On Friendship


It's fitting that the folks at Penguin chose the theme of friendship for their mini-collection of Montaigne essays (the sixth in their Great Ideas series), because at this point, after spending an academic year writing about the French essayist in a tight-knit group of collegiate buddies, and revisiting him with my blogging pals as part of my Essay Mondays project last year, I do indeed feel as if the man were an old friend of mine—warm and witty, occasionally exasperating but always a fascinating companion for a bit of conversation. Even if these particular selections aren't (in my opinion) the best of his oeuvre or the most representative of his unique intellectual contributions to the Western canon, I always enjoy watching his mind pursue its curious labyrinth, doubling back on itself exuberantly in the process of self-discovery.

As Montaigne's recent biographer Sarah Bakewell notes, he philosophizes more or less "by accident," as a by-product of writing about himself and his own experience. As such, his philosophy tends to be about as far from the abstract Platonic notion of timeless capital-T-Truth, as one could hope to get: highly idiosyncratic and often contradictory from one essay to the next—sometimes even within a single essay. He himself is totally frank about this, and about the very likely possibility that he will find himself to have been mistaken:

So contradictory judgments neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected; we ought to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. [...] My thought so often contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, seeing that I give to his refutation only such authority as I please.

Personally, this is what I love about Montaigne: the combination within him of warm opinions, passionate curiosity to discuss them with others and interrogate them himself, and complete acceptance of the human contradictions and imperfections that will unavoidably ensue. He believes it is important to mull over and draw conclusions from his own experience,

It is not enough to relate our experiences; we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport

and he believes in the importance of this activity even though he fully expects that many of his conclusions along the way will be incomplete or downright wrong. Therefore, even when his personal and literary sources mean his arguments are completely illogical or in direct opposition to my own, I still find him inspirational. His complete openness to investigating his own mind, body, and experience means that he follows many odd paths; the point for me is not that they are "wrong" or "right," but that the process itself is intrinsically worthwhile, not to mention fascinating to watch.

The title essay of this collection, "On friendship," is an interesting example of the beauty and oddity of Montaigne's project. Friendship is a subject particularly relevant to Montaigne's life and the existence of the Essays themselves: he began writing them after the death of his very dear friend Étienne de la Boétie, and some critics have suggested that the essays were an attempt to fill the void left by the frank conversations the two friends shared. As such, "Of friendship" is doubly freighted, since it deals with the subject of the lost friend, in the medium adopted to replace him. Those who associate the word "friends" with the adjectives "just" and "only" will need to revise their assumptions: Montaigne is describing the passion of his life.

In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that the efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: 'Because it was him: because it was me.' [...] This friendship has had no ideal to follow other than itself; no comparison but with itself. There is no one particular consideration—nor two nor three nor four nor a thousand of them—but rather some inexplicable quintessence of them all mixed up together which, having captured my will, brought it to plunge into his and lose itself, and which, having captured his will, brought it to plunge and lose itself in mine with an equal hunger and emulation.

This kind of language sounds very freighted to a modern ear, and indeed the Essays bring up some interesting questions about the best and/or most realistic ways to divide up one's needs and passions among the different figures in one's life. Drawing on his own experiences in a passionate, deeply meaningful same-sex friendship and a less-than-satisfactory arranged marriage, Montaigne becomes an advocate for the separation of sexual satisfaction from deep intellectual bonds, so that the memory of his friendship with Boétie seems much more important to him than his marriage. At the same time, he expresses his "abhorrence" of the ancient Greek model of sexual relationship between an older male teacher and younger male disciple. Based on his own divided experiences and the ingrained misogyny of his time, he writes bittersweetly that

[W]omen are in truth not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship, nor do their souls seem firm enough to withstand the clasp of a knot so lasting and so tightly drawn. And indeed if it were not for that, if it were possible to fashion such a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved—it is certain that the loving-friendship would be more full and more abundant. But there is no example yet of woman attaining to it and by the common agreement of the Ancient schools of philosophy she is excluded from it.

This passage always tears at my heart because it is simultaneously such an eloquent expression of a relational ideal ("a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved") and a harsh dismissal of that ideal's very possibility. Whether Montaigne was a misogynist extrapolating from his lackluster wife onto the souls of all women, or a man repressing his sexual desire for his male friend, or simply a human who longed to combine sexual and intellectual passion into a single relationship and found it impossible (as surely many modern people have as well), my heart goes out to him even as part of me recoils from his blunt dismissals of my soul's attainments.

