Niccolo Machiavelli and Michel de Montaigne never met, nor could they have — Machiavelli died six years before Montaigne was born, and they lived about 1,200 km (800 miles) apart — but imagine the conversations they could have had if they had lived at the same time and close enough to visit one another, to have dinner together.
Imagine the hard-nosed philosopher of the body politic and the curious philosopher of inner space, together, discussing humankind, discussing ways of living, ways of governing, discussing the classics, faith, duty, laws, and, of course, their writing. One a middle-class republican, the other the scion of minor nobility in an absolute monarchy, but both keenly aware of events and issues around them, and both skeptical about power and faith, both with personal experience in government and war.
(I wonder if they might play chess together… I can’t recall if either mention the game in their writing.) Imagining their possible conversations is merely a thought experiment, of course, but one I enjoy engaging in because I like to imagine discussing (and arguing) philosophy with authors who are passionate about it. And sometimes, during this pandemic lockdown, my imagination is the only person I can safely engage with such speculations (at least the voices in my head are philosophers…).
Michel de Montaigne mentioned Machiavelli only twice in his Essays, both in Book Two. This tells us he was aware of the latter, but not whether he was intimately familiar with his works. Nor does it tell us which of Machiavelli’s writings he is referring to (by this date, all of Machiavelli’s major works were in print).
I like to believe Montaigne had read much more of Machiavelli than he tells us, and that he wrote some of his Essays in part as a counterpoint to the Italian. I like to believe both men would have understood the views of the other and found common ground from which to debate their differences, particularly in the roles and responsibilities of leaders and officials towards their fellow humans.
Montaigne wrote his essays around 1570 (first published as two books in 1580), and went on to edit, rewrite, and expand them (to three books and 107 chapters or individual essays), until 1592, the year he died. Four editions of his Essays were published in his lifetime and a fifth published posthumously. During that time he wrote about everything that caught his eye or inquiring mind. Like Machiavelli, he had experience serving in government, including the Parliament of Bordeaux, which Britannica tells us was “one of the eight regional parliaments that constituted the French Parliament, the highest national court of justice.”
Machiavelli’s only book published in his lifetime was his Art of War, but by Montaigne’s time all of his major works, including The Prince, The Discourses, The Florentine Histories, The Life of Castruccio Castracani, and his play The Mandragora, were in print and in translations for Montaigne to read.
Machiavelli’s major works are serious fare, but he was comical in his plays and private writing. But during their lives, both men did venture onto each other’s turf, albeit at different times and for different reasons. Machiavelli went on three diplomatic missions to France for the Republic of Florence (as well as missions to Spain and Rome), while Montaigne went on a personal “grand tour” of Europe with friends in 1580-81 that included two stop-overs in Florence (in the latter visit, he spent an evening with Silvio Piccolomini discussing Machiavelli’s book, The Art of War), and learned of the local custom of putting snow into wine to cool it. He also stopped at a bookseller’s shop in Florence and purchased eleven books before leaving the city.
Both men were passionate about their books, too. Something we have in common. Machiavelli’s famous quote from his letter to Francesco Vettori expresses his reverence for the classics in his library:
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
These two philosophers are among my three favourite (Renaissance and other) writers, Shakespeare being the third (imagine if all three had met… no, let’s not digress into the imaginarium too much… but Shakespeare read from both these men…). All three have a lot to teach us about life, not to mention art, culture, literature, love, governing, friendship, politics, power, and much more. And all three wrote in the vernacular, not in Latin (unusual for books, although not plays). But I digress…
Montaigne has been described as the “philosopher who invented liberalism”:
Montaigne’s “Essais”… are one of those classic books that benefit from being read irresponsibly. Sit down to read them thoroughly step by step… and you will be disappointed, since the “argument” of the essays is often less than fully baked, and the constant flow of classical tags and quotations is tedious. Open more or less at random, though, and dip in, and you will be stunned by the sudden epiphanies, the utterly modern sentences: “Super-celestial opinions and under-terrestrial manners are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord,” he writes, giving as an example a philosopher who always pisses as he runs.
It strikes me as a bit of hyperbole to call him the inventor of a mode of thinking, since he never went out of his way to create a school of philosophy or state a platform of views on any topic. In fact, there’s a lot of doubt scattered throughout his work, and gentle skepticism paired with the contemplation.
The essays contain a great deal of philosophy, but are not themselves a work of philosophy. They do not invest in their own ability to instruct, or serve as an example for the conduct of one’s life. Instead, we find in the essays a vocation liberated of the need to be right all the time.
Machiavelli, on the other hand, advocated particular rules and theories of governance and has a vertebrate structure to his works. Montaigne was not systematic in presenting his ideas in the same way Machiavelli was. Many of Montaigne’s essays are interior monologues about whatever topic happened to cross his mind when he picked up his quill to write. A lot of his writing is gently humorous, self-deprecating, and even whimsical, as this author notes:
It is tempting to want to credit Montaigne’s pensée with more methodology and philosophical intent than it really bears. As a thinker who is often referenced alongside Descartes and Pascal, it’s important not to understate just how whimsical and playful Montaigne’s work truly is. The more time is spent with the essays, the more it becomes apparent that there is, in fact, no method at all. In “Of Idleness,” he acknowledges that in committing his truant thoughts to his pen, his hope is to: “make [his] mind ashamed of itself.” This self-doubt––which often casts itself in the hue of self-reproach––is the presiding tone of the essays, so much so at times that one begins to suspect the author is being falsely modest, or blatantly disingenuous.
