Some historical figures are too well known, others too little. Some are remembered and celebrated for the wrong reasons, others are not honoured at all. Michel de Montaigne is one of the leading European humanists whose reputation and memory in English-speaking countries has failed to keep up with that of his contemporaries. The memorial capital of Montaigne outside France is limited to his authorship of the Essays, which, based on the number of editions in English, has never been a bestseller or a source of quotations for public debates in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, Montaigne remains a giant of European humanism, a clear, singular voice transcending the background noise of his age, a thinker whose modernity should make him our companion through the owes of our age.
Montaigne is closer to us than we think. Four years after he’s been elected mayor of Bordeaux, the plague breaks out in the city in 1585. In the distant French and European background, another plague, this time political, rages on. The Wars of Religion see the Catholics and Huguenots at each others’ throats all through the 1570s and 80s. Montaigne remains clear-headed, more interested in truth and humaneness than in taking sides and filling boxes. To our Covid-lacerated, politically schismatic age, Montaigne may offer some unexpected unguent.
- Obey the law, but keep a clear conscience about everything. The rulers may bend your knee, but they can’t bend your will. You are your own master, even when you’re submitting yourself to the rule.
- Learn to live with death. Extend the offices of life, but accept your own finitude and that life is a function of deadly risk. Those who are careless about life are as guilty as those who are overprotective about it. The Montaignean nonchalance is the opposite of the foreclosure of death (never thinking about it) and of panic (thinking only about it) (André Comte-Sponville)
- Don’t sacrifice life in the supposed name of life. Living is more than breathing and existing is above living. The goal of any policy should be to preserve and maximise the conditions of existence, not merely those of life.