‘Doctors say that our thumb is our master-finger and that our French word for it, ‘pouce,’ derives from the Latin verb ‘pollere’ (to excel in strength). The Greeks called it ‘anticher,’ ‘another hand’ … In Rome it was a sign of approval to turn your thumbs and twist them downward … and disapproval to raise them and extend them outwards.” That’s from Michel Montaigne’s essay “On Thumbs,” one of 107 he wrote, each of which covers a lot more than their titles suggested. “Thumbs” is one of his briefer essays, but it does go on to describe how “In Sparta the schoolmaster punished his pupils by biting their thumbs.” Montaigne strongly opposed physical punishment of students, holding to an educational approach more akin to Montessori’s: giving students freedom to freely explore their interests, a most unusual concept in the late 16th century when he wrote his 1,279-page “Essays,” a tome I read regularly and think about even oftener. He began writing it on his 38th birthday, February 28, 1572, when he retired to his country estate near Bordeaux, France. Though written so long ago, it remains fresh, insightful, and incredibly thought-provoking for readers ever since.
In his book “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds,” literary critic Harold Bloom wrote, “the first of all personal essayists is still much the best; Montaigne invented the term ‘essay,’ a trial or test of his judgement, founded upon self study. His “Essays” were an immediate success, and remain so for thoughtful readers of nearly every nation today. A wisdom writer, professedly in the tradition of Seneca and Plutarch, Montaigne remains profoundly original, not so much in the form of the personal essay, but in his own extended, intimate self-portrait, which was without precedent … Montaigne gives us his total self; his highest tribute comes from Emerson: ‘Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.’”
Montaigne impressed and influenced a host of readers ever since his death in 1592, including such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers”), Blaise Pascal (“It is not in Montaigne but in myself that I find everything I see there”), and even crusty old Friedrich Nietzsche (“That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on Earth”). I fully agree with them all now, but he remained only vaguely familiar since my college days until he came to life thanks to my philosophical friend, Robert Hannon, who gave me a copy of a biography, Sarah Bakewell’s “How To Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.” Partway through Bakewell’s fascinating interweaving of Montaigne’s life with twenty of his principal concepts I became a devout Montaigne fanboy, and my conversion was complete after discovering M.A. Screech’s 1987 translation of “Essays,” who spoke to me like no other, and whose name I’ll never forget.
The owner of a large estate, Montaigne was also politically active in France during a time of tremendous religious and governmental upheaval. As Mayor of Bordeaux he successfully navigated the city’s survival during the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots, and he later was advisor to several French kings, and their opponents. But in his mid-thirties he wanted to leave political life (albeit unsuccessfully) and, not getting along well with his wife and mother, he retired to an ancient tower on his estate where he established his library of 1,000 volumes – a huge collection at that time. In his library’s main bookcase he had this slogan inscribed: “to his freedom, to his tranquility, to his leisure.” By arranging for a private English language guide when we visited his tower a few years ago, my wife and I learned that his library is on the third floor of the ancient tower attached to his chateau; his private chapel was on the first floor and his bedroom on the second, because “he enjoyed sleeping above God.” We also saw the maxims of his favorite classical philosophers he had painted onto the library’s ceiling beams.
Maxims, “phrases or sayings that include a rule or moral principal about how you should behave,” according to the Macmillan Dictionary, differ from proverbs, “short, well-known statements that give practical advice about life.” Montaigne intended to spend the second half of his life “looking at himself, or, as he put it, drawing his portrait with a pen,” according to Jane Kramer’s “Me, Myself, And I.” “He had his books for company, his Muses for inspiration, his past for seasoning, and to support it all, the income from a large estate.” His goal was unabashedly exploring “the character he called Myself,” its failings, faults, and foibles, as well as its better sides.
He did it so well that Shakespeare, a notable copier of other people’s concepts and words, used lines from Montaigne’s essay, “On Cannibals,” in “The Tempest,” as well as other lines in “Otello,” “Coriolanus”, and especially “Hamlet.” This came about when John Florio (the most important Renaissance humanist in England”) translated Montaigne’s “Essays” into English in 1603 and Edward Blount, a leading London publisher who commissioned the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published Florio’s translation and, like many literate Englishmen, the Bard read it.
Pandemics are good times to explore Montaigne, whose father and best friend both died from different plagues. Montaigne’s reputation was severely marred by his actions when he was mayor of Bordeaux during a later outbreak a few days before his term of office expired. He left town to avoid it. Romantic 19th century French critics chastised him for leaving and not facing death with the city’s other citizens, many of whom fled before Montaigne, and their criticism tarnished his name for another 100 years.
Ben Franklin endured a plague controversy of his own. In 1736, a smallpox plague swept the American Colonies and 30-year-old newspaperman Franklin was an outspoken proponent of vaccinations, which were every bit as controversial then as today. Rumors circulated Philadelphia that his four-year old son, Franky, had died after being inoculated. In fact, his boy died from smallpox, but, before contracting that disease, he’d suffered from a protracted bout of “the flux” (diarrhea). Franklin’s wife was fearful of the vaccination procedure, which was admittedly much more dangerous than modern inoculations, and she convinced Franklin to postpone vaxxing their boy.
“Ben Franklin’s Bitter Regret That He Didn’t Immunize His 4-year-old Son Against Smallpox,” a Washington Post article by Gillian Brockell, reported that “the couple’s relationship, once loved-filled and affectionate, degenerated after Franky’s death. Franklin began characterizing his wife as irresponsible and questioned her fitness as a mother … He also began to spend significant amounts of time away from her, like spending more than a decade in England when he originally said he would be gone a few months ... In the last 17 years of her life, they spent only two years together.” His bitter regret never diminished. In his autobiography written late in life, he said, “This I mention for the Sake of Parents, who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and therefore the safer should be chosen.” As Montaigne wrote, “If falsehood, like truth, had one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then take for certain the opposite of what the liar tells us.”