Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, writing a review of Philippe Desan’s Montaigne: A Life, has these comments on the Renaissance essayist:
“To be against violence, frightened of fanaticism, acutely conscious of the customary nature of our most devout attachments—without this foundation in realism, political action always pivots toward puritanical self-righteousness. It is not that Montaigne is placed on a pedestal; it’s that we look up at him only to find that he is already down here with us. His houses are built on sand, rock being too hard for people, who are bound to fall. His moral heroism lies in his resilience in retreat, which allows him to remind us of our capacity to persevere. His essays insist that an honest relation to experience is the first principle of action. As a practical matter, this has been most actively inspirational at times of greatest stress. The German author Stefan Zweig, in flight from Nazism, turned first of all to Montaigne, writing, “Montaigne helps us answer this one question: ‘How to stay free? How to preserve our inborn clear-mindedness in front of all the threats and dangers of fanaticism, how to preserve the humanity of our hearts among the upsurge of bestiality?’ ”
Montaigne is present now in the things he feels and the way he sounds, and that is like a complete human being. He’s funny, he’s touching, he’s strange, he’s inconclusive. Ironic self-mockery, muted egotism, a knowledge of one’s own absurdity that doesn’t diminish the importance of one’s witness, a determinedly anti-heroic stance that remains clearly ethical—all these effects and sounds of the essayist are first heard here. We imitate the sound without even knowing its source. Good critics and scholars can teach us how to listen. Only writers show us how to speak—even when they tell us that it is best to whisper.
Montaigne’s writing has not been taken out of his time. It exists outside of his time. He is not plucked out to become a false father; he is heard, long past his time, as a true friend. He is an emotional, not a contractual, liberal. He didn’t give a damn about democracy, or free speech, or even property rights. Equality before the law he saw as impossible—not even aristocrats could get it. But he had a rich foundational impulse toward the emotions that make a decent relation between man and state possible. Here was a far-reaching skepticism about authority (either the ancients’ or the actual), a compassion toward suffering, a hatred of cruelty that we now imagine as human instinct, though all experience shows us that it must be inculcated. Montaigne, having no access to the abstract concepts that were later laid on this foundation, gives us deeper access to them, because he was the one who laid it. The liberalism that came after humanism may be what keeps his memory alive and draws us to him. The humanism that has to exist before liberalism can even begin is what Montaigne is there to show us still.”