Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (a novel literary word in his day—it was his own genius that turned his “tests” or “trials” into an enduring genre) forms a trinity of Renaissance literary achievement with Shakespeare’s plays and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The non-fiction Essays, first published in 1580, has always been the least known of the trio, but the skeptical and humane French nobleman has always had his admirers, and Frampton’s learned, subtle, and engaging book shows why.
On his 38th birthday in 1571, Montaigne resigned his public offices in a France being torn apart by cruel religious wars, retired to “the sweet retreat” of his well-stocked library, first carving into its ceiling a quotation from the Roman poet Lucretius—”There is no new pleasure to be gained by living longer”—and essentially composed himself for his inevitable, and presumably on-rushing, end. So far, Montaigne was in perfect accord with the prevailing doctrine of Christian stoicism—this world as a vale of tears, a place the soul longs to leave. But then he began to think. And to write, about an astonishing variety of subjects: whether his cat indulged him as much as he did her when they played; what he knew and how he knew it; that he was a Catholic and his neighbour a Protestant primarily because they were born to it; that torture brought out the desired confession more readily than the actual truth; that we owe each other as much trust, tolerance and fellow-feeling as we can muster.
At some later time—he died in 1592—Montaigne scratched out Lucretius’s words; he had moved, Frampton writes, from a philosophy of death to a philosophy of life. And that may well explain the current resurgence of interest in the Essays, which are never more pertinent than when the times echo Montaigne’s own fanaticism-haunted society.