I only really discovered Montaigne through Sarah Bakewell’s excellent How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, though references to him (which I apparently failed to pursue) peppered many of my lectures at university. Bakewell’s book is incredibly entertaining and accessible, and was a perfect introduction to a writer who, at first glance, can seem so alien. The reality, of course, is that Montaigne’s writing completely belies the stern portrait which glares at you from the cover of his Essays – he is funny, wise, thoughtful; the first writer to analyse his own internal life with such easy integrity and charm. I cannot think of a better guide through life’s thorniest questions.
Montaigne by Stefan Zweig is an exquisite offering from a writer who read the Essays with a particularly vivid intent; it is an excellent companion to the Essays, as well as being a remarkable work in its own right.
The context in which it was written imbues Zweig’s words with a terrible poignancy. Having been driven from Europe by the horrifying spread of Nazism, Zweig found himself in Brazil where, when exploring the damp cellar of his new flat, he found a copy of the Essais. It was a fateful discovery. For Zweig, the friendship and culture of Europe was everything, and he had been profoundly affected by his exile. In Zweig’s eyes, Montaigne had lived through a similar kind of cultural collapse – after the promise of the Renassiance where centuries were opening up where creative power, step by step, wave on wave, was carrying dark and chaotic existence towards the threshold of the divine, France has been struck by periods of incredible violence; the riots against the salt tax had been ferociously repressed in Bordeaux, and as a child, Montaigne witnessed terrible crimes against humanity. In spite of this, though, Montaigne successfully guarded his own, integral freedom – first through retiring to his tower and immersing himself in reading, and then later, through travel. For Zweig, who drew such important parallels between this and the violence of his own time, this was powerfully instructive; and ultimately, tragically, fatal. For at one point in his Essays, Montaigne suggests that a free man should choose the nature of his own death – and for Zweig, this became a very literal instruction. Over-burdened by the loss of his European ideals, and with no hope that the brutality sweeping across Europe would end, he eventually took his own life.
It isn’t something that Zweig addresses directly in Montaigne, and though it inevitably colours the experience of reading the book, Zweig’s writing, like Montaigne’s, is in fact full of an inspirational vitality. The challenge, he says, is to remain human in inhuman times; to live your own life, not simply to live. Zweig is brilliant at drawing out Montaigne’s most inspirational qualities – particularly his egalitarianism and tolerance. For the first few years of his life, he says, Montaigne’s father sent him to live with a family of poor woodcutters: In doing this, the father not only wants to accustom the child to “austerity and frugality”, in order to strength him, he wants to “bond him to the people from the outset and for him to experience the situation of those who have need of our assistance”, expressing a notion of egalitarian nurturing that seems almost inconceivable given the period. Of course, Montaigne’s life was cushioned by privilege, but those early ideals of freedom and egalitarianism stayed with him – as Zweig writes, He who demands freedom of thought for himself recognizes the same right for all men, and no one respected this tenet more than Montaigne…He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom on earth. What powerful ideals to speak across a span of four hundred years to a man who has just had to flee the genocial racism spreading across his own continent.
Zweig writes beautifully, transmitting Montaigne’s philosophy faithfully and without losing his own voice. I was, in particular, fascinated by the way in which he contextualises Montaigne’s life; the wheel of fortune, that favourite image of mediaeval literature, spins freely in Zweig’s account. Born at a time when the advancements of the Renaissance were at risk of being lost to a resurgent violence, Montaigne extracted himself from public life in order to focus on his own self-examination. In the late 1580s, when the Essays had given him such acclaim, he was summoned to negotiate a peace between the warring Henri de Navarre and Henri III, ultimately leading to the conversion of Henri de Navarre to Catholicism, guaranteeing centuries of peace and the glory of France. That’s quite a claim. Shortly before this zenith in his political life, though, Montaigne had been made a refugee from his home by the plague: Without even a coat, dressed in whatever he happens to have on, he flees the house without knowing where he is going, for no-one will take in a family fleeing a plague-ridden city. Far from being a recluse in a tower, Montaigne experienced life is all its glory and horror. It is in part what makes him such a timeless, wise literary friend, and what Zweig clearly found so compelling.
For Zweig, robbed of the Europe he valued so dearly, finishing the Essays marked the end of his own life. As Will Stone writes in the introduction to this beautiful Pushkin edition, he respectfully withdrew from the world, his artistic legacy to endure or fade at the discretion of posterity. The loss reminded me of a book I read last year, Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower, which offers a very different perspective on the same European crisis, and owes a similar debt to Montaigne’s incorruptible sense of self. For me, the last words of The Third Tower are the perfect articulation of Montaigne’s legacy – this, rather than Zweig’s final act, must be the true essence of the Essays.
Somehow, all it needs now is courage. Just don’t surrender your solitude for anything or anyone. How does Milton’s Satan put it? “What matters where, if I still be the same?” Whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.