Fear, and what to do about it: the teachings of Michel de Montaigne

“The thing I fear most is fear.”

Such were the words of Michel de Montaigne, the French writer of Essays.

Like all humans, Montaigne struggled with fear. How did he wrestle with it, try to conquer it?

Montaigne was a thinker, alone in a library, his library, pondering. Alone, as he was in conception, as he will be in death. Alone, facing his maker, facing the universe, facing himself. No one thinks but that they are alone. In such times fear is greatest. No other can think for us. Only an individual can think, can hope to know. And so he sits and thinks, surrounded by books, classics: Sallust, Seneca, Plato, Livy, and especially Plutarch. Surrounded as well by quotes, statements carved into the wooden rafters of the thinker’s hall, reminding him of earlier thinkers, of great thoughts. They are not his thoughts but he wants them to be. He wants them to seep within him, became a part of him, become him. Old thoughts resurrected, restored, renewed. What were another’s thoughts to become his, singularly expressed, unique, once-in-a-lifetime thoughts.

Montaigne had cause to think. His life was filled with thought and confusion, joy and sorrow, peace and conflict–fear. Sixteenth-century France was a time of moral, political, and intellectual chaos, when the dearest assumptions of the Western Tradition were turned upside down. Michel de Montaigne’s birth coincided with the rise of Spanish power throughout Europe, due in part to Columbus’s discoveries and the Spanish conquest of Central and South America. Europeans confronted hitherto unknown continents and peoples, which showed the limitations of classical geographic knowledge and the theories and maps upon which contemporary Europeans based their knowledge. When Montaigne was a child Nicolaus Copernicus died, in 1543, simultaneous to the publication of his On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, which contradicted the geocentric universe advocated by the Church as well as the greatest astronomers of antiquity. Such discoveries placed the assumptions of the Catholic Church—the assumption of the Fall of Man, and the special place the unmoved Earth held in God’s system—into question; but these intellectual concerns appeared as minor nuisances compared to the threat of the protest inaugurated by the Augustinian monk Martin Luther in Germany and the French legal scholar Jean Calvin in Geneva. France became a literal battleground over competing ideas of election, salvation, scripture, and authority, which exacerbated the political conflicts of the country as monarchy competed with aristocracy over their comparative pretenses to power. Religious conflicts became a blanket justification for any kind of horror. Is it a coincidence that Montaigne began the Essays the same year as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when on an August day in 1572 Catholics killed ten thousand Protestants of all ages and both sexes? Montaigne’s own chateau was threatened on several occasions; one time Protestants briefly took him prisoner. His family the Eyquems were like many French families divided over the issue; at least Michel and his brothers and sisters remained at peace with one another.

Montaigne was born and lived at the family estates in the wine region of Bordeaux. He served for years in the Bordeaux parlement, and was an adviser to royalty. He married in 1565, just three years before his father’s death to kidney stones. The son inherited the disease five years later, and lived with it for almost twenty years before it finally killed him in 1592. Montaigne enjoyed semi-permanent retirement during these years of disease and expectation of death. He typically spent his days in his library, secluded from the rest of the chateau. There he surrounded himself with the past, with his favorite authors and their profound words, carved into the beams of the ceiling and elsewhere throughout the cylindrical room.

Montaigne wrote the course of his life into his book. In Book One of the Essays, written from 1572 to 1580, Montaigne commented on the lives, works, and personalities of the authors of his favorite books. He wondered about the customs, habits, and needs of himself and others, such as wearing clothes, counting money, and sleeping. He thought about his varying emotions, his need for solitude, his vanity, fear, and cowardice. Saddened by the death of his friend Etienne de La Boetie, he wrote of friendship, suffering, and death. He followed the ancient Stoics in believing that one must control one’s passions and live moderately, rid oneself of needless emotions and conquer the fear of death. Philosophy can teach us how to die, Montaigne declared, as had so many philosophers before him. But great thoughts could not turn away the fear of acquiring, and pain of having, kidney stones.

In Book Two, written during the same decade of the 1570s, Montaigne considered his inconsistency and contradictions, vicariously explored suicide, considered his intellectual influences, thought and wrote about his father, and discussed the three greatest men: Homer, Alexander of Macedon, and Epaminondas of Thebes. His longest and most profound essay in Book Two is the Apology for Raimon Sebond, in which Montaigne challenged the human presumption of reason, questioned what can be known, and explored the dependence of humans upon God. The skeptical Apology betrayed the direction Montaigne was heading in his Essays: inward towards exploring the self.

Montaigne wrote the thirteen essays of Book Three during the 1580s. These are introspective, intuitive essays in which Montaigne discovered the universality of his own experiences, confronted his own mortality, and discovered the means of achieving contentment. The final essay, Of Experience, expresses the essence of what scholars call Renaissance humanism: it surpasses Petrarch’s Secret in the portrayal of the interaction of human and personal experience. In its depth it makes Francis Bacon’s Essays appear like the writings of a child. Not as humorous as Erasmus’s satire, In Praise of Folly, nevertheless Montaigne’s Of Experience is a more complete and penetrating portrait of human limitations and possibilities.

