The Canadian poet Robert Melançon and I were commiserating over politics and its corrosive effect on everything it touches, like acid that dissolves the container holding it. He reminded me of Montaigne “keeping a steady composure during the worst civil war France ever suffered.” Robert refers to the Wars of Religion that raged in the second half of the sixteenth century, in which Montaigne sometimes acted as a mediator between warring parties. Catholics and Huguenots slaughtered each other, and between 2 and 4 million were killed. Those without faith should not rush to self-righteous judgment against the faithful. Twentieth-century atheists in Russia and China make the French Wars of Religion look like une petite fête.
As the wars went on – they usually are dated from 1562 to the Edict of Nantes in 1598, when the killing continued at a slower pace -- Montaigne wrote the first of his Essais, in 1570. He was never a hermit. Retreat to his tower never meant disengagement. Evidence of the religious wars is everywhere in his essays. Yet, in “Of Experience” (trans. Donald Frame) he was able to write:
“To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”
Much of Montaigne sounds Roman in sensibility. Think of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. In “Monsieur Montaigne’s Voyage to Italy” (The Collected Prose 1948-1998) Zbigniew Herbert writes:
“. . . it is the antiquities of Rome that made the greatest impression on Montaigne. The author of the Essays, who spends so much attention during his journey on meals and the cleanliness of bedclothes, falls into a truly poetic and exalted mood at the sight of the Forum. His sobriety, formed by ancient authors (Montaigne himself resembles a Renaissance Pliny), does not allow him to fall into sentimental raptures.”