Rereading Montaigne’s last essays

Guest column by Tuesday’s lecturer Sissela Bok.

Two months after the al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center, Michael Dirda, editor of The Washington Post’s “Book World,” wrote to ask a number of writers, including me, to write about our favorite “comfort” books — ones we returned to in times of stress, “if only for the balm of the familiar and beloved.” I was glad to accept the invitation, not least because of that word “balm.” In the wake of the devastation, I had gone back to Michel de Montaigne’s Essays; the contrast they offered, I noted in my journal, had felt like “balm for the soul.”

I had first learned about Montaigne from Jeanne Hersch, the brilliant, severe teacher whose classes I attended when I was 15 and 16 at the International School in Geneva — Ecolint. Mademoiselle Hersch, as we called her, taught textual analysis and French composition with passion and utmost rigor, giving us excerpts to study not only from Montaigne, but also from Racine, Boileau, Voltaire and others. Essays had come with me to Paris a few years later, then to America; and ever since it has mattered to me to be able to draw on Montaigne’s perspective in teaching and in writing.

This time the essays also served me in a more direct way. I had felt stopped in my tracks after the al-Qaida attacks, simply unable to continue writing — the more so as the subject of the book I was working on was “happiness.” Wasn’t it a luxury to focus on that subject, I had to ask, given the anguish and insecurity of the time?

It was rereading Montaigne, and especially his astonishing last essays “Of Physiognomy” and “Of Experience,” that helped me find an answer — that the study of happiness never was a luxury to be postponed until more serene, peaceful times. I was struck all over again by his relishing so many aspects of daily life, in spite of having spent much of his life in the shadow of pestilence and war. The plague had swept his region, filled the graves, and even entered his own home. Seemingly endless religious persecution had brought massacres between Protestants and Catholics — civilians and combatants alike — each supposedly fighting in the name of the same God. He quoted the Roman historian Livy: “Nothing is more deceptive in appearance than a depraved religion, in which the will of the gods is offered as a pretext for crimes.”

We must see such crimes for what they are, Montaigne insisted, while leading our own lives most fully and humanely. Though he could survey the luxuriant proliferation of quests for happiness and wisdom all around him with a generous tolerance for every form of diversity, he drew the line at religious persecution, torture and other violations of fundamental moral values, no matter their presumed benefits. What mattered, above all, was to “compose,” as he put it, his moral stance, his character: “ … not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our own conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.”

Living appropriately takes resilience, fortitude, curiosity, empathy, but also sheer joy, even in the face of cruelty, illness, suffering and death. Montaigne wants to partake of the sources of happiness all around him but without blocking out any form of suffering or of the human folly and cruelty that brings so much of it about. As he puts it in his last essay, “Of Experience”:

When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep; yes, and when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

Throughout his essays, Montaigne cites a multitude of authors on their experiences of felicity, contentment, comfort, but also of discomfort, anguish and acute misery — even the bliss of sudden release from great pain. Reflecting on Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Seneca and many other thinkers, he pays as much attention to what he knew of their personal experiences — including how they confronted death — as to their views. Whereas he had titled an early essay “To philosophize is to learn how to die” and argued that we need to get used to death by thinking about it ceaselessly, his last essay shows how greatly his views about death had changed. He came increasingly to celebrate all that “makes man’s happiness in the world.” Not that he did not recognize that death can come at any moment; indeed the approach of old age made its inevitability all the clearer. Reason the more to savor life while doing full justice to its fragility.

Montaigne devotes the last passage of that last essay to old age: “The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity. Now old age needs to be treated a little more tenderly.” He invites us to commend it to that god who protects health and wisdom, then gives the final words to the Roman poet Horace, whom he had quoted so often as to earn him the nickname, in later centuries, “the French Horace”:

Apollo, give me joy in what I have, 

I pray, and with good health and a steady mind

May my old age be spent without

Dishonor and not deprived of the lyre.

Ever since Montaigne published his Essays, readers have carried on their own dialogues with him. Ralph Waldo Emerson recalls coming across Essays in his father’s library and “the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to me of my thought and experience.”

And Virginia Woolf points to Montaigne’s “giving the whole map, weight, colour and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection … As the centuries go by, there is always a crowd before that picture, gazing into its depths, seeing their own faces reflected in it, seeing more the longer they look, never being able to say quite what it is that they see.” What is clear, she concludes, is that he achieved, at last — and this is most fully conveyed in “Of Experience” — “a  miraculous adjustment of all these wayward parts that constitute the human soul. He laid hold of the beauty with all his fingers. He achieved happiness.”