Montaigne’s bitterness about the violence of the age in which he lived and the problems in the country that gave him birth exuded from the pages of the Essays. “What causes do we not invent for the misfortunes that befall us?” Montaigne wrote in How the Soul Discharges its Passions on False Objects when the True are Wanting. “On what do we not place the blame, rightly or wrongly, so as to have something at which to thrust?” Some even “surpass all madness . . . , adding impiety to folly,” blaming “God himself.”

Conflict is an unavoidable fact of human existence. Political and religious conflicts that yield war and destruction are the most dramatic and horrifying examples of what humans do to each other. But the most numerous conflicts—ubiquitous in human experience—are the hidden and subtle conflicts within each person, who daily wages a war of ideals versus realities, inclinations followed by hesitations, fear and hope, mind versus body. Hence beneath the surface of the religious conflicts of sixteenth-century France were the personal conflicts of normal people. Often they were religious in nature: faith and reason, sin and redemption. Others were the brutal conflicts brought on by sickness, decay, death. Montaigne, for example, waged as fierce a battle with himself on a private scale as those terrible public wars waged by his French countrymen. Montaigne waged a battle against fear. His rival for peace of mind were the minute mineral deposits that formed in his kidneys, which when blocking the passage of the urine, caused tremendous pain, eventually death. On St. Bartholomew’s Day, when public conflict was brought to a head, Montaigne had not yet experienced the stone. But he feared that he would. And fear is much more powerful indeed than actuality.

Death, an all too frequent visitor for a man who lost his father, best friend, younger brother, and five children all by the time he was fifty, transfixed Montaigne. In a 1570 letter, Montaigne dedicated to his wife Francoise de La Chassaigne his friend La Boetie’s translation of Plutarch’s “Letter of Consolation to His Wife.” The couple had recently lost their first born, Thoinette, at the age of two months. Montaigne claimed that all of his feelings regarding the sad event were best summed by Plutarch, who consoled his wife upon the death of their daughter at the age of two.

Montaigne and his wife had five times the experience of this most fleeting moment of life. Six daughters they conceived and brought forth: all save one died within three months. The last, Marie, died within a few days of her birth. Montaigne was (like Plutarch) not the type to bounce an infant on his knee in play. Yet to bury five infants, five wonderful examples of God’s grace, each a singular incarnation, took a significant toll on Montaigne, who characteristically (and stoically) submerged his feelings under the weight of philosophy and faith. What more proof is needed to show humans to be, in Aeschylus’s words, “creatures of a day,” doomed to mirror the passing instant, overwhelmed by the passage of time, uncertain where they are going and where they have been, living only in the narcissistic moment?

Death defined Montaigne’s being. Each moment was potentially a singular experience of joy and wonder if it was not that the passing seconds move one that much closer to the end. Montaigne argued in That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die that he should constantly have the image of death before him. Only in this way may he conquer the fear of death. At the same time that he counseled his readers to accept “divine will” and God’s “inscrutable wisdom,” he was descending deeper into the unforgiving world of thought. He ironically thanked God for the constant “brooding over my thoughts” that would make him the one man prepared “to leave the world . . . utterly and completely.” He anticipated and expected so much as to lose sight of the present for the future. Surrounded by the cold stone walls of his library, the thoughts and examples of countless others, Montaigne entered into an imaginary world where he vicariously explored the range of human experience.

Montaigne was never more miserable than during the twelve years that he witnessed his father’s slow death then awaited his own fate. His fears came true in 1573 when he began to feel abdominal discomfort and he knew that his father’s disease was now his. Then in 1578 came the first awful stone, blocking the urine then slowly proceeding through the penis, ripping the skin, and gushing crimson blood when expelled. The pain was unbearable. His fears grew more intense. When would a stone grow so big within the kidneys as to grind up his organs and his ability to expel waste, so killing him?

During this decade of expectation and fulfillment, of expecting the onset of disease, acquiring it, then awaiting death, Montaigne began his Essays—not so much because he awaited death, rather because he feared it. He wanted to know why he feared it. Why did this simple feeling about an as yet undetermined future so dominate his existence? But if he was to understand his fear, he had to understand other, related things, too. Fear is the product of imagination. “We drip with sweat, we tremble, we turn pale and turn red at the blows of our imagination.” Yearning to understand his images of doom, the abstractions of his mind, “that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.”

Fear was Montaigne’s constant companion. The abstractions of his mind took off “like a runaway horse” during his mid-thirties. Death appeared to Montaigne as “so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose.”

