The stroke of genius in Sarah Bakewell’s book about Montaigne is that she framed his biography as a guide to life. You could justify this as a way to appeal to a distracted 21st Century audience otherwise highly unlikely to read about a sixteenth century French essayist, but she makes that entirely unnecessary. What she shows is why Nietzsche had such a fondness for the diminutive and inquisitive skeptic: everything he wrote was really about his own life, and how best to live it, and he does it all with such brio and detail and humanity that you cannot help but be encouraged to follow his lead. He proves nothing that he doesn’t simultaneously subvert a little; he makes no over-arching argument about the way humans must live; he has no logician’s architecture or religious doctrine. He slips past all those familiar means of telling other people what’s good for them, and simply explains what has worked for him and others and leaves the reader empowered to forge her own future – or, rather (for this is Montaigne), her own present.
It’s a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. You can see its eccentric power by considering the alternative ways of doing what Montaigne was doing. Think of contemporary self-help books – and all the fake certainty and rigid formulae they contain. Or think of a hideous idea like “the purpose-driven life” in which everything must be forced into the box of divine guidance in order to really live at all. Think of the stringency of Christian disciplines – say, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and marvel at how Montaigne offers an entirely different and less compelling way to live. Think of the rigidity of Muslim practice and notice how much lee-way Montaigne gives to sin. This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. And it is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”. And of course it begs the question that Pascal posed: how can skepticism not be skeptical about itself? Is it, in fact, a self-refuting way of being?
Logically, of course it refutes itself. And you can easily torment yourself with that fact. When I first tried to grapple with philosophy, the need to force every text I read into the rubric of “is this the truth about the world?” dominated everything. And in retrospect, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you do not have a desire to figure out the truth about the whole, you’ll never start the philosophical project at all. And you can find in philosophy any number of clues about how to live; you can even construct them into an ideology that explains all of human life and society – like Marxism or free market fundamentalism or a Nietzschean will to power. But as each totalist system broke down upon my further inspection, I found myself returning to Montaigne and the tradition of skepticism he represents (and that reached one of its modern high points in the thought of Michael Oakeshott). Maybe we need to start with what little we actually do know – through experience, narrative, anecdote and conversation.
And here’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism. You can see why it has scarcely any resemblance to the fanatics, ideologues and reactionaries who call themselves “conservative” in America today.
But what Bakewell helped me see better is that Montaigne’s Stoic disposition really was influenced by a couple of epiphanies. The first was the loss of his dear friend, Etienne de la Boétie. The second was his own near-death experience in a riding accident. What he’s grappling with in both cases is loss. And what he seeks to do with his friendship is to understand what he lost more completely, which makes his essay “On Friendship” the greatest treatment of that theme ever penned. But his near-death experience – which he subsequently wrote down with eerily modern skills of careful observation – could be seen as the window onto his entire body of work. He works back from this reality – our inescapable finitude – to construct a deeper and more humane understanding of what life is for. By seeing the limits, he seems to say, we actually live more vividly and well and can die at peace with the world.
If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be this staring of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching. It is what our culture refuses to do much of the time, thereby disempowering us in the face of our human challenges. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.
Is this enough? Or is it rather a capitulation to relativism, a manifesto for political quietism, a worldview that treats injustice as something to be abhorred but not constantly fought against? This might be seen as the core progressive objection to the way of Montaigne. Or is his sensibility in an age of religious terror and violence and fanaticism the only ultimate solution we have?
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