Michel de Montaigne
I’m fond of quoting the French humanist Michel de Montaigne. He died on the 13th September 1592, but his observations are as relevant today as when they were written.
At forty-two Montaigne had a medal struck with the words, Que sçais-je?, meaning ‘What do I know?’. He’s best remembered today for his essays, where he examined what he did or didn’t know, accepting that we can’t know everything, while questioning everything. The essays were, in effect, his autobiography, but they didn’t give an account of his life in chronological order – I was born, I did this or that, etc. Instead, we get to know him through his thoughts, which are much more revealing than a conventional autobiography.
His portrait on the cover of my ageing copy of his essays, published in the late ‘50s, shows a bald man with a clear gaze, who looks as though he’s thinking about what to write about the experience of being painted. His translator, J M Cohen, describes him as modest, truthful, humorous, and objective. I’ve learned that he was fond of cats. He wrote, ‘When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, or I with her?’
I’m most likely to quote Montaigne on death. He thought that one ought to accept that one day we’ll die, and that we must make the most of life while we can. He was honest about mortality. ‘We must use plain words,’ he wrote, ‘and display such goodness or purity as we have at the bottom of the pot.’ He pointed out that we’ll be remembered according to how we’ve lived: ‘Wherever your life ends, there it is complete. The value of life lies not in its length, but in the use we make of it. This or that man may have lived many years, yet lived little. Pay good heed to that in your own life. Whether you have lived long enough depends upon yourself, not on the number of your years…’ That was very sensible advice.
But Montaigne gave just as much attention in his essays to diverse subjects such as cannibals, or the custom of wearing clothes, or smells. He quoted the Roman playwright Plautus, who wrote; ‘A woman smells most perfectly when she does not smell at all.’ The same might be said of men, methinks.
If Montaigne were alive today I think he’d be an entertaining contributor to the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot, and I’d love to ask him to dinner.