- The Washington Times - Friday, April 29, 2011

By Saul Frampton
Pantheon Books, $26, 320 pages

Even to those who cannot read him in his native French, the 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne speaks clearly, rationally and feelingly of what life is like. He tells of its darker moments: of mortality and loss and war. But he also ponders the everyday, writing about sleep and dreams, about animals and about the foods he likes, about women and wine, about friendship and riding his horse, which he much preferred to traveling in coaches because they made him queasy.

Perhaps most famously, he considered whether his cat was actually passing her time with him when he thought himself to be playing with her; in effect, was he her pet? Nobody who owns a cat can doubt that she chooses when to play with a human companion, but nobody thought to write about this phenomenon before Montaigne. And Montaigne did so, Saul Frampton argues, because he was able to watch animals and ponder their behavior as a way of thinking about ourselves - the vital task that Montaigne addressed himself to in more than 100 essays.

More than four centuries have passed since Montaigne’s death at age 59 in 1592. He was seigneur of a beautiful chateau in the wine-growing region just outside Bordeaux. He grew up with Latin as his first language, was trained as a lawyer and served as a magistrate until he was 38. Then, describing himself as “worn out with the slavery of the court and public service,” he retired to a tower on his property, where he hoped to spend the rest of his life in “the bosom of the learned Muses … consecrating this ancestral dwelling and sweet retreat to his liberty, tranquility and repose.”

“Sweet retreat” conjures images of seclusion from the world; “the learned Muses” suggests a life lived in books rather than the hurly-burly of every day. But Montaigne was nothing if not interested in life, and while he occupied his hours with reading and writing, he was also managing his fields and vineyards, taking an 18-month journey to the spas of Germany and Italy, serving two terms as mayor of Bordeaux and accepting missions to various courts, where one of his aims was to ameliorate the savagery of the French wars of religion that raged most horrifically in his region. His astute performance of these duties made him well-known in his day, but his memory would not have survived to our time had he not written his “Essaies.”

The English word “essay” derives from the French verb essayer, which means “to try” and the noun essaie, which has the sense of an “attempt.” We have lost this provisional sense of essay in English, but Montaigne wrote his essays as a way of trying out ideas. He revised them often, adding new bits and turning his ideas to catch the light of new insights.

He began writing as a Christian Stoic, seeing life as a vale of misfortune that should be borne without repining, and as a preparation for death that should demonstrate a readiness to meet the Maker. But as he inspected his thoughts and followed them where they led, he became a skeptic, never losing his faith, but asking in a famous phrase “What do I know?” He found answers in his reflections on his life and feelings.

“No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers to my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and so extravagant that it does not seem to me quite suitable as the production of the human mind,” he declared. There’s curiosity and pleasure here and throughout his essays. His responses are those of a man who knows himself and values all his experiences. Writing about his friendship with the scholar Raymond Sebond, who died of bubonic plague, he concluded that their relationship was a celebration of themselves, “If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because it was he, because it was I,” he wrote.

There can be no better introduction to Montaigne’s essays than Mr. Frampton’s “When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know She Is not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life.” Mr. Frampton begins his account by a description of Montaigne’s retirement to his tower library, carefully giving just enough information about his family and about late-16th century France to give the reader a firm footing from which to view the Essaies. He examines the work more or less chronologically, helpfully showing the development of Montaigne’s ideas and tracing his move from stoicism to a lively, charming and illuminating skepticism.

Deftly, he makes clear why Montaigne’s work was so revolutionary in moving from the certitudes of medieval thinking and broaching the freer and sometimes more chilling air of Renaissance humanism. Shakespeare seems to have known the “Essaies” in John Florio’s translation, and to have used some of Montaigne’s ideas in “Hamlet” and “The Tempest.” Francis Bacon followed Montaigne when he wrote his own essays.

Scholars have traced Montaigne’s influence in the work of philosophers as varied as Pascal, Emerson, Wittgenstein and many more. Orson Welles described him as “the greatest writer of any time, anywhere.” It seems that Mr. Frampton does not dissent as he opens the door to Montaigne and invites readers to join him in enjoying the pleasures of his work.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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