Today is the birthday of Michel de Montaigne, who was born in 1533 in the Aquitaine region of France. As he was born at the Château de Montaigne, you might gather that he came from a pretty well-to-do family. He is one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. His work was sometimes regarded as a bit odd because he mingled his philosphical ideas with little anecdotes and stories about himself. He will tell you when he has a headache, what his dog is doing or what he can see out of the window. He set his ideas out in a way that was relatable and easy to read, so his work was very popular. Generation after generation have found something they recognise in his work, from the Enlightenment period through to Romanticism and the Victorians to our own times.
Montaigne had a rather odd upbringing. His father had him fostered out to a peasant family until he was three. The idea was to: “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. When he came back to the château, his father wanted him to learn Latin. Just to make sure he really learned it, he employed a German tutor who spoke no French, so all his lessons were in Latin. Both his parents spoke to him only in Latin and they hired only servants who spoke the language. At the age of six, Montaigne was fluent in Latin. He was awoken every morning by someone playing a musical instrument and a zither player followed him and his tutor around all day, in case he got bored or tired.
In 1539, he was packed off to boarding school, where he got through the whole curriculum by the time he was thirteen. Then he went to university to study law. All this sounds like it could easily have turned Montaigne into a bit of a pompous twit, but it really didn’t. After University, he went to work in the High Court at Bordeaux, where he met his very good friend Étienne de La Boétie. Michel and Étienne loved each other very much and told each other everything. It was a terrible blow to Michel when Étienne died of the plague in 1563. It may have been the loss of his friend that first led him to write his great work ‘Essias’ (Essays), his readers taking the place of his lost friend.
On this day in 1571, at the age of 38, Montaigne retired from public life, shut himself up in a tower in his castle and began work on his essays. It took him almost ten years. Oddly, he begins like this: “…I myself am the subject of my book. It is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain, therefore, farewell.” His book has 107 chapters, or essays, on a wide range of subjects and his aim in writing them is to explain what humans are like, and more specifically, what he is like. Some topics are large and serious, others are shorter; he has a chapter where he tells us everything that he knows about thumbs and one where he tells us what he thinks about smells.
His essay ‘of Cannibals’ is an interesting one. In his lifetime, the Americas were still a pretty recent discovery and he wasn’t entirely sure it was a good thing for the people who lived there. He wrote about a tribe in Brazil who ate the bodies of their dead enemies. He didn’t see it as such a terrible thing compared with the way that Europeans routinely tortured their enemies in ways that really hurt them a lot while they were still alive. He actually met and spoke to a tribal chief and asked him what he thought of Europe. The chief replied that he was shocked to see so many poor people begging on the street while there were so many others living in big houses. He didn’t understand how everyone put up with it.
Montaigne had a lot to say about education. He thought everyone should learn at their own pace and that a really good tutor would let his student speak first and always allow time for discussion. He felt that a child’s natural curiosity would lead them to teach themselves Too much was made of the use of books and he didn’t like the way all information was presented as facts. He said that if students were not allowed to question anything, they could never truly learn. Montaigne didn’t think memorising things from books was any kind of education at all. Students who learned this way would grow up to be passive adults who obeyed blindly and questioned nothing. He makes a very good point. Despite being highly educated, he didn’t really like academics at all. He didn’t like the way they saw the ability to reason as a divine gift that put them above, not just animals but often other humans. He thought that they were arrogant and said everyone should remember that even the highest in the land always had to sit on their own bottoms. He also thought they sometimes made things complicated on purpose to make people feel stupid: “…difficulty is a coin the learned conjure with, so as not to reveal the vanity of their studies…” He didn’t think it was beyond anyone to have wise ideas if we could only stop imagining that other people know better. We are all, he says, richer than we think.
Montaigne is also a man who is interested in pursuing the things that make us happiest rather than the things which will bring us glory, which is why he fits in really well here. He tells us a lovely story about a Greek philosopher and a king. The philosopher asks the king what he will do next. The king replies: ‘Conquer Italy’. ‘And after that?’ asks the philosopher. ‘Conquer Africa’ ‘…and then?’ ‘Conquer the World” ‘what will you do after you’ve conquered the World?’ he asks the king. The king replies ‘I will sit down and have a glass of wine.’ The philosopher says: ‘Why don’t you just sit down now and have a glass of wine?’
This is what I’m going to do now, as it is also my birthday.