We postmodern readers owe a lot to Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French Renaissance philosopher and writer who invented the essay form and paved the way for personal exploration in publishing.
In 1580, Montaigne published his “attempts”—”essay” comes from the French word essayer, meaning “to try”—a first-person examination of the self in which Montaigne frankly discussed his life and times and what it means to be human. The three-book, 107-chapter collection included his musings on everything from colonization to education and sexuality to the self, and it changed literature forever. Indeed, without Montaigne’s highly personal contributions the culture might never have become so comfortable telling all on social media.
In a new translation of the book A Summer with Montaigne—to be released by Europe Editions in May and initially published French in 2013—Antoine Compagnon, a literature professor at Collège de France in Paris and Columbia University in New York, gives the philosopher’s ideas a digital-era update. Compagnon provides a TL;DR of the classic French texts, exploring the best of Montaigne’s essays, serving them up in “bite-size pieces,” as he puts it, to reveal the philosopher’s enduring relevance.
Among the essays highlighted is Montaigne’s “Of Three Commerces,” a reflection on companionship. In it, the philosopher ranks his favorite relationships, comparing the three kinds of companions who occupied most of his life. Writing about the first two, Montaigne says he’s enjoyed the company of “beautiful and honorable women” and had “rare and exquisite friendships,” both of which he considered “fortuitous.”
Of these first two types of relationships, the philosopher ranked friendship superior, considering it the only true freely-formed bond two people can have. Love and romance, on the other hand, were associated with marriage which is contractual and constrains freedom, he believed.
Yet, it is third relationship—the company of books—that the philosopher ranks highest. Romance, according to Montaigne, “withers with age.” Meanwhile, true friendship is “troublesome by its rarity.” Neither of these bonds could “have been sufficient for the business of my life,” Montaigne writes. But books are reliable companions and our ties to them are wholly personal. The philosopher explains:
[Reading] goes side by side with me in my whole course and everywhere is assisting me: it comforts me in old age and solitude; it eases me of the troublesome weight of idleness, and delivers me at all hours from company that I dislike; it blunts the points of grief if they are not extreme, and have not got an entire possession of my soul. To divert myself from a troublesome fancy, ’tis but to run to my books; they presently fix me to them and drive the other out of my thoughts, and do not mutiny at seeing that I have only recourse to them for want of other more real, natural, and lively commodities; they always receive me with the same kindness.
Compagnon points out that Montaigne wasn’t a purely solitary type. The philosopher thought the different relationships nourished each other. Though the rarity of friendship and the fleeting nature of love may drive us to take solace in books, reading, which excites our curiosity, will inevitably lead us back to the company of other people.
Montaigne’s devotion to literature is all the more compelling because it was expressed in the early days of the printing press in Europe. He loved reading before books were even that big of a thing. Compagnon argues that Montaigne’s early embrace of the new age and his praise for reading helped usher in the culture of print.
Now, we—like Montaigne was centuries ago—are again poised on the brink of another new age, having replaced books with all manner of devices and entertainments, Compagnon argues. He worries that we may be leaving our old friend the printed tome behind, perhaps not realizing just how nourishing this particular kind of literary relationship can be.
Before we abandon this fine companion, the professor suggests, we should recall the comfort, understanding, and wisdom that books have provided generations of readers for centuries. “They never complain, or protest when they are neglected as flesh-and-blood women do,” Compagnon writes, echoing the words of Montaigne. “The presence of books is always a kindly and serene one, while the moods of friends and lovers vary.”