Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Society and Self-study:
the Problem of Literary Authority

Montaigne is said to have withdrawn from public life in order to find himself in the Essays. But if this were true, then Montaigne would have indulged a greater vanity than any he had encountered in public life. Fortunately, he knew himself better than to attempt the life of a literary recluse. For he knew that he was by nature given to society and friendship. Indeed, he considered himself nothing apart from France, and less than half of that beautiful friendship with La Boétie, whom it was his sorrow to survive:

There are private, retiring, and inward natures. My essential pattern is suited to communication and revelation. I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship. The solitude that I love and preach is primarily nothing but leading my feelings and thoughts back to myself, restraining and shortening not my steps, but my desires and my cares, abandoning solicitude for outside things, and mortally avoiding servitude and obligation, and not so much the press of people as the press of business. Solitude of place, to tell the truth, rather makes me stretch and expand outward; I throw myself into affairs of state and into the world more readily when I am alone. (III: 3, 625)

What we know of the political and religious conflicts of his times, and how they troubled Montaigne, makes it reasonable to assume that he needed to retire from the violence and treachery of political life to find himself. When we recall how dearly he loved La Boétie, we might well believe that the rest of the world could only disappoint him, and that he would yearn for the seclusion of his study to cultivate his love of the virtues impressed upon him by his friend. But we know that Montaigne served his king faithfully, that he loved La Boétie and died a Catholic. In short, we know that despite the troubles of sixteenth-century France, despite

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