In 1571, as France was rocked by the violence of religious extremism, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne withdrew to his country estate near Bordeaux, trudged up the steps to his tower library, and tried to make sense of what seemed an increasingly senseless world.
The observations Montaigne made about humanity sound as if they were drawn from today’s headlines. “The evil methods which men use to get ahead in our century,” he lamented, “clearly show that their aims cannot be worth much.” Montaigne despaired for his times. “I live in a season,” he declared with an almost audible sigh, “when unbelievable examples of this vice of cruelty flourish.”
Confronting the callousness of his day, Montaigne raised the same questions many of us have asked after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Why are humans cruel to each other? What’s the best way to prepare for death, even when we aren’t sure about when it will arrive? What do we owe ourselves, and each other? How sad should we be in the face of tragedy, and when must sadness grow into something harder, like resolve?
They were tough questions, and Montaigne responded by sinking quietly into himself for a while and not doing much else. He was only 38 years old, and that kind of detachment didn’t come easily for him. He would, in the course of an eventful life, serve as a magistrate, an adviser to three French kings, a mayor, and a mediator between the warring Protestants and Catholics who were tearing France apart. Montaigne was, by disposition, a doer, not a dawdler.
But his down time bore fruit. Montaigne began to record his reactions to what was on his mind – not as a soldier or diplomat, philosopher or priest, but simply as one man trying to understand himself and, by extension, humanity. In doing so, he created the personal essay – the form of writing that newspaper columnists and bloggers still use today to sort out a controversy, mull over a mystery, muse on a foible or challenge a popular assumption.
Montaigne didn’t come to any clear conclusions about man’s place in the cosmos or the dimensions of his soul, but his essays gave us something almost as good: the story of one man sitting alone, thinking for himself, refusing to let some craven orthodoxy do his thinking for him. His “Essays,” still in print more than four centuries later, are an abiding answer to zealots everywhere. They’re alternately wistful and wry, tender and funny, philosophical and farcical –the same French frame of mind that we continue to count as an international treasure. What you hear in Montaigne is the calm but persistent voice of dissent, the faint stirring of a democratic spirit, a mind’s magical turning away from the medieval to the modern. It’s music to the ears of every free man, a raspberry blown in the face of fundamentalists.
Which is why, in the days after the most recent atrocities in Paris, I pulled Montaigne from the shelf – all 1,300 pages of him – and placed his “Essays” in my lap as a steadying anchor. I wasn’t seeking advice or certainty from Montaigne, whose reflexive literary gesture was a cheerful shrug. “What do I know?,” his most famous query, has become such a part of his legacy that it might as well be on his coat of arms.
What I’ve wanted from Montaigne these past few days, more than what he thought, is the useful reminder of how he thought – by disconnecting from the dissonance of his life, if only for a little while, and letting his brain roam wherever it might go. That’s what I’m continuing to look for on this Thanksgiving weekend as the cable news throbs, the Twitter feeds hum, and dark headlines cling like thorns to my consciousness. Montaigne knew that sometimes, the best way to love an injured world is to hold it at a distance. “The greatest thing in the world,” he concluded, “is to know how to belong to oneself.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”