September 13

1592 The death of Michel de Montaigne

A celebration of that great and amiable man from Chambers’ Book of Days:

Montaigne was born in 1533, and died in 1592, his life of sixty years coinciding with one of the gloomiest eras in French history–a time of wide-spread and implacable dissensions, of civil war, massacre and murder.

The father of Montaigne was a baron of Perigord. Having found Latin a dreary and difficult study in his youth, he determined to make it an easy one for his son. He procured a tutor from Germany, ignorant of French, and gave orders that he should converse with the boy in nothing but Latin, and directed, moreover, that none of the household should address him otherwise than in that tongue. ‘They all became Latinised,’ says Montaigne; ‘and even the villagers in the neighbourhood learned words in that language, some of which took root in the country, and became of common use among the people.’ Greek he was taught by similar artifice, feeling it a pastime rather than a task.

At the age of six, he was sent to the College of Guienne, then reputed the best in France, and, strange as it seems, his biographers relate, that at thirteen he had run through the prescribed course of studies, and completed his education. He next turned his attention to law, and at twenty-one was made conseiller, or judge, in the parliament of Bordeaux. He visited Paris, and was received at court, enjoyed the favour of Henri II, saw Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and entered fully into the delights and dissipations of gay society. At thirty-three he was married though had he been left free to his choice, he ‘would not have wedded with Wisdom herself had she been willing. But ’tis not much to the purpose,’ he writes, ‘to resist custom, for the common usance of life will be so. Most of my actions are guided by example, not choice.’ Of women, indeed, he seldom speaks save in terms of easy contempt, and for the hardships of married life he has frequent jeers.

In 1571, in his thirty-eighth year, the death of his father enabled Montaigne to retire from the practice of law, and to settle on the patrimonial estate. It was predicted he would soon exhaust his fortune, but, on the contrary, he proved a good economist, and turned his farms to excellent account. His good sense, his probity, and liberal soul, won for him the esteem of his province; and though the civil wars of the League converted every house into a fort, he kept his gates open, and the neighbouring gentry brought him their jewels and papers to hold in safe-keeping. He placed his library in a tower overlooking the entrance to his court-yard, and there spent his leisure in reading, meditation, and writing. On the central rafter he inscribed: I do not understand; I pause; I examine. He took to writing for want of something to do, and having nothing else to write about, he began to write about himself, jotting down what came into his head when not too lazy. He found paper a patient listener, and excused his egotism by the consideration, that if his grandchildren were of the same mind as himself, they would he glad to know what sort of man he was. ‘What should I give to listen to some one who could tell me the ways, the look, the bearing, the commonest words of my ancestors!’ If the world should complain that he talked too much about himself, he would answer the world that it talked and thought of everything but itself.

A volume of these egotistic gossips he published at Bordeaux in 1580, and the book quickly passed into circulation. About this time he was attacked with [kidney] stone, a disease he had held in dread from childhood, and the pleasure of the remainder of his life was broken with paroxysms of severe pain. When they suppose me to he most cast down,’ he writes, and spare me, I often try my strength, and start subjects of conversation quite foreign to my state. I can do everything by a sudden effort, but, oh! take away duration. I am tried severely, for I have suddenly passed from a very sweet and happy condition of life, to the most painful that can be imagined.’

Abhorring doctors and drugs, he sought diversion and relief in a journey through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. At Rome he was kindly received by the pope and cardinals, and invested with the freedom of the city, an honour of which he was very proud. He kept a journal of this tour, which, after lying concealed in an old chest in his chateau for nearly two hundred years, was brought to light and published in 1774; and, as may be supposed, it contains a stock of curious and original information. While he was travelling, he was elected mayor of Bordeaux, an office for which he had no inclination, but Henry III insisted that he should accept it, and at the end of two years he was re-elected for the same period.

During a visit to Paris, he became acquainted with Mademoiselle de Gournay, a young lady who had conceived an ardent friendship for him through reading his Essays. She visited him, accompanied by her another, and he reciprocated her attachment by treating her as his daughter. Meanwhile, his health grew worse, and feeling his end was drawing near, and sick of the intolerance and bloodshed which devastated France, he kept at home, correcting and retouching his writings. A quinsy [throat infection] terminated his life. He gathered his friends round his bedside, and bade them farewell. A priest said mass, and at the elevation of the host he raised himself in bed, and with hands clasped in prayer, expired. Mademoiselle de Gournay and her mother crossed half France, risking the perils of the roads, that they might condole with his widow and daughter.

It is superfluous to praise Montaigne’s Essays; they have long passed the ordeal of time into assured immortality. He was one of the earliest discoverers of the power and genius of the French language, and may he said to have been the inventor of that charming form of literature—the essay. At a time when authorship was stiff, solemn, and exhaustive, confined to Latin and the learned, he broke into the vernacular, and wrote for everybody with the ease and nonchalance of conversation. The Essays furnish a rambling auto-biography of their author, and not even Rousseau turned himself inside out with more completeness. He gives, with inimitable candour, an account of his likes and dislikes, his habits, foibles, and virtues. He pretends to most of the vices; and if there be any goodness in him, he says he got it by stealth. In his opinion, there is no man who has not deserved hanging five or six times, and he claims no exception in his own behalf. ‘Five or six as ridiculous stories,’ he says, ‘may he told of me as of any man living.’ This very frankness has caused. some to question his sincerity, but his dissection of his own inconsistent self is too consistent with flesh and blood to be anything but natural.

Bit by bit the reader of the Essays grows familiar with Montaigne; and he must have a dull imagination indeed who fails to conceive a distinct picture of the thick-set, square-built, clumsy little man, so undersized that he did not like walking, because the mud of the streets bespattered him to the middle, and the rude crowd jostled and elbowed him. He disliked Protestantism, but his mind was wholly averse to bigotry and persecution. Gibbon, indeed, reckons Montaigne and Henri IV as the only two men of liberality in the France of the sixteenth century. Nothing more distinguishes Montaigne than his deep sense of the uncertainty and provisional character of human knowledge; and Mr. Emerson has well chosen him for a type of the sceptic. Montaigne’s device—a pair of scales evenly balanced, with the motto, Quo scais je? (What do I know?)—perfectly symbolises the man.

The only book we have which we certainly know was handled by Shakspeare, is a copy of Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays. It contains the poet’s autograph, and was purchased. by the British Museum for one hundred and twenty guineas. A second copy of the same translation in the Museum has Ben Jonson’s name on the fly-leaf.

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