Ideas

Reading Montaigne: Why a 16th century writer still matters today

Michel de Montaigne was many things: a 16th century French writer, bureaucrat, and self-defined accidental philosopher. He’s also the inventor of a new literary form we now call the essay. His Essais – various "trials" or "experiments" in ideas – have touched centuries of readers and writers. Flaubert once exhorted us to "read him in order to live." Contributor Tony Luppino opens the writings and life of Western literature's original 'free thinker', who wrote on everything from idleness and liars, to wearing clothes and punishing cowardice.
A rare annotated copy of Michel de Montaigne's "Essais". (Georges Gobet/AFT/Getty Images))
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This was originally broadcast on February 11, 2019. 

Michel de Montaigne was many things: a 16th century French writer, bureaucrat, and self-defined accidental philosopher. He's also the inventor of a new literary form we now call the essay. His Essais – various "trials" or "experiments" in ideas – have touched centuries of readers and writers. Flaubert once exhorted us to "read him in order to live."

Contributor Tony Luppino opens the writings and life of Western literature's original 'free thinker', who wrote on everything from idleness and liars, to wearing clothes and punishing cowardice.

He is a 16th century man; he is of his time and he is often puzzling and strange for us. But the first impact when you read him is 'Oh my God! He's just like me!'- Sarah Bakewell

For many people, reading – and rereading – Montaigne becomes a lifetime pursuit. Tony Luppino first met Montaigne's work in 1971, when he was a university student mimeographing (yes, it was that long ago) the famous essay On Cannibals.

Tony Luppino standing in front of Montaigne's Tower in Dordogne, France. (Submitted by Tony Luppino)

His professor introduced him to the whole oeuvre of Montaigne, his breadth and erudition and good humour and seriousness and subversion.

Tony's been reading the essays ever since, and he even made a pilgrimage a few years ago to Montaigne's tower, east of Bordeaux in France's famed wine country. 

Montaigne supposedly retired to that tower in 1571 to devote himself entirely to writing. Although it turns out his life was much more complicated, and sometimes quite political.

He continually revised the essays, often scrawling new thoughts and ideas on slips of paper and tucking them into the original edition.

So reading Montaigne can sometimes mean perusing a section written in 1571, immediately followed by a sentence or two written nearly twenty years later, followed by more from another time entirely.

The effect is of a man talking and arguing with himself, exploring ideas, testing theses, ever in search of greater truth about life – and how to live.

Sarah Bakewell is the author of "How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer" 1:00

When you read Montaigne even now, you feel as though you're talking with a friend, open and unguarded and eager to share his thoughts. It's a lively conversation with someone from over 400 years ago, who's still vital and still trying to make sense of life.

 

Scholars continually add layers of meaning and nuance to his work, and that adds depth to reading the essays. But as author and Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell points out, "there's no 'should' about how to read Montaigne, there's no 'you should read him this way, you shouldn't read him that way'. It's really all good. It's all allowed." 


Guests in this episode:

  • Sarah Bakewell is a British writer of non-fiction and the author of  How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Other Press, 2011).
  • Philippe Desan is Professor of Romance Languages and Literature, and History of Culture at the University of Chicago. and the author of Montaigne: A Life, and the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Montaigne. He is also editor of the journal Montaigne Studies.
  • Warren Boutcher is Professor of Renaissance Studies, Head of School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London, and the author of The School of Montaigne in Early Modern Europe.
  •  Antoine Compagnon is Professor of French Literature at Collège de France, Paris, and the Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of Un été avec Montaigne, (soon to be available in English, spring/Summer 2019).
  •  Mark Greengrass is Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History, The University of Sheffield, U.K. and the author of Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648.
  • Richard Scholar is Professor at Durham University and the author of Montaigne and the Art of Free-Thinking.

Further reading:

  • The Complete Works by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame, (Everyman's Library, 2003).
  • The Oxford Handbook of Montaigne, edited by Philippe Desan, (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan, (Princeton University Press, 2017).
  • How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, (Other Press; Reprint edition, 2011).

Related websites:

 



**This episode was produced by Dave Redel.

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