LIKE MANY people, as he grew older Michel de Montaigne paid close attention to the workings of his body. He began to feel the cold in his bones; his servants brought him clothes at night “to warm my feet and stomach”. He liked to sleep for eight or nine hours, he tells his readers, and avoided “violent activities” that “bring on sweat”. He could not eat even two meals a day without vomiting—but if he skipped one, flatulence and a dry mouth ensued.
These are not the typical musings of a renowned thinker, but Montaigne’s “Essays” are not typical works of philosophy. In 1570, after sitting in Bordeaux’s parliament for 15 years, Montaigne retired to his chateau (pictured). This self-imposed solitude proved productive. He published two volumes of the “Essays” in 1580 and a third in 1588. In their pages he explores topics ranging from friendship to architecture to child-rearing. His prose weaves together history, personal experience and arguments from his favourite philosophers; anecdotes about his napping schedule are juxtaposed with maxims.
It was Montaigne who popularised the essay genre. The name derives from the French verb essayer, “to try”, and Montaigne viewed his chapters as attempts to understand a topic. In “Of Drunkenness”, for instance, he examines philosophers’ views on booze (Socrates and Cato both enjoyed a tipple). German drinking habits of the 16th century are mentioned several times, as are the author’s own tastes. But he never rules on whether drunkenness is right or wrong. Rather, he lays out a range of opinions and lets the reader decide.
Montaigne strove to see the world from other perspectives. In one chapter he recounts various South American customs, such as an unfamiliar drink (“it tastes a bit sharp”) and faith in soothsayers. He knew his European readers would find these habits puzzling, so, by way of balance, he delves into the “strangeness” of French society. He recalls a meeting with some South American tribesmen who, on visiting Rouen in the 1560s, asked why, in Charles IX, the French had a king who was ten years old.
The writer admits that his “Essays” are a personal undertaking rather than an authoritative, objective study. “Reader,” he confides, “I myself am the subject of my book.” The immediate context included the Wars of Religion that had engulfed France. Conflict between Protestants and Catholics ravaged Bordeaux—the philosopher’s siblings were on opposing sides—yet he resisted polarisation. For his time, Montaigne’s determination to consider other viewpoints was unusual. It still is.
The “Essays” document a changeable mind as well as a changing body. After the first editions were published, Montaigne edited them extensively, often adding entire paragraphs—which sometimes completely contradicted his original points. He read more books of philosophy, his opinions evolving with each. He contemplated his own mortality, which reshaped his outlook too. The “Essays” are the product of a questing intellect, which rejected dogma in favour of something more nuanced and original. ■
This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Body and soul”