Last fall, two Harvard psychologists published a study for which they had developed a smartphone application that allowed people to rate their happiness in the midst of everyday activities ranging from sex to commuting. The intrepid (intrusive?) researchers found that people whose minds wander are less happy than those who focus on the present moment. It’s the sort of phenomenon Michel de Montaigne would fasten upon if he were alive today—he spent much of his life disciplining himself to live in the here and now—and one more reminder of why the essays of this minor French nobleman and vintner have resonated with so many readers in the four centuries since he wrote them.
Living today amid the wheat and chaff of the Age of I, it’s easy to forget that not long ago, personal accounts, unless they related heroic and likely exaggerated feats or events for the historical record, weren’t written for public consumption. The man who changed that was Montaigne, born near the city of Bordeaux in 1533 to a family that had bootstrapped itself from workaday to nobility. From his pen, which produced 107 essays in all, was born an entire genre based on the idea that writing about one’s own experience can, as biographer Sarah Bakewell puts it, “create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity.”
Montaigne spent the last two decades of his life fleshing out his essays, when he wasn’t reluctantly attending to the political duties that sought him out, fleeing an outbreak of the plague, or running interference in the religious wars that were rending France. Some of his essays run a few paragraphs, and others are much longer. In my Everyman edition of his complete works, translated by Donald Frame, his essays occupy 1,000 pages, and his letters and travel journals a few hundred more.
What distinguished Montaigne from his contemporaries, as Bakewell explains in How to Live, her unconventional and thoroughly charming biography, was his interest in how people—and he was always Subject A—actually live, rather than how they ought to live. Whether he was musing on his sensitivity to human body odor, the consciousness of his beloved cat, or the question of whether a captive is likelier to elicit mercy from his captors through pleading or bravado, Montaigne’s writings embody the meaning of the French word essayer, which means to try. He twisted his subjects this way and that, now asking an impertinent question, now adding a colorful observation, now offering a personal or historical anecdote. He often contradicts himself, a habit that seems to reflect his character as much as the fact that his essays are pastiches of at least three major editions. He added—but seldom subtracted—material over the years.
Montaigne gained a large following before his death in 1592, at age 59, of complications related to kidney stones. Informed by the traditions of Stoicism and Skepticism, he has been regarded by some critics in the years since as a bit of a cold fish (and not sufficiently religious), but many others have found his temperate views a comfort. In How to Live, Bakewell organizes her delightful introduction to Montaigne just as the man himself might have wished—not chronologically or comprehensively, but around the loose themes and questions that informed his life and touch upon our own. “I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter,” he wrote. “You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.” It’s hard to imagine a more modern and democratic sentiment in this age when we are all famous for 15 minutes—or believe we have a right to be.