In these days of solitary confinement, this correspondent remembers a one-time lawyer and courtier in 16th century France who inscribed a few lines in Latin on a pillar of his study that read like this: “…. on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, 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…” That last day of February was his 38th birthday! The most endearing part of that retreat was the place of Montaigne’s refuge: his library of about 1000 books, a vast library for those times. Soon after, the erstwhile courtier began to write his essais, short prose pieces which were destined to make him immortal.
Yes, other than Camus and Proust, I am living close to Michel de Montaigne these days. In the preface to his Essays Montaigne reminds us of his only ambition: to leave behind a sketch of his character. His goal is not to provide any service to the rest of us, nor does he aim for a glorious life. His only dominion is the exploration of his own mind: l’état c’est moi, as Louis XVI would have put it. It is not a lust for power or ambition, but a dedication to the domain of his mind. “So, dear 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 …” Thus, Montaigne greets us with a farewell only because he knows that we cannot resist the temptation to turn the page and read on.
Montaigne experienced much worse living conditions than ours. He was witness to both a civil war and a plague. He stood face-to-face with death almost daily throughout his adult life. For us, such an existence is difficult to imagine. Death lies hidden, often shrouded in mystery and fear of the unknown. It is in circumstances like the present that we are reminded of the precariousness of life. We worry for our loved ones because an epidemic allows us to have an intimate knowledge of death. So why not read Montaigne again? All of his work is linked so closely to thinking about life and death, and how a retreat can help us evaluate every situation from a distance.
Montaigne retired as the head of a household, with a large extended family and many dependents. Therefore, domestic duties as well as political responsibilities, especially as the mayor of Bordeaux, interrupted his reverie many a time. However, when he retired from the bench, he believed he found wisdom in the contemplative life. Yet loneliness brought anxiety, and he suffered from nightmares. Reading was then a way for him to overcome his melancholy, it was a way of disciplining his mind. Montaigne’s experience of retreat to his tower reminds us that the wisdom that a retiring life brings may be a difficult conquest, but the ferocity unleashed by confinement can well be domesticated by reading.
“Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) was Montaigne’s beloved motto. And what do we really know about him now? When Montaigne tells us that his library is where “I pass the greatest part of my live days and wear out most hours of the days,” he was being poetical. His essays were, it now seems, far more often dictated on the run than written in that tower, dictation being the era’s more aristocratic, less artisanal method of composition. The essays carry a certain run-on breathlessness, the marks of a man whose thoughts run in front of him, a man who moves like a pendulum between the active and the contemplative life.
Montaigne’s retreat is therefore never a retirement for good, not an eternal confinement. In some sense it is a forced confinement, somewhat like what all of us are having now. The only difference is that Montaigne used his forced leisure as a meditative retreat. Does he not ask us to better use our present confinement and not let it be absorbed entirely by various kinds of electronic gadgets? Here is an opportunity of reflecting on our lives, our responsibilities towards other human beings and this earth, even if that keeps us away from watching movies and the series online!
Montaigne wrote under the pressures of the wars, expressing incomprehension at his countrymen’s willingness to engage in mutual slaughter over essentially unfathomable mysteries of religious dogma. His decision to withdraw from public life was clearly linked to his exasperation, not only with the demands of court politics and royal service, but more particularly and urgently with the increasingly violent state of his country. Even in more tranquil times, he was of the view that his willingness to enter public life was not tantamount to bringing his whole self to the task. “The mayor and Montaigne have always been two, with a very clear separation,“ he declared.
Was it a very lonely phase of his life? Montaigne believed in the value of reaching outside the self. Throughout his writings, as he did in his private and public life, he manifested the need to entertain ties with the world of other people and of events. To describe this necessary coming and going between the interiority of the self and the exteriority of the world, Montaigne uses the image of the back room: human beings have their front room, facing the street where they meet and interact with others, but they need always to retreat into the back room of the most private self, where they may reaffirm the freedom and strength of intimate identity and reflect upon the vagaries of experience.
We are all in our back rooms at present. But let us end on a humorous note by recalling what Montaigne said about the doctors, a class of professionals at the forefront of the battle we are all engaging in. Doctors are lucky, Montaigne asserts, for “the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures”!