I USED TO IMAGINE Michel de Montaigne as a voluntary hermit, tucked away in his book-lined tower, inventing the essay as religious wars raged down below. This image is unrepresentative and misleading. Montaigne pursued a public career and lived a dangerous life. At various times, he was kidnapped by bandits, forced to outwit a neighbor who tried to seize his estates, and constrained to stay outside the city of which he was mayor, lest he be assassinated. His retirement from the drama of his times indicated the failure of political ambition, not the fulfillment of a hermetic vocation.

Perhaps Montaigne’s worst misadventure took place in Paris in 1588, when he was caught in the wake of a political incident so dramatic it later became the subject of operas. He was visiting Paris to speak with King Henry III of France, when the king decided to murder his most troublesome subject. The victim, the Duke of Guise, led an organization called the Catholic League, dedicated to preventing the orderly succession of the crown. The king thought the League might give up its insurrectionary posturing if it were beheaded. But his gambit didn’t work. Once news of Guise’s death reached the streets, the king found himself fleeing his own seat of government to escape enraged mobs. Montaigne, a lifelong loyalist, fled with him — but then returned to Paris soon after to check on the printing of his book. He was seized and thrown into the Bastille.

According to an entry in Montaigne’s private almanac, mere hours passed before the queen sprang him from jail. While hardly the most injurious of his calamities, it was probably the most insulting. Incarceration marked the low point in a political career in which virtually every success was unintended and every intention unsuccessful. At 55, Montaigne gave up on kings, courts, and diplomacy, and retired to his estate for good. Four years later, he was dead.

Philippe Desan’s biography gives back to us the political Montaigne, a figure long displaced by another. The image of Montaigne immured in his tower — an image he himself began to cultivate before he died — has only grown stronger over the centuries: he seems to represent thought and literature outside history and above politics, access to a universal human condition and a perennial philosophy. He is a powerful symbol, a paragon of subjective contemplation in an era of faction and unrest. But Desan suggests this symbol represents something anachronistic and dangerous:

We like to see in [Montaigne] the moment of introspection, of withdrawal and self-sufficiency. […] Montaigne, in retirement in his tower, anticipates Descartes closed up in his stove. Each in his own way, Montaigne and Descartes are said to have left the world to give us philosophy. This idea, which seeks to essentialize human experiences, expresses an abandonment of politics.

Desan’s book, translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, is long and his style is tedious; he makes no concessions to readability or narrative; he piles up details and digresses as far as he needs to in order to support his least claim; but this rebarbative forensic style is probably necessary in a polemic against a myth as entrenched and cherished as that of an apolitical Montaigne. Many reviewers have complained about Desan’s project and suggested that foregrounding the political Montaigne completely misses what makes him notable in world history — his literary importance, that he established the essay as a genre, or that he somehow invented the modern subject through the honesty and inwardness of his disclosures. But these critics neglect the fact that Montaigne’s literary-philosophical innovations grew directly out of failed strategies designed to serve his political ambitions. The true story makes a better and more interesting history.

¤

The first edition of Montaigne’s Essais was published in 1580, at only about a third of its eventual length. He had cobbled it together over the preceding decade. Its audience, argues Desan, was really just one man: King Henry III. Montaigne wished to be appointed an ambassador, and he thought his book would help.

It was an audacious ambition for someone from Montaigne’s social class. His family, the Eyquems, were barely 100 years removed from their purchase of an estate in Aquitaine, and were of questionable nobility in the first place. In 16th-century France, several degrees of nobility jostled against one another. The “nobility of the sword” were the old nobility — aristocratic warriors with ancestral lands and long pedigrees. The “nobility of the robe,” by contrast, comprised rich locals who staffed city-based appellate courts known as parlements. They were lesser, dubious, pseudo-nobles, often referred to by the derogatory epithet “robin(s).” In Montaigne’s youth and early manhood, his claim to nobility rested on his great-grandfather’s estate, and on his father’s, and then his own, position in the parlement of Bordeaux. He was a robin. Moreover, before long he was a failed robin. In 1571, Montaigne resigned from the parlement and retired to his estate, “the logical outcome of several years of marginalization in a milieu full of intrigues and machinations.” It was the first of many political failures. Yet, shortly thereafter, he was vying to be an ambassador, a direct representative of the king on the international stage. What happened?

