The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, admirably introduced here by Guest Professor Sufjan Stevens, are some of my favorite reading, too.
Because they are about Montaigne and his attempts (essais) to know himself, holding nothing back of all he has ever thought or wondered about, they end up being about everything. The Essays, addressed to a “goal… private and domestic” and “dedicated to the private convenience of my relatives and friends,” speak to everyone and to every possible topic (To the Reader). Usually they wander far afield from what their titles purport to discuss. Prof Suf, understandably, thinks there is one called “On Socrates,” because he often makes an appearance, though he is never the actual topic. Frequently they contradict themselves and end inconclusively, brimming with ideas in tension with one another, much in the fashion of a Platonic dialogue and in line, indeed, with the time of wars of religion in which Montaigne lived and wrote. Individual sentences branch organically, in the same way striving to embrace more and more with each subsequent revision. Paragraphs are blocked off and marbled with quotations from the extensive library that kept Montaigne company in his retirement, including from those books he had inherited from his friend La Boetie, and from those mottos he had inscribed in the rafters of his tower room, overlooking the seignorial estate.
Donald Frame’s translation includes notes and brackets to indicate major amplifications or divergences between the various stages of writing. I highly recommend it, or Cohen’s translation (selected, and so perhaps less daunting to get into), or Screech’s (which preserves more scholarly apparatus, according to reviewers)–the main thing is to read him at first hand (albeit mediated by translators, going back to Florio, who transmitted him to Shakespeare, and to his adopted daughter Marie de Gournay, who published successive editions of the complete work, along with works of her own.) Someday maybe I’ll read the French, but even then, in my hypothetical retirement, I’ll only truly get any closer to the wavelike energy characteristic of Montaigne’s style by writing all the imaginary essays of my own I have in mind to get to work on someday, too. As my dad likes to say, retire early and often: so in what follows, let’s attempt, beginning with a discussion on Montaigne’s thoughts on play.
Like his contemporary Shakespeare, Montaigne enjoys a good scene, illustrative of character, centered on chess:
Why shall I not judge Alexander at table, talking and drinking his fill, or when he was playing chess? What sinew of his soul is not touched and employed in this silly and puerile game? I hate it and avoid it, because it is not enough a game, and too serious an amusement; I am ashamed to devote to it the attention that would suffice to accomplish something good…What I say of this example may be said of all others: each particle, each occupation, of a man betrays him and reveals him just as well as any other.– Of Democritus and Heraclitus
Like his forebears Socrates and Plato, he infuses everything he says and writes with a playful spirit, serious about it though he may be:
That worthy fellow from Greece used to say that children play with knucklebones, men with words.– On giving the lie
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.– Of three kinds of associations
Rousseau finds in him the point of departure for many of Emile’s exemplary games:
For among other things [Montaigne’s father] had been advised to teach me to enjoy knowledge and duty by my own free will and desire, and to educate my mind in all gentleness and freedom, without rigor and constraint. He did this so religiously that because some hold that it troubles the tender brains of children to wake them in the morning with a start, and to snatch them suddenly and violently from their sleep, in which they are plunged much more deeply than we are, he had me awakened by the sound of some instrument; and I was never without a man to do this for me.– On education
Along with the waking by music, surely one of the tenderest remembrances of life and literature to be found in the canon, Montaigne’s most famous passages tend to have to do with scatology, religion, philosophy, death, skepticism, and writing itself. But there is at least one major exception, maybe his best-known quote of all, flirting with the zeitgeist’s collective consciousness in gifs and memes:
When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?
The cat quote comes from early in the twelfth essay of Montaigne’s second book, Apology for Raymond Sebond, which also happens to be the longest of the essays. To the line in question, Frame appends the note:
The 1595 edition adds: “We entertain each other with reciprocal monkey tricks. If I have my time to begin or to refuse, so has she hers.”
For whatever reason, less well known is the almost exactly parallel statement about dogs, which appears in the prior chapter, Of cruelty:
I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.
Where the dog quote emphasizes Montaigne’s playfulness, the cat quote links this with imaginative perspective-taking. Perhaps this is why it is catnip for the bookish internet. Be that as it may, Montaigne’s essays are always illuminating to read thus in their full context, in conversation with one another, fun as it is to pull passages here and there to juxtapose and delight in. In the case of the lengthy Apology, besides his witticism about playing with his cat–or if you like his epiphany about who is playing with whom–Montaigne develops this significant theme of his love of animals from On cruelty with further examples of animal excellence. The Apology as a whole, though, is also written in response to his father’s request and that of a powerful female reader (“almost certainly Margaret of Valois,” according to Frame 319) to uphold the faith.
As Montaigne introduces the Apology, he explains that his father had asked him to translate Sebond’s Natural Theology into French, which he did. The book itself and its author are alternately praised and dismissed in the course of the essay. Prized as a gift and symbol of learning and a bulwark against the “innovations of Luther,” Sebond’s book is nevertheless forgotten under a pile of papers until Montaigne is set to translate it (320). The work on Natural Theology, which seems to be an attempt along the lines of Aquinas to harmonize Christian faith with unaided reason, is soon left behind, transcended, and folded into Montaigne’s large-scale survey of the deficiencies of human knowledge. Citing copiously the likes of Peter, Plato, Lucretius, Dante, both Christians and pagans are brought in to support Montaigne’s reflections, but more of the former than in the majority of his essays.
We have the passage with his cat quite early on, after only about ten pages of introduction of the project and a first glimpse of Montaigne’s jiu-jitsu-like approach to dealing with objections to Sebond’s book, namely, to press the weakness of knowledge and necessity of faith in matters of religion. Over against dusty piles of books, we have the live intelligence of the playful cat; humanity, in the person of Montaigne, restored to our proper place not so much as object of play (as a bitter Lear would have it, “they kill us for their sport”) but as humble subject among myriad subjectivities. But with the cat’s appearance, we launch into a significant portion of the essay which is dedicated to multiplying examples of the natural, animal world’s superiority over humankind (331-358).
