The First Liberal

How Montaigne made us modern.

In February 1571, on his 38th birthday, a one-time lawyer and courtier had a Latin inscription incised on a beam in his study. “Worn out with the slavery of the court and of public service, Michel de Montaigne … retires to the bosom of the learned Muses … to pass what may be left of a life already more than half spent, consecrating this ancestral dwelling and sweet retreat to his liberty, tranquility and repose.” He planned to hunker down at the Dordogne château where he grew up. But the sweetest part of the retreat, for him, was his library, vast for its time, of about 1,000 books. Soon he began to write the short prose pieces in French that he was to call his “essais.”

In the French of Montaigne’s day, the word essai meant something assayed or essayed … an experiment, a tasting. Certainly, there had never been anything in literature like these essays before: The experiment paid off—it tasted good. The first edition of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, published in 1580, when he was nearing 50, brought their author international renown, and it has never subsided. A pair of new books, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer and Saul Frampton’s When I Am Playing With My Cat How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing With Me?attest to the enduring fascination of these pieces: The sensibility behind them is at once centuries old and curiously modern.

In a preface to his collection, Montaigne warns us that he has only a personal aim: to leave behind a sketch of his character. He’s interested neither in any service to the rest of us nor in any glory for himself. His only dominion is the exploration of his own self: Le “moi,” c’est l’état.“So, reader,” he concludes, “I am myself the matter of my book: that is no reason for you to employ your leisure on a subject so frivolous and vain. Farewell, then …” Of course, Montaigne greets us with a farewell only because he knows that we will be unable to resist the temptation to turn the page and read on.

Sixteenth-century readers weren’t used to being addressed in this take-it-or-leave-it way by an author who presumed our interest in his character. But that’s not the only peculiarity of the work. Almost everything we learn about the author and his views is offered en passant. Indeed, though the essays have titles, it is usually hard to say what they are about. One essay, “On Some Verses From Virgil,”begins with the annoyances of aging. Many pages in, he announces his theme: “What has the act of generation done to men—this action so natural, so necessary, and so just—that we dare not speak of it without shame?” That leads us, via the Virgil passage, which is about marital sex between Venus and Vulcan, to a discussion of sex and marriage generally. Before long, he is bemoaning the inadequacy of his own endowment. Montaigne ends what he himself calls “this river of babble” by remarking that men and women are “cast in the same mold,” except for what is due to “education and customs.” The essay is about as linear as a series of blog posts.

Montaigne knows he tends to free-associate: One of his most frequent tics is to say some version of “Let me get back to the subject.” In the essay “Of Books,” he demands that an author “begin with the main point.” It was a standard he never once met himself. As an essayist, he preferred to capture consciousness via an artful sort of interior monologue. But the essays do have a certain consistency of outlook, and Montaigne’s perspective was as novel as his style. In fact, Montaigne has a fair claim to being the first liberal.

Liberalism, at its core, is not so much a doctrine as a disposition, a habit of mind, and it’s compounded of two principal elements: An abhorrence of cruelty and a sense of the provisional nature of human knowledge. These two currents run through Montaigne’s own sensibility, and to see how distinctive it was, it helps to recall the times. Sarah Bakewell, who’s particularly good at situating Montaigne in his period and place, offers a clear summary of the religious strife that raged during his life, including the infamous Massacre of St. Bartholomew, when thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands—no one knows exactly how many) were massacred in Paris and the provinces.

So Montaigne was urging toleration at a time when you could be burned at the stake for an error in theology. “It’s putting one’s conjectures at a rather high price, to burn a man alive for them,” he wryly observed, taking aim, in a single shot, at overconfidence and at cruelty, which he termed the “ultimate of the vices.” Judith Shklar, the great theorist of liberalism, has suggested why the two are more than contingently related. To hold cruelty to be the first of vices, she says, is to turn from the way revealed religion understands sin—as offenses against God. That’s easier if you can entertain the possibility that your religious convictions are wrong. Cruelty, Shklar says, is “a purely human verdict upon human conduct, and so puts religion at a certain distance.”

Fittingly, Montaigne’s response to cruelty was visceral before it was theoretical. For all his vaunted egoism, he had a gift for imaginative empathy; for putting himself in the shoes of another man, or the paws of another creature; for trying to guess how things might look to his cat.

