Part I: Montaigne – The Question of his Jewishness

There is a possibility that Giordano Bruno was descended from a family of Conversos, Jews forcefully converted by the Inquisition. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), by contrast, was definitely Jewish even though he may not have known that. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve, was descended from a forcefully converted Spanish Jewish family who remained Marranos, secret Jews behind a Christian façade. However, Antoinette did marry a Catholic, Eyquem de Montaigne, a business partner of her father in Toulouse. Born near Bordeaux in a town now called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne’s great grandfather on his mother’s side had become a very wealthy herring merchant and bought an estate. His maternal grandfather, Pedro López, officially converted to Catholicism. His mother married a soldier, Pierre Eyquem, who for a time served as Mayor of Bordeaux. He too, Sophie Jama (2001) argued, was descended from Marranos. (L’Histoire Juive de Montaigne)

From an early age, his parents, servants and teachers spoke to him only in Latin. Montaigne wrote:

. . . in my infancy, and before I began to speak, he [his father] committed me to the care of a German (who since died a famous physician in France), totally ignorant of our language and very well versed in Latin. This man, whom he had sent for specially and whom he paid extremely well, had me continually with him. With him there were also two others, of less learning, to attend me and to relieve him. They conversed with me in no other language but Latin. As to the rest of the household, it was an inviolable rule that neither himself, nor my mother, nor any valet or maid should speak anything in my company but such Latin words as everyone had learned in order to gaggle with me. It is wonderful how much everyone derived from this.

He also learned Greek as a child. He was brought up listening to music almost all the time and encouraged to be a self-disciplined free spirit rather than a dominated, repressed one. Michel de Montaigne began his studies of law at Toulouse University at the age of thirteen after attending the Collège de Guyenne, a Portuguese New Christian (Marrano) school (1539-1546).

Like Machiavelli, he became a civil servant but never held the lofty positions of his Italian predecessor, though he was awarded the collar of the Order of St. Michael, the highest honour that a French noble was eligible to receive. He was very proud of that award. I recognize what it means since receiving the Order of Canada made me very proud even though I am very reluctant to wear the pin except on very special occasions. Montaigne joked about his award as saving the bother of anyone ever having to review his efforts and accomplishments ever again. He had no idea of the enormous number of biographies that would be written about him after he died. I list a select few in English only.

Montaigne’s books

Donald M. Frame (1983) (tr. & intro.) Montaigne’s Travel Journal

Donald M. Frame (1989) (tr. & intro.) The Complete Essays of Montaigne

Books on Montaigne 

John O’Neill (1982) Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading.

Hugo Friedrich and Philippe Desan (1991) Montaigne

David Quint (1998) Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy

Lawrence D. Kritzman (2009) The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne’s Essays

Sarah Bakewell (2010) How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Philippe Desan (2017) (tr. Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal) Montaigne: A Life.

St. John Bayle (2019) Montaigne the Essayist: A Biography.

Essays on Montaigne

Richard H. Popkin (1966) “The Apology for Raymond Sebond,” in his edited volume, The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Kramer, Jane (2009) “Me, Myself, And I,” New Yorker, March.

Adam Gopnik (2017) “Montaigne on Trial,” New Yorker, January.

After fourteen years of service and some initial translation and editing work, he retired from the civil service and wrote his famous Essais as well as originating the genre as a literary form. Ten years after his retirement, he followed in his father’s footsteps, entered politics and was elected Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581 (1581-1585). In 1592, the same year that Shakespeare produced what I regard as his greatest historical play, Richard II, Montaigne died. On the 417th anniversary of Montaigne’s death in 2009, I was in Lucca when the conference on Montaigne was being held from which I obtained the two posters, now framed, that hang on my wall.

Like Erasmus, Montaigne was a sceptical humanist but without the former’s theological trappings. As we shall see, among those whom he influenced can be found Shakespeare who cites Montaigne in several of his plays. When Montaigne worked as an editor, he translated a Catalan philosopher who had taught at the University of Toulouse in the early part of the 16th century, Raymond de Sabunde, who wrote Liber Naturae Sive Creaturarum, etc (or Theologia Naturalis or Natural Theology (1434–1436). Montaigne translated the work from a Catalan-infused Latin into French (1568). Similar to Bruno, but without the mystical accoutrements, Sabunde held that both Nature and the Tanach were divine and that reason and faith were complementary and compatible. Montaigne in his Essays (ii:xiii) argued that the work established and verified “all the articles of the Christian religion.”

The remainder of his essays he wrote when he retired in 1570, having inherited the family estate. He not only retired, he retreated to the tranquility and leisure of his library in 1571 with what was then a massive collection of 1,500 volumes and published the first volume of his essays in 1580, many based on his travels and the notes he made as an early quasi-anthropologist. Gopnik in his review essay of Desan asked whether Montaigne’s withdrawal was really a retreat to safety from the enormous challenges of political life at the time, in particular, the “unimaginable massacre and counter-massacre between Protestants and Catholics.” After all, he was not really a devoté of solitude; he took a position as Mayor of Bordeaux and fled his post in 1585 when there was an epidemic of the Black Death.