Here, though, as in so much of his work, the intriguing (il)logic at play and the very human motivations behind the writing speak more eloquently, to me, than those points with which I disagree. Not least because reading the products of this flexible and curious mind makes me ever more aware that I myself am full of the same kinds of blind spots and contradictions that Montaigne uncovers in himself—and he reminds me that, despite this, examining and expressing my own mind is an endlessly rewarding activity.


There may be more Montaigne around here before long; David and I are planning to visit his former home when we're in France later this year, and I received Bakewell's biography for Christmas. Can't wait to dive in!


  • I have never read anything by him, but ever since he was mentioned in a history class I took, I have been a little fascinated. And your post made me even more curious, so I think I have to start reading some of his essays. I personally think I would really enjoy his style of philosophy.

    • Iris, I'd be interested in your thoughts. On Some Verses of Virgil is a great place to start to get a sense of his mature, expansive style. He's such a fascinating figure - I'm excited to find out more about his life via the Bakewell bio. :-)

  • How come I've missed this Great Ideas series? I certainly don't recall seeing it in any UK bookshops and given how much time I spend in those I would have thought it ought to have caught my eye. Virginia Woolf took me to Montaigne in the first instance through her essay in The Common Reader and every now and then I just have to go back and seep myself in the warmth of his personality. I have the Bakewell on order and can't wait to read it.

    • Annie, the Great Ideas series are super-appealing! I get them from the Book Depository so I'm surprised they're not in UK bookstores...beware that some of them are abridged, but they're still nice little bite-sized chunks of philosophy. I just love that Woolf essay you refer to (as I love most of her stuff), and "seeping in the warmth of his personality" is such a great description of how I relate to Montaigne.

  • Although I've read little bits before, I am very much looking forward to a more solid read of Montaigne. That ideal-vs-reality quote is powerful. Several people have recommended Bakewell to me recently, and I heard a nice interview with her that makes the book sound appealing. I'm looking forward to hearing what you think.

    • Oh, are you reading him as part of your project? I'll be eager to hear your thoughts. Reading him in tandem with Shakespeare is pretty great (even if there's no proof Shakespeare read Montaigne, the contrasts and parallels can both be striking). I'm ready to love the Bakewell bio, so hopefully it measures up to my hopes. :-)

  • You speak so warmly of Montaigne, Emily, that it really feels like you are speaking of a true friend of yours. Not having read anything by him in years (and very little at that), I must make some time for him this year. Glad you're making time to visit his former home on your big trip, too--that sounds awesome!

    • Yes, awesome! Will report back on Bordeaux vintages and Montaigne's chateau. :-) I feel very warmly toward the man, so it's good that comes through in my post. He really rewards whatever time you can make for him.

  • I really enjoyed studying Montaigne years ago. The thing that remains with me, and that you've captured so well, is his honesty and openness. That makes for uncomfortable moments, such as the misogynistic aspects, but as you say we all have blind spots (personal and cultural) we can never be aware of. I think his honesty is what makes him one of those writers from a distant age that seem oddly modern. Lucky you to be able to visit his home!

    • Yes, exactly - openness and honesty. He's not always right, but he is always smart, open, and curious. And I think you're spot-on about his seeming modernity. Partly because the 21st century is obsessed with just the kind of self-examination (blogging, anyone?) that he took the first steps toward popularizing. A trend that's easy to criticize, but he demonstrates that when done well it's spectacular.

  • Lucky you to get to see Montaigne's chateau! I must get there myself some day. That sounds wonderful. I'm really enjoying the Bakewell book, about half way through. I think she captures his spirit very well, and I like how she places him in various historical contexts.

    • I actually started the Bakewell book last night, Dorothy, and I'm really enjoying it too! (Only about 30 pages in, though.) And yes, I'm psyched for the chateau visit. Only 4 months left before our trip!!

  • Among my grandparents' books that I prize most is a three volume collected works of Montaigne that was given to them as a wedding gift in 1941. My grandmother left notes throughout even though it was a fairly expensive and lovely set. So like her! But I remember one part where she wrote "not because he hated women." Have to look where it is written but your thoughts on misogyny in this piece instantly reminded me of this. And how much I enjoy broad-minded, forgiving people like you and my grandmother.

    • What a sweet comment, Frances! And WHAT a treasure for you still to own that volume! The closest thing I have is my grandmother's 1950 Betty Crocker. :-) But yes, I think your grandmother was right - I don't think Montaigne hated women; I've encountered frustration and disillusionment in his writing but never hatred that I can recall.

  • I agree with all you have said about Montaigne and his essays. I definitely find them to be inspirational in a variety of ways and he has such an interesting mind it is fascinating to watch it work. When you visit his tower you must promise to take lots of photos and be sure to share them!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography