If I am to die and leave you alive, the gods alone only know whether it will go better with you or with me. — Michel de Montaigne, quoting Socrates in the Apology
I brought Montaigne into this blog the way Walter White entered Breaking Bad, arms windmilling on the edge of death. For White it was racing an RV through the desert in a gas mask with two bodies sliding around the floor behind him; Montaigne got the 16th century version, flying off a horse into a bloody, broken heap.
It’s my favorite way to meet the main character: Hey, this guy is important to our story. Let’s watch him die.
When the protagonist finishes the episode alive, you can start peeling the onion, moving backward and forward from that moment to see why he was important enough for that kind of entrance.
But there’s a well-established thing about Montaigne that makes the onion-peeling difficult, or (depending on how you look at it) way too easy: Readers of wildly different stripes are all pretty sure Montaigne is on their team.
Donald Frame described this in the introduction to his translation of the Essays:
One of the mysteries of the Essays is how the portrait of Michel de Montaigne seems to become that of every man and thus of the reader. No one has explained this. Emerson expressed it when he wrote of his first reading of Montaigne: “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.” Pascal’s comment is intriguing: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him.”
The drumbeat of readers dropping books and jaws in self-recognition continues through the centuries. Writing in The Times of London in 1991, journalist Bernard Levin said, “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?'”
What’s most striking is that readers of radically different perspectives have done the same thing. His contemporary Étienne Tabourot, a member of the ferociously orthodox Catholic League, adored Montaigne’s work and said anyone reading the Essays felt as if they themselves had written it. Catholics Pascal and Descartes likewise admired much of Montaigne’s approach, albeit for different reasons.
On the other end, the atheist philosophes of the Enlightenment embraced Montaigne for his skepticism. Centuries later, atheist philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “He was writing about me. He knew my innermost thoughts.”
Yet religious Romantics like Rousseau also praised him as a fellow advocate of the “natural” state of humanity, and moral crusaders in the late 19th century remade him into a generator of virtuous Christian platitudes, even as their atheistic contemporary Nietzsche saw someone who embodied the Epicurean embrace of the joyful human spirit.
That’s Montaigne for you. Conservatives find conservative values; liberals find liberal values; the religious find faith, and the irreligious find doubt. It’s all there. You just have to cherry-pick from 22 years of the evolving thoughts of a lively mind to make Montaigne whatever you need him to be.
He started writing as a Stoic (“To philosophize is to learn to die”), experienced a skeptical crisis, and ended life more Epicurean than anything (“To philosophize is to learn to live”). Along the way, his positions often evolved. As Montaigne scholar Sarah Bakewell put it, he could have taken Walt Whitman’s lines as his own motto:
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)If you want to find yourself among those multitudes, it’s easy: just keep reading and forgetting, reading and forgetting — until you find what you need and say, “Hey, it’s like I wrote it myself!”
But for all that heterodox opinion, something big and fully to be expected for a Catholic is strangely missing. While he never wavered in his Catholic identity — a crucial element of his devotion to tradition — 22 years recording his every thought produced little evidence of some key Catholic beliefs.
Particularly striking for a Catholic exploring death and dying at length is the apparent absence of belief in an afterlife. He was at best agnostic about such a thing, a posture in keeping with his personal motto Que sais-je? (What do I know?)
But more often, he goes well beyond agnosticism on this question, assuming instead that death is indeed the end of existence. Bakewell describes this in the brilliant How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:
It is true that he showed little sign of real interest in religion. The Essays has nothing to say about most Christian ideas: he seems unmoved by themes of sacrifice, repentance, and salvation, and shows neither fear of Hell nor desire for Heaven. The idea that witches and demons are active in the world gets shorter shrift than does the idea of cats hypnotizing birds out of trees.
When Montaigne broods on death, he apparently forgets that he is supposed to believe in an afterlife. He says things like, “I plunge head down, stupidly, into death … as into a silent and dark abyss which swallows me up at one leap and overwhelms me in an instant with a heavy sleep free from feeling and pain.” Theologians of the following century were horrified by this godless description. (Emphasis mine.)
In the rare event that he seems to allude to an afterlife, context often shows otherwise. When he says (I:19) “Death is the origin of another life,” he seems to be invoking heaven. But no — he’s referring to the death of one person making way for the life of another here on Earth, and quotes Lucretius to make the point:
Our lives we borrow from each other, and men like runners pass along the torch of life…All the time you live you steal from life. Living is at life’s expense.
Montaigne later says that everlasting life is not even something to wish for: It would be “much less bearable and more painful” to exist forever than to know one’s existence will eventually end, taking all torment and pain with it.
In 1676, the horrified theologians at last got their way: The Essays landed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books for 178 years.
Even in the Tetris game of his evolving opinions, belief in heaven would never have made a good fit with anything around it. This is a man who grappled at length with the idea of mortality and of his own eventual end. If he thought life was followed by rebirth on another plane, he would surely have said so. With a clear declaration that heaven awaits us, his white whale would have shrunk to a broiled and plated sea bass. Instead, Montaigne gave clear and constant evidence that he was struggling to make peace with a naturalistic view of death as the end of his existence.
As someone engaged in the same existential task, I’m grateful to Montaigne for taking it on. I’m also painfully aware that, in recognizing a shared mission with Montaigne, I’ve joined the suspect chorus of those who crow that Montaigne wears their jersey.
That’s fine. I can only offer my evidence and invite yours. When someone says, “Well of course Montaigne accepted death. He’s Catholic, he’s going to heaven to meet God,” it seems reasonable to ask for some indication of that belief among the half million words of a man who never stopped talking about what he held true. If he really believed he was destined to pop up elsewhere after he died — something that would have solved the central challenge of his philosophical life — I think he would have mentioned it.
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