“I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing else but myself.” That is not quite true; he talks about a great deal else in the Yet there was something to what he said when he added: “I study myself more than any other subject.
That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” Inscribed on the tympanum of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the legend, “Know Thyself.” This was the project Montaigne set to work on when in 1570, at the age of thirty-seven, he retired from public life to the tower on his estate in Gascony in which he kept his library of a thousand or so books.
In his excellent biography of Montaigne, the late Donald Frame remarks that most attempts to explain Montaigne’s mind and temper by the 25 percent of Jewish blood that ran in his veins have been properly cautious, as is Frame’s own: Probably attributable to it in some measure are his deep tolerance in an age when that was not in fashion; a rather detached attitude, typical of the Marranos and natural in them, toward the religion he consistently and very conscientiously practiced [Roman Catholicism]; his tireless curiosity, mainly but not solely intellectual; the cosmopolitanism natural to the member of a far-flung family.
, Montaigne makes only one, insignificant, mention of his mother, while he often refers to Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne, more than once as “the best of all fathers.” Montaigne was indeed fortunate in his father, who though not learned himself had great regard for learning, who had served as mayor of Bordeaux, and who took great care with his eldest son Michel’s education (Montaigne had four brothers and three sisters). Montaigne’s first tutor was a German who spoke Latin but no French, and so the boy was brought up speaking Latin exclusively until the age of six (his parents and household servants acquired enough Latin to converse with him).
The American critic Van Wyck Brooks once defined literature as “a great man writing.” The definition fits Montaigne exquisitely.
But then Montaigne was himself exquisitely well fitted—by birth, by temperament, by talent—for the kind of writing he did.
He is himself the most digressive of writers, always ready to tell a story, often from the chronicles of ancient history which he loved—usually to illustrate a point but sometimes, too, just because he thinks it a good story.
In his essays he found the form that best fit the shape of his own mind.
(How amusing he would have been on Marx and Freud, the two crushing systematizers of the modern era! Not until Rousseau’s , and Montaigne’s book, though written two centuries earlier, both feels more contemporary and is much wiser.
) Finally, he strikes the modern note in his self-absorption, which, D. None of this would have been possible if Montaigne had not been precisely the man he was.