He also had a gift for accepting that his guesses were merely guesses. People often say that Montaigne and Descartes are the first modern philosophical skeptics. But in Montaigne, skepticism isn’t a thesis; it is an attitude. If you wanted to label the position,you could say that Montaigne is a fallibilist. He believes we must always bear in mind our own endless capacity for error. Discussing the long-standing debates between geocentric and heliocentric astronomy, he writes, in a characteristic moment, “who knows but that a third opinion, 1,000 years from now, may overthrow the two former?” (Of course, a third view—that motion is always relative to a frame—did indeed show up, and sooner than Montaigne supposed.)

Saul Frampton’s book borrows its title from a remark in Montaigne’s longest essay, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” on the theme of human vanity, or what we might now call anthropocentrism. Much of the “Apology,” in fact, is taken up with comparing human beings to other creatures, and not to the advantage of our own species. But, then, a crucial aspect of Montaigne’s sense of self is, Frampton argues, its very creaturely, this-worldly engagement with our bodily explorations of a world we see and touch and sniff. (Would Descartes have written an essay, as Montaigne did, “on smells”?)Montaigne is not a philosopher engaged with argument, seeking certainties; he is a writer immersed in the experience of life as an embodied creature among other embodied creatures. Descartes, the philosopher, thought that cats were soulless automata; Montaigne knew they were animals, mind and body inextricably connected, very much like himself.

In the end, Frampton, like Bakewell, does what he aims to do, sending you back to Montaigne himself. But even after all their inventive explorations, how Montaigne got to be the man who could write these essays—how a liberal soul emerged in the provinces of 16th-century France—remains something of a puzzle.

The one unconventional feature of his education was his father’s resolve that Latin would be his native tongue. A tutor was hired to the purpose. Everyone else, including the servants, were commanded to speak only Latin when in earshot of the toddler. At 6, Montaigne was sent off to a boarding school in Bordeaux, 40 miles away, where the schoolroom study of Latin proved less congenial. Still, his conversation with the classics must be part of the answer to what made him the man he was. They freed him, like many of the other new humanists, from the hold of the religious commonplaces of his day. (Sarah Bakewell is terrific on the influence of the ancient Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics in his library.)

Then there was his enraptured friendship with Etienne de la Boétie, a brilliant scholar and humanist, which was another part of what made him into the thinker he became. When they met, Montaigne, who had studied law, was 24, and working for a court of appeals in Bordeaux. For four years, until la Boétie’s premature death, Montaigne enjoyed his friend’s “sweet company and society.” “If you press me to tell why I loved him,” he wrote, in one of his best known sentences, “I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering, Because it was he, because it was I.”

La Boétie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, written in his teens, asks why so many people “suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him … who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him?” La Boétie was the subject of a king who was supposed to rule by God’s favor, yet he took liberty to be the natural condition of mankind. So he was moving away from the ancient notion of liberty as participation in the life of the republic and toward the modern idea that liberty had, at its heart, a private life free from government control. This is why Montaigne’s later self-exploration—his sense of himself as a free individual, engaged in the making of a life of his own—was not a retreat from politics but a form of it. Montaigne loved his library, most of which was a bequest from La Boétie, but he was also the worldliest of men. What worried him was not intellectual disagreement but physical conflict. Faced with endless religious warfare, Montaigne intuited that his best approach would be to tease his contemporaries away from intolerance. (Christians, he noted, were treating each other less kindly than Muslims, or even animals, did.) He could make toleration attractive not so much by argument as by a gentle mockery: the deflation of human pretensions in general and philosophical and religious ones in particular.

In the years before he died, Montaigne found himself involved in the intrigues that brought his friend Henri of Navarre, a Huguenot prince, to the throne, as Henry IV, but nothing interfered with his endless revisions of the Essays. A handsome posthumous final edition of his masterwork was published in 1595. Three years on, Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes, extending religious liberty to Protestants, and bringing to a close a bloody era of religious conflict. Montaigne’s liberalism—that ethic of compassion and epistemic modesty—spread fitfully and reversibly and remains more aspiration than attainment. But within a few years of his death, it was starting to seem a mite less recherché. Modernity was creeping in, on little cat feet.