In February 1571, on his 38th birthday, a one-time lawyer and courtier had a Latin inscription incised on a beam in his study. "Worn out with the slavery of the court and of public service, Michel de Montaigne … retires to the bosom of the learned Muses … to pass what may be left of a life already more than half spent, consecrating this ancestral dwelling and sweet retreat to his liberty, tranquility and repose." He planned to hunker down at the Dordogne château where he grew up. But the sweetest part of the retreat, for him, was his library, vast for its time, of about 1,000 books. Soon he began to write the short prose pieces in French that he was to call his "essais."
In the French of Montaigne's day, the word essai meant something assayed or essayed … an experiment, a tasting. Certainly, there had never been anything in literature like these essays before: The experiment paid off—it tasted good. The first edition of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, published in 1580, when he was nearing 50, brought their author international renown, and it has never subsided. A pair of new books, Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer and Saul Frampton's When I Am Playing With My Cat How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing With Me?attest to the enduring fascination of these pieces: The sensibility behind them is at once centuries old and curiously modern.
In a preface to his collection, Montaigne warns us that he has only a personal aim: to leave behind a sketch of his character. He's interested neither in any service to the rest of us nor in any glory for himself. His only dominion is the exploration of his own self: Le "moi," c'est l'état."So, reader," he concludes, "I am myself the matter of my book: that is no reason for you to employ your leisure on a subject so frivolous and vain. Farewell, then …" Of course, Montaigne greets us with a farewell only because he knows that we will be unable to resist the temptation to turn the page and read on.
Sixteenth-century readers weren't used to being addressed in this take-it-or-leave-it way by an author who presumed our interest in his character. But that's not the only peculiarity of the work. Almost everything we learn about the author and his views is offered en passant. Indeed, though the essays have titles, it is usually hard to say what they are about. One essay, "On Some Verses From Virgil,"begins with the annoyances of aging. Many pages in, he announces his theme: "What has the act of generation done to men—this action so natural, so necessary, and so just—that we dare not speak of it without shame?" That leads us, via the Virgil passage, which is about marital sex between Venus and Vulcan, to a discussion of sex and marriage generally. Before long, he is bemoaning the inadequacy of his own endowment. Montaigne ends what he himself calls "this river of babble" by remarking that men and women are "cast in the same mold," except for what is due to "education and customs." The essay is about as linear as a series of blog posts.
Montaigne knows he tends to free-associate: One of his most frequent tics is to say some version of "Let me get back to the subject." In the essay "Of Books," he demands that an author "begin with the main point." It was a standard he never once met himself. As an essayist, he preferred to capture consciousness via an artful sort of interior monologue. But the essays do have a certain consistency of outlook, and Montaigne's perspective was as novel as his style. In fact, Montaigne has a fair claim to being the first liberal.
Liberalism, at its core, is not so much a doctrine as a disposition, a habit of mind, and it's compounded of two principal elements: An abhorrence of cruelty and a sense of the provisional nature of human knowledge. These two currents run through Montaigne's own sensibility, and to see how distinctive it was, it helps to recall the times. Sarah Bakewell, who's particularly good at situating Montaigne in his period and place, offers a clear summary of the religious strife that raged during his life, including the infamous Massacre of St. Bartholomew, when thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands—no one knows exactly how many) were massacred in Paris and the provinces.
So Montaigne was urging toleration at a time when you could be burned at the stake for an error in theology. "It's putting one's conjectures at a rather high price, to burn a man alive for them," he wryly observed, taking aim, in a single shot, at overconfidence and at cruelty, which he termed the "ultimate of the vices." Judith Shklar, the great theorist of liberalism, has suggested why the two are more than contingently related. To hold cruelty to be the first of vices, she says, is to turn from the way revealed religion understands sin—as offenses against God. That's easier if you can entertain the possibility that your religious convictions are wrong. Cruelty, Shklar says, is "a purely human verdict upon human conduct, and so puts religion at a certain distance."
Fittingly, Montaigne's response to cruelty was visceral before it was theoretical. For all his vaunted egoism, he had a gift for imaginative empathy; for putting himself in the shoes of another man, or the paws of another creature; for trying to guess how things might look to his cat.