On the one hand, Montaigne is looking back to the pagan world. All the way back, in fact, to “Plato, in his picture of the golden age under Saturn,” where he “counts among the principal advantages of man of that time the communication he had with the beasts” (331). On the other hand, readers today can’t help but be reminded of the accounts of the biblical golden age as developed by a century and more of children’s fantasy: Lewis in Narnia, Tolkien in On Fairy-stories, and Pullman in His Dark Materials. For the recovery of that lost communication, the ancients had their saturnalia and medievals their feasts of fools; as Bakhtin demonstrates, that comedic mystery is not totally lost even as late as Dostoevsky, but it seems to me Montaigne is a good deal closer in, certainly towards a figure like Rabelais. Plus, we have our Fall-narrative-permeated children’s literature and video games.
There is an unmistakable prescience in Montaigne’s unmethodical method here. The Apology anticipates both the revival of the natural sciences in the Enlightenment and the worship of nature by the Romantics. We see the literary precursor to both Pascal’s “thinking reed” and Rousseau’s fascination with free movement from infancy. The whole “noble savage” trope begins to be trotted out, but with reference to tribes in Europe, too. The great historian Barzun, perceiving this line of thought as a thread in the western imagination, which is not reducible to racism and denigration of the other, calls it simply Primitivism. In another mythic origin story, The Sword in the Stone, TH White’s young King Arthur will experience animal transformations along with his tutor Merlin, a making literal through the affordances of fantasy of Montaigne’s protean imaginative sympathy in the Essays.
This is not to say that the playful digression is left behind in the remainder of the Apology, either. After Montaigne moves on from the wisdom of animals to a survey of philosophy and other human fields, he continues to refer back to that thread which runs from the previous chapter and beyond, as we have shown. The sirens of Homer echo ye shall be as gods from Genesis, and Paul’s warning to the Colossians, Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy, encapsulates Montaigne’s entire defense of Sebond. To the contrary, he says, “we must become like the animals to become wise”(363). “I would even rather have followed those who worship the serpent, the dog, and the ox,” Montaigne exclaims, after a rundown of the differing views of the gods on the part of a litany of philosophers (and an aside to Twelfth Night festivities 383). Not unlike the Egyptians, who appear a couple pages later and also make a curious appearance in On Cruelty, where they are cited as sacrificing the images of things rather than the things themselves to their manifold gods (316-18) alongside a reference to the “civil wars” of Montaigne’s time. In much the same fashion, Montaigne here resumes his discussion of then-contemporary religious strife with an intriguing reflection on the little words hoc est corpus and the need for “a new language” for the purposes of communication with “Pyrrhonian philosophers,” the radical skeptics with whom Montaigne is sometimes grouped (392). The passage culminates in his motto, “what do I know?” and the image of the pair of scales representing his judgment, his aspiration for balance.
Still, Montaigne’s flow of the regular old vernacular flows on unimpeded. If we care to keep listening, he carries us along and back to Plato once more, misquoting felicitously his words about “nature…an enigmatic poem,” where what the dialectician seems to have said is that “poetry is by nature enigmatic” (400). But this is rather to support than to deflect from Montaigne’s point: so is all human effort. Once more, language itself, not the religious Latin this time but the common speech of the regions of the former Roman empire, comes in as a metaphor and synecdoche of knowledge as a whole. In the same way that “by adding the Italian ending, he would never fail to hit some dialect of the country,” so with philosophy: “it has so many faces and so much variety, and has said so much, that all our dreams or reveries are found in it” (408). He can explain this to himself by preferring to suppose the philosophers “treated knowledge casually, like a toy to play around with,” and resolves and advises us to do the same.
Having gone so far, noting the appearance of reincarnation in the Timaeus and the poets alike, making fun of the confusion not only over the destinations of souls into bodies, whether male or female, human or animal, but over the very mechanism of corporeal conception, Montaigne adopts a less bawdy and erudite tone momentarily to recur to Sebond and address his (royal?) reader directly, admonishing a “final fencer’s trick” should their relentlessly irreverent interlocutor remain unpersuaded (418). To whit, “the things that come to us from heaven have alone the right and authority for persuasion, alone the stamp of truth; which also we do not see with our own eyes, or receive by our own means” (423). In manner reminiscent (prescient, visionary) of Descartes’ Meditations (even with the same image of the wax, drawn from Ovid 421); or Heraclitus’ fragments or Nietzsche’s poignant epigraphs (“And we, and our judgment, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly” 455); or DuBois’ double consciousness (“According to us, or according or the snake? By which of the two points of view shall we prove its real essence, which we are seeking?” 451)–through all the rest of this interminable essay, Montaigne continues to play with his cat, so to speak.
At last, giving the undergrads a terrible example, Montaigne plagiarizes wholesale a long passage from Amyot’s translation of Plutarch’s Moral Essays, interpolating more Lucretius (who provided him with the snake variation on his dog and cat passages) and replying with Seneca “what a vile and abject thing is man” (457). For all that, note the rest of the quote: “if he does not raise himself above humanity!” to which Montaigne appends: “He will rise, if God by exception lends him a hand.” Note that for all the role of poetry and philosophy, the Stoics, the skeptics or Pyrrhonians, and Plato’s contributions to his thought, Montaigne continues to essay playfully and to set forth that great self-reflecting and other-reflected-upon thought, passing through the gauntlet of doubts and concluding with faith.