About a year after Montaigne left the parlement, a strange and undeserved honor had transformed his prospects. Out of the blue, the King awarded him with the medal of the Order of St. Michael, an annual honor typically conferred upon just a few prominent nobles of the sword. Membership in the order confirmed one’s personal loyalty to the king. Montaigne had done nothing to deserve it. Desan suggests that he received it through the patronage of his neighbor, Gaston de Foix, whose client Montaigne became. Foix wanted to use Montaigne in national politics, but first he had to firm up his man’s claim to nobility. Throughout Foix’s life, Montaigne remained at his beck and call. With his medal Montaigne had, as if by magic, acquired convincing and tangible proof that he was not just a robin, but a noble of the sword, a true noble. Thereafter he would enjoy heaping scorn on the robins. He developed the idea of becoming a special diplomat or ambassador. The Order of St. Michael rendered this ambition plausible.

The first edition of the Essais amounted to a resume for the job. The book’s style suggests its function: “Montaigne foregrounds his concise, direct style, appropriate to the straightforward and laconic speech of the ‘briefs’ dictated or written by ambassadors.” Its subject matter also suggests its function. Montaigne mostly limits himself to discussions of warfare, diplomacy, and politics, avoiding the self-revealing and digressive ruminations on his body and immediate environment for which he would later be praised as a literary innovator. He had Essais delivered to Henry III and, when they first met, stated that he and his book were one: “According to La Croix du Maine, the king complimented Montaigne on his work. Montaigne replied: ‘Sire, … I must necessarily please your Majesty because my book pleases you, for it contains nothing but a discourse on my life and my actions.’” Desan continues:

It can be argued that in 1580 the book served Montaigne as an introduction into a career that was not in any way literary, but rather political. His ideal reader (the king) was less fond of literature than he was looking for a good servant capable of representing him. 

Montaigne’s plan seemed to work, at first. The king liked his book, and shortly thereafter Montaigne traveled to Rome in the belief that he would receive an appointment as the interim ambassador to the most important city in Christendom. He didn’t get the job, preempted by nobles with better claims and higher connections. Henry III and Gaston de Foix conspired to install him in a different position. While still in Italy, Montaigne was named mayor of Bordeaux. It was an honor he did not want, having recently repudiated the city’s local politics by resigning from its parlement. He had tried to leap to a higher level, but was now plunged deeper than ever into the mire he had sought to escape. To show his displeasure, Montaigne dragged his feet in returning from Rome, and the king wrote him an exasperated letter.

Montaigne made a competent mayor for two terms, but never gave up his real ambition. He still wanted to be a diplomat and, eventually, he got his second chance.

In the 16th century, Aquitaine was the red center of France’s hardest problem: religious violence between Protestants and Catholics. The general unrest was exacerbated by the proximity of the Kingdom of Navarre, whose Protestant ruler happened to be heir to the Catholic Henry III. The country was divided against itself — a perfect environment for an ambitious diplomat to make his mark. Montaigne, respected by both kings, thought he could bring peace to the realm. Toward the end of his tenure as mayor, he was neglecting his administrative duties in furious pursuit of diplomacy. But no mere diplomat could overcome this crisis: unless the heir converted to Catholicism, negotiation was fruitless. After his failed stint as intermediary, Montaigne retired from politics again, turning back to his Essais.

But this retirement too was far from peaceful. To escape a deadly epidemic, Montaigne and his retinue fled their own lands and lived for months at a time on the charity of friends. The land was rife with bandits, and violence often broke out between casual acquaintances with religious differences. Amid this chaos, Montaigne began to expand his old book in a new way. A third — and thoroughly revamped — edition appeared in 1588:

Following his service as mayor of Bordeaux and the failure of his first negotiation between Henry III and Navarre, Montaigne had not thought it best to pursue the military and diplomatic developments in his first chapters. On the contrary, he had written much more about himself, his experiences, his personal judgments, even his eating habits and other details of his private life.

