrote that he preferred conversation to any other form of communication*, it is difficult to imagine, outside pre-literary cultures, a single individual’s ability to pass onto future generations, orally, the insights to be gained by sustained reading of his work; conversation, outside the therapist’s couch, seems to me to have its limits with regard to the revelation of our deepest selves.
It is odd, I think, that, throughout much of history, his essays have been thought of as works of literature rather than works of philosophy. “He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009) using the device of solid and numerous references to past thinkers to illuminate the study of his own existence. And all, initially, to exorcise the demon of melancholy to which he became subject at the beginning of those ten years of study looking out over the vineyards.
There is a school of thought that Shakespeare read Montaigne in John Florio’s 1603 translation and used portions of it for his own plays. Here, a selection from The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1, correlating with the quote at the head of the page:
Gonzalo: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none…
No use of metal, corn, or wine…
… treason, felony, …
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind,…all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.…
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.
* Montaigne’s belief is in direct opposition to his later countryman, Marcel Proust’s idea that, “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for… a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.” (A. De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997, pages 118-119.)