The two writers are unalike when it comes to reading them. As the first author noted above, Montaigne is easily approached casually. I often pick up the Essays and read passages at random. Sometimes I select an essay related to something I’m contemplating, others I select an essay at random and read it without consideration to the topic. He spices his works with a wide range of quotes and references from classical and other authors.
The essays are not arranged in any order or relationship with one another. It’s a more organic read. Machiavelli, however, is more linear. He builds his arguments like a brick wall, layer upon layer, mortaring history, politics, and logic into his writing. His selections from classical authors are all chosen to bolster and illustrate his own perspectives, and his choice of sources is more narrowly defined than Montaigne’s. You need to read each of Machiavelli’s books from cover to cover to properly appreciate his work and weigh his points with appropriate seriousness (although it may be argued that The Prince was written as a satire, it still contains salient observations and advice).
Although both men wrote from experience, Montaigne was introspective, looking at himself, asking questions of himself. He retired from public life to do so, and never regretted leaving public service. Machiavelli, on the other hand, looked outwards, at the people, the state, the government. He never deliberately left public life; he was pushed out, and he missed it, always trying to get back into public service until he died.
As reviewer Roy Lotz writes,
To quote Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Montaigne’s essays are to be sipped.
If so, Machiavelli’s books are a full-course meal.
…there is no existence that is constant, either of our being or of that of objects. And we, and our judgement, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling incessantly. Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion. Montaigne: Apology for Raymond Sebond, trans. Donald Frame (p.553)
So how would these two have discussed their interests if they had met? Building from a classical source and working through ancient and modern examples? A formal debate? Or casually raising issues over a glass of wine and dinner? How would they approach the roles and responsibilities of the individual within the state, versus those of the individual ruling or guiding the state? I like to imagine a casual setting where they might engage in some thrust and parry along with some jokes and light table talk, maybe some banter in Latin.
I recently began to wonder about what these two might say to one another if they had met, while I was reading Michael Perry’s wise, smart book, Montaigne in Barn Boots. Perry reminded me that we best engage with authors, even long-dead philosophers, in ways that intersect with our daily lives, not as academic subjects to be intellectually dissected. We converse with them, debate with them, argue with them as we mend fences, vacuum the carpet, or mow lawns. Perry humorously recounts how he encountered Montaigne’s works during a medical procedure (passing a kidney stone, an event that Montaigne also lived through and wrote about). Perry became enamoured of Montaigne and read further. He wrote about his explorations, his thoughts, and where Montaigne seemed relevant to a rural midwesterner in his 2017 book. As Kirkus Reviews tells us,
Perry, who has often drawn from his small-town life with self-deprecating humor and Midwestern common sense. That same spirit permeates his scattershot reading of Montaigne, a body of work he approaches without anything resembling academic rigor; he mainly allows one thing to lead to another, from Montaigne to commentaries on Montaigne to meditations on the author’s own life.
But while Perry might seem a hayseed (and likes to present an aw-shucks persona at many times), he’s really quite well-educated and well-read in philosophy and has some impressive insights into the topics. Self-deprecating, like Montaigne, he is. And sharp as a tack about modern technology and social media.
As a guide to Montaigne, Perry is not the academic pedant I am used to reading when dipping into philosophy. He’s more prosaic, down-to-earth, discussing his chickens, fishing buddies, and fall fairs in the context of what wisdom he has absorbed from his reading (Montaigne and others). He’s not Virgil, more like someone sharing a beer and a joke with you. Reviewer Gretchen Lida wrote,
Through Montaigne, Perry finds a framework to examine issues as complex and urgent to our time as class, shame, and prejudice. He follows Montaigne down winding paths where even the most mundane is up for discussion: Perry comments on small towns, fuel nozzles, getting older, forgetting to turn off the water in the chicken coop, and the problematic idea that Montaigne is the patron saint of the selfie-stick and Twitter. Perry also has a refreshingly diverse reading list; he references Maria Popova, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wendell Berry, Johnny Cash, Prince, and the pulp westerns he read as a kid. He isn’t snooty with his Montaigneian theorists either, citing anyone from the most elite scholar to amateur bibliophiles with a podcast.
Lida says she discovered Montaigne “while cleaning manure out of a horse pasture on a farm near the Colorado-Wyoming border.” It seems many people discover Montaigne in mundane circumstances, unexpectedly encountering some relevant comment or quotation, then go on to read more of him, like Perry learning to appreciate him as they do. She continues:
I was listening to his collected essays on audiobook, because I had been warned that I would be required to read not just some of Montaigne during that first semester of graduate school, but close to every single dang word. So as the donkey snuck up and tried to steal my muck rake, Montaigne essayed on melancholy and grief.
In a separate piece, Perry himself described how he reads Montaigne: “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.” Rather akin to the way I’ve been reading him: scattershot, random bursts, fragments.
But then I read Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Lao Tzu, the Dhammapada, and many others like that, too. Some books and authors seem to encourage that sort of approach. I, however, read nothing on my phone. Despite Perry’s comment (p. 49) that “there is a static formality to books that can lull us into forgetting the human exists at the other end in an unedited state,” I prefer the physicality of a book to the virtuality of a phone or tablet for reading. Static formality be damned, and I like to think these two book-loving philosophers would agree with me today. In fact, I can imagine them at my dining room table right now, leaning over a bottle of wine, saying so…