But Desan believes that, even at this point, Montaigne had yet to assume the character literary history would ascribe to him, because he had still not given up his political aspirations altogether. The last spasm of Montaigne’s ambitions resulted in the ill-starred trip to Paris and his hour in the Bastille. He was trying once more to mediate between the king and his heir, this time at Navarre’s behest. Desan marks this debacle as the real turning point:

This imprisonment left its mark and for that reason was a crucial moment in Montaigne’s political career. He offers a detailed account of this incident that contrasts with the brevity of other entries in his almanac. The circumstances of his arrest in Paris, a city controlled by the [Catholic] League, shook his confidence in a new approach to politics. His wager had turned into a fiasco, and once again, politics had not been good to him.

On the way back home, the morose Montaigne met someone who changed everything: a fan. Marie de Gournay had encountered Montaigne’s Essais in her youth, fallen in love with them, and now seized the opportunity to invite their author to her estate. He accepted. “At that precise instant,” writes Desan, “Montaigne found a new career: he would be a writer, period. An audience — other than the king and high government officials, and even his friends and relatives — existed for his book, and it was young Marie who made him aware of that.”

In the last four years of his life, Montaigne prepared a version of his book that he would not live to see in print. He prepared it by writing hundreds of extensive annotations in the margins of several older copies. In this way, a whole book’s worth of material was added to an already substantial volume, and most of the editions that sit on our shelves today incorporate those annotations. Desan calls this method of amplification Montaigne’s “practice of the margins,” both literally and figuratively. Montaigne took to the margins of his own book as he took to the margins of politics and history, finally recognizing that he was not destined to change the world as a statesman: “the form of the essay is the product of a political reality that forced Montaigne to withdraw to his estate, because he had failed to have a career in the service of the state and the king.”

In those last years, Montaigne removed from his book many allusions to the events of his time, generalized his maxims, and recreated the implied narrator of the Essais as an outsider. But he only lived this narrator’s lifestyle at the very end, when he had thoroughly exhausted the alternatives. Montaigne was the first conspirator in the construction of the myth of Montaigne. His book is a resume salvaged as art.

¤

In 800 difficult pages, Desan explores the story I have briefly summarized. It constitutes his argument that Montaigne’s life was not a literary life interrupted by politics, but a political life aided by and finally reduced to literature.

At many points, Desan is boldly revisionary. He contests Montaigne’s reputation for tolerance, his characterization of his famous friendship with La Boétie, and his claim to have met and interviewed cannibals at Rouen. And though it is often said that Montaigne was censored by the Inquisition, Desan shows that he had actually submitted his book to the Inquisition, received a list of potentially problematic passages, responded to it effectively through argument and revision, and received the benediction of the church. His “censorship” was not evidence of independent thinking, but a savvy publication strategy designed to preempt controversy. In short, the Montaigne who emerges from Desan’s pages is a smaller, more vulgar man than the one we tend to imagine. But I don’t think this disillusion is cause for disappointment.

What sets essaying apart from asserting is failing. Diversion, digression, ambiguity, uncertainty — these are essential, not inimical, to the form. But an essayist who aims for uncertainty is unsatisfying. In good essays, we witness writers grappling genuinely with unanswerable questions, trying to answer and failing, coming by their uncertainty in an honest manner. It is appropriate that the story of the first self-conscious essayist and his times should also be the story of an honest failure: “In the early 1580s, politics looked very much like the form of the essay. Everything was in movement and contested.”

Where did the myth of an apolitical Montaigne come from? Desan’s hypothesis is that Montaigne has suffered from his appropriation as a sort of ur-liberal:

Modern liberal thought discerns in Montaigne the starting point of its history. This is notably the case for readings that see in the Essais a quest for freedom, that is, an intellectual posture that gives priority to freedom of thought and freedom of expression to the detriment of political action, which is deemed to be inessential and is thus relegated to the background. But let us make no mistake: most of the strictly philosophical readings of Montaigne are the expression of a form of (unconscious) ideological appropriation that aims to place the universal subject on a pedestal, to the detriment of its purely historical and political dimension.

We remember Montaigne because he brought three things into conjunction: the subject matter of individual, private life, the literary form of the personal essay, and the discourse of toleration. But he did not create this novel blend ex nihilo — he discovered it in the travails of experience. Montaigne’s Essais are a diversion from his intended career path, embodying in form and content the disappointment of his ambitions.

Not Montaigne’s book but his life was the first essay.

¤

Robert Minto is a writer and a philosopher.