As far as Jews and Judaism were concerned, he was not only a critic of their persecution, but expressed a positive attitude towards their devotion to their religion in spite of pogroms and other forms of discrimination. (Essais 1:14) His posthumous work, Travel Journal or Diary, was first published in English in 1774, just over two hundred years after his death and two years before the American Revolution broke out. Like many if not most Jews who travel, including those who are secular, he made a practice of visiting synagogues when he visited towns and cities throughout Italy and writing up his observations and thoughts. He went to services and talked to Jews. He even attended a circumcision and wrote empathetically and positively about the ritual. He also directly witnessed Jews being persecuted and heard a sermon by a converted Jew, the subject of which was why Jews should convert to Christianity.

What is not clear is whether he knew he was Jewish and not whether he regarded himself as Jewish. He did not. He professed his Catholic faith. Further, there is never any acknowledgement by him that his mother was Jewish. Other than his sympathy and interests in Jews and Judaism, there is no evidence that he recognized himself as Jewish. His siblings as well as his mother converted from Catholicism to become Protestants. Finally, although he approached Jews and Judaism with empathy, sympathy, curiosity and objectivity, he did the same with every other matter that he investigated.

Several items, however, point to something more than empathy and objectivity. He was, as mentioned, supportive of the ritual of circumcision and attended a New Christian elementary school and then a university populated with New Christians. In the Essais, he expressed his support and understanding of Portuguese Jews who killed their own children rather than permit their conversion. Further, he suggested that the Romans were punished by God for the way they treated the Jews.

My own conviction is that he was a humanist Catholic and, like Erasmus, since reason could not deliver certainty, faith would. Scepticism reinforced the faith option. On the other hand, in 1563 he was at the bedside of his best friend, the poet Ėtienne de la Boétie, whom he had known since he was a young civil servant and with whom he had formed an intellectual and emotional intimacy and reciprocity. As he was dying, Boétie said to the priest offering him a final confession: “I declare that I was christened and I have lived, and that so I wish to die, in the faith in which Moses preached in Egypt.” Montaigne, in his long essay on Ėtienne de la Boétie called, “On Friendship,” never mentioned that Boétie was Jewish. In contrast, on his own death bed, he requested and died while celebrating Mass.

An enormous admirer of Montaigne, the Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, before he took his own life in 1942 “exhausted by the long years of homeless wandering,” summed up Montaigne in terms of eight freedoms:

  1. Freedom from vanity and false pride;
  2. Freedom from both belief and disbelief, from convictions and from parties;
  3. Freedom from habit;
  4. Freedom from ambition and greed;
  5. Freedom from family and surroundings;
  6. Freedom from fanaticism;
  7. Freedom from fate;
  8. Freedom from a death that depends on others rather than oneself.

It is an excellent summary for it captures the central thesis and focus on freedom while dissecting the concept into its manifold of expressions. The first was unquestionably true. As he introduced the irony of writing on the topic. “There is, peradventure, no more manifest vanity than to write of it so vainly.” Ecclesiastes includes the well-known aphorism, “Vanity of vanities: all is vanity.” (1:2) Montaigne never wrote an autobiography even though he was so personally revealing about his thoughts and feelings. He did not do so because “fortune has placed them (his personal activities) too low.” However, he does so by inadvertence, by indirection and by fancy.

My children, particularly my two youngest sons, have pushed me to write my autobiography or, at the very least, to tell personal stories about myself and my activities in my blog. I have not. It seems I cannot. I have sometimes tried. It is not my opposition to vanity that holds me back, but in every activity in which I participated, whether for good and bad, I find there is an over-estimation in the role I played. And to repeatedly write this about each action is, ironically, a form of vanity in the guise of false modesty. Further, I do not possess the wisdom let alone the wit of Montaigne. Montaigne wrote, “I have seen a gentleman who only communicated his life by the working of his belly.” I love his style and self-deprecating humour.

Look at this portrait about Montaigne’s own reminiscing. “Here, but not so nauseous, are the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested.” And thus, even as you may display all you write about in the most guttural way, the art of writing is itself vain for to put it on display requires enormous talent. Hence, vanity; all is vanity. As he concludes his writing about vanity:

It was a paradoxical command anciently given us by that god of Delphos: “Look into yourself; discover yourself; keep close to yourself; call back your mind and will, that elsewhere consume themselves into yourself; you run out, you spill yourself; carry a more steady hand: men betray you, men spill you, men steal you from yourself. Dost thou not see that this world we live in keeps all its sight confined within, and its eyes open to contemplate itself? ‘Tis always vanity for thee, both within and without; but ’tis less vanity when less extended. Excepting thee, O man, said that god, everything studies itself first, and has bounds to its labours and desires, according to its need. There is nothing so empty and necessitous as thou, who embracest the universe; thou art the investigