It’s Only Me - Michel de Montaigne

In the end, it wasn’t that difficult to find. From Castillon-la-Bataille take the D936 east towards Bergerac; you can’t miss the turn, they said. (They’d be surprised what we could miss.) But there it was anyway, a large sign instructing us to turn left and then just a kilometre or two up through rising ground amid lush countryside to the tiny village. At the shop attached to the château it was confirmed that the tour would start at eleven, as the website had said. We had arrived in good time to get ahead of any crowd: the next tour wasn’t until the afternoon and we didn’t want to be forced to hang around. As it turned out we were the only ones there and so, when the two young women who were to be our guides to the tower arrived at the starting point at eleven sharp, the proceedings were, as a courtesy, conducted in English rather than French.
The tower is all that remains of the original buildings on the estate acquired by Ramon Eyquem in the late fifteenth century and eventually bequeathed to his great-grandson, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who dropped the family’s inherited surname in favour of the name of their estate, thus signifying his entry into the nobility. There is still a château building today which occupies the same site, but it is not the same as that inhabited by the Eyquems. It was to this tower, Montaigne wrote, that “having been for a long time weary of the slavery of the court and public duties”, he had retired to the company of the muses – in the form of the large collection of books, chiefly classical works, that he had inherited on the death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie. The library was on the third floor of the tower, above a chapel and a bedroom. None of the books remain, but the classical quotations which Montaigne had inscribed on the roof beams have been restored. It was in this upper room that he sequestered himself as much as he could away from all other claims on his time, domestic or business: “Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide!” Though his reading material was serious – some might say heavy – Montaigne insisted that his practices were not always so. He did not so much methodically read his books as fillet them, when he found here and there something to interest or amuse him; occasionally, perhaps, he just stared out at the surrounding landscape or day-dreamed. There was, however, a purpose to his activity: the stories (exempla) and the distilled wisdom he found in the classical authors would find their way into his own Essays, which he worked on and reworked with increasing intensity in the last decade of his life. But he was reading too for his own enjoyment, and this was something he wasn’t inclined to feel guilty about:
If anyone tells me that it is degrading the Muses to use them only as a plaything and a pastime, he does not know, as I do, the value of pleasure, play, and pastime. I would almost say that any other aim is ridiculous. I live from day to day, and, without wishing to be disrespectful, I live only for myself; my purposes go no further.
Like many of Montaigne’s engaging exercises in self-deprecation, we need not quite take this at face value. In his opening apostrophe “To the Reader”, written for the first (1580) edition of the Essays, Montaigne assures us that he has set himself no goal but a domestic and private one. He has written his book not to achieve fame but as a gift for his relatives and friends, so that after his death they may still recognise, and remember him, through his words. It is this assertion of innocence and simplicity that Montaigne’s latest biographer, Philippe Desan, sets out to demolish in some detail in his thoroughly researched and comprehensive new study, originally published in French in 2014 as Montaigne: Une biographie politique.
Montaigne liked to refer to his lands as the estate of his ancestors. They were in fact purchased by his great-grandfather but only seriously taken in hand by his grandson, Pierre Eyquem, Michel’s father. The Eyquem family had made their money trading in preserved fish and dyestuffs. As Montaigne’s admirer Stefan Zweig wrote: “For centuries in Bordeaux, the Eyquem family name has had a beautiful resonance of gold and silver, and doubtless also a slight smell of smoked fish.” This, however, was a smell that Montaigne did not want to have hanging around any longer. If Ramon Eyquem had initiated, at least in embryo, the move from city to country, and from the status of merchant to that of gentleman, Pierre Eyquem, by taking up residence on his estate and participating in the noble profession of arms, brought it further, while Michel completed it: Desan reproduces the page of the almanac in which he had gone back on an earlier handwritten note ‑ “l’an 1495 naquit pierrre eyquem de montaigne mon pere a montaigne [in the year 1495 my father Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne was born at Montaigne]” ‑ to put two firm strokes of his pen through the patronymic. Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne had posthumously become Pierre de Montaigne; the Eyquems, and their mercantile past, were no more. The reek of herring had been driven off; only the wealth remained.
The story of Montaigne’s early education is well known. Pierre Montaigne had fought in François I’s military campaigns in Italy and returned with some knowledge of and enthusiasm for Italian humanism, a movement of the mind whose key element was the revival of the study of the Latin and Greek classics. Before being sent away to school at the College of Guyenne in Bordeaux aged six, Montaigne was educated in his own home entirely through the medium of Latin ‑ and not merely educated but kept entirely in a Latin linguistic cocoon into which no French or local dialect was permitted to enter. His father also believed in the virtue of mildness in bringing on and bringing out a child’s mind, a position later endorsed by Montaigne in his writings, though he did feel that the indulgence with which he had been treated when very young might have contributed to his later waywardness, or tendency to please himself. His views on the relationship of teachers to pupils seem curiously modern:
Our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to repeat what has been told us. I should like the tutor to correct this practice, and right from the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, to begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way. I don’t want him to think and talk alone, I want him to listen to his pupil speaking in his turn. Socrates, and later Arcesilaus, first had their disciples speak, and then they spoke to them. The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn [Cicero].
Nothing, he urges, should be forced on the child on the basis of mere authority. Rather let a variety of ideas be set before him: “he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. Only the fools are certain and assured.”
Montaigne’s initial career was as a lawyer or magistrate, first at the Cour des Aides in Périgueux, then at the parlement in Bordeaux. A parlement – there were several in France – was not a parliament as we know it but a court, where appeals were heard and where the king’s ordinances received their local approbation and thus became law. Legal offices were sold: together with all kinds of other profitable state positions they were an important source of revenue to the king. Once bought, they could be handed down as property within a family, or indeed sold on to another family if there was no willing or able inheritor. Justice of course might be for sale too, to a greater or lesser degree. The councillors’ (lawyers’) meagre salaries could be supplemented by what were called épices (literally spices – we might say perks) paid by the contending parties to a case. There was something even for the lawyers’ clerks: an edict in 1545 in Bordeaux forbade the pages and valets of magistrates to “beat or strike anyone, or to extort money, whether for wine or other things, or to play cards or dice on the premises of the aforesaid palace” on pain of being whipped.
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