At first he tried to employ his powers of reason to control his imagination. More, he hoped to “help it and flatter it, and fool it” if possible. If only his mind “could persuade as well as it preaches, it would help me out very happily.” Day upon day he reasoned with himself, preached to himself, trying to make an apparent evil good, trying to bring pleasure out of suffering. He tried to convince himself that the stone was “for my own good.” “Of the men who are stricken by it there are few that get off more cheaply.” And they are dependent upon the advice, worse, the remedies of physicians. Montaigne began to feel pride as well that he could “hold my water ten hours and as long as anyone,” and though in the grip of pain he could keep up “conversation with . . . company with a normal countenance.” He convinced himself that he was joining the company of the ancient Stoics, through Nature’s favor, controlling the body, elevating the mind. He rationalized his ailment. “But you do not die of being sick, you die of being alive. Death kills you well enough without the help of illness.” Sickness granted him a unique personal experience: in a single moment he could experience the joys and horrors of life: “Is there anything so sweet as that sudden change, when from extreme pain, by the voiding of my stone, I come to recover as if by lightning the beautiful light of health, so free and so full?” Montaigne discovered death’s irony that amid its universality is the uniqueness of the particular experience in countless moments of time, never again to be repeated. Human death mirrors human life, human existence, human history, as infinite unique events become the past moving toward the future. The oneness yet individual uniqueness of man is seen most clearly through death. And if one feels terror because of death one also feels beauty and love, for without death life itself would be meaningless. Human love for another requires a sense of an end.

Montaigne’s game of matching his wits against his fears was a delaying action with no possibility of success. On days when his fears became worse, his technique was to “provide other ways of escape.” To aid his reason in the conquest of the imagination, Montaigne kept a personal history of his disease, randomly jotting down his experiences on paper. He would resort to these “Sibyl’s leaves” whenever an image of doom sprang from his fears. “If some grave stroke threatens me, by glancing through these little notes, . . . I never fail to find grounds for comfort in some favorable prognostic from my past experience.” But abstractions of the mind are not so easily destroyed. Just when one perceives victory, some new thought jumps in, fresh, strong, full-armored, and the battle begins anew. With such tactics the war will last until death. Montaigne sensed that though his ruminations were beneficial, and helped him to endure uncertainty and crippling fear, that ultimately some other tactic must be relied upon. Face it, he told himself, the ways of illness, of all existence, are fraught with “uncertainty” and “variety.” “Except for old age,” he concluded, “in all other ailments I see few signs of the future on which to base our divination.”

Montaigne’s bout with the stone gave him a historical perspective on the continuum of past, present, and future. He looked to the past to help him get through the momentary pain of the present and to help alleviate his fears of the future. Here we see life in microcosm: the uncertainty of time, of death, and consequent fears; the employ of reason to convince oneself that such fears are invalid; the use of the past to anticipate the future, to stabilize the present.

Montaigne’s personal historical perspective suggested to him that he reject reason for “actual sensation,” for the experiences and feelings of life, for action. Fear should yield action rather than contemplation in response. Hence, should a new development occur within him, even if it forces “pure blood out of my kidneys,” he must respond, “what of it?” and go on as before, chasing after his hounds “with youthful and insolent ardor.” Images of dread must be countered with the most basic sensations of life, and the primordial joy of living. Imaginary monsters vanish in the real heat of the noonday sun; evil shadows of night disappear in the bright hope of the full moon. “What would be the use,” Montaigne asked, in continuing the fight armed only with reason? The sensations of life cannot be abstracted, cannot be reasoned nor objectively known: only felt. Montaigne decided to wait out the disease, to endure it, to replace reasoning with the experiences and feelings of the moment, to combat the imagination with the reality of a present enlightened by past feelings and past experiences, both his own and those of other humans.

Near the end of his life Montaigne grew to respect Socrates above all men before the birth of Christ. Socrates was the exact opposite of Alexander, who was greedy for power, wealth, knowledge, even virtue. Such was the Europe of Montaigne’s time, immoderate even in good things such as devotion to religion, chaste living, the search for order, and passion for inquiry. Montaigne learned from Socrates that the amount of knowledge necessary to be happy is small indeed. It is because of time, no doubt, that humans can never accept where they are, what they are doing, what they have, who they are: each moment brings with it new opportunities.

The time spent reading, contemplating, pacing, writing, staring out of the windows of his library looking upon the peasants at work on the fields and vineyards of the lands of Montaigne, the endless hours ruminating, searching, trying to know the path to happiness, the way to knowledge, eventually appeared, Montaigne concluded at the end of his life, impious. Why should humans, should he, seek, question, ask, decide, move, plan, force, act upon those matters reserved for the will of God? What is the point to all of the rules of objective scholarship and scientific detachment if what we know or do not know, do or do not do, are in God’s hands anyway? One must accept. “I let myself go as I have come,” Montaigne confessed in Of Physiognomy; I combat nothing.” Balancing knowledge is ignorance; next to will is passivity. Though science and reason call, one must learn the value of faith. Mystery and miracles contradicted the well-trained philosopher’s mind of Montaigne. And yet the so-called stoic, skeptic, rationalist, atheist Montaigne, the Montaigne of the modern scholar, learned to refuse “to condemn,” “dogmatically, as false and impossible,” “prodigies or miracles,” any of which might have marked upon them the hand of God. Carved in the ceiling of his library was the line from the Psalmist, “Thy judgments are like a great deep.” Montaigne’s struggle to accept himself in light of his understanding of God is the story of his life and the theme of the Essays.


(Translations by Donald Frame, Stanford University Press)

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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