Michel de Montaigne has been dead some 423 years now, thus I admire him from afar. Mine is an amateur study of the man, reading him in bits and pieces over the years, often on my phone while sitting in the woods or with a highlighter in the old green chair I inherited from my grandmother. Born into wealth and privilege, Montaigne still managed to be a real overachiever. He began speaking Latin at the age of 2, went to college at the age of 6, enrolled in law school when he was 14, served in the military, held several high-level government positions, hung out with the Pope, and retired at the age of 38 to invent — or at the very least popularize in enduring fashion — the essay as a literary form. Despite this envy-making resumé, one of the chief reasons for Montaigne’s enduring popularity (as explicated in Sarah Bakewell’s excellent “How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”) is his ability to write in such a way that when we read him we recognize ourselves, no matter who we are.
Naturally, I have my own pet Montaigne matchups: He had a kidney stone; I had a kidney stone. (Actually, he had an avalanche of them; I had one.) (He used them to hone his character and gain insight on the human condition; I popped Toradol and quivered.) He wrote in a castle tower; I write in a room above the garage. He quotes Epictetus from memory; I quote Ray Wylie Hubbard from Google. I say I’m gonna go write in my room over the garage; Montaigne commissioned an engraved plank declaring that he had “retired to the bosom of the learned virgins.”
So it’s not a real mirror-image situation.
Here, above all, is why I like Montaigne: He is willing to say “I dunno…” He is a paragon of fair-minded uncertainty, whose most familiar coda is, I could be wrong. As a rural Midwestern former-fundamentalist-Christian white boy I have made some positional and philosophical adjustments in my day (and more to come, I trust, and many hope), but in no case did these changes come about as the result of high-decibel hectoring, public shaming, or a bumper sticker. Following on this, I try to offer anything I write in the spirit of cautious inquiry. In the introduction of “How to Read Montaigne,” Terence Cave points out that Montaigne was prone to “caution and provision,” manifested in his regular use of the word “perhaps” and the phrase “it seems to me.” I am always caught off guard when I receive communication from readers outraged or hurt by something I’ve ventured. As if I had donned my ironclad underpants and declared myself Incontrovertible King of Thinking, when in fact I’m just trying to figure things out while traipsing around clad in the patchy bathrobe of diffidence.
It is Montaigne’s spirit of inquiry (in all things—be it Greek philosophy or trouble in the bedroom) and fallibility that recently led me to read Roxane Gay, whose essay collection “Bad Feminist” was published last year. If you read Roxane Gay — I mean really read her, not just yell at her on Twitter — you will find that like Montaigne, nothing is off the table, whether it’s a personal foible or misogyny in music. If I find myself discomfited by something she has written I probably need to be, and I also notice she is sticking her own neck out. How else are we going to learn? But above all I find Gay embodies that most Montaigne of traits, a willingness to acknowledge her own contradictions — which in turn leads me to think, well, here is a person with whom I might have an actual conversation.
In a world well-populated by people busily being really sure of themselves — really sure they are right, and really sure anyone who disagrees is an ingrate dipped in idiocy — I understand we cannot forever spin in our dinghy upon the dithering wishy-wash. At some point we have to make a decision and make a move. But in between, give me Montaigne: I am free to give myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and to my predominant quality, which is ignorance.
How else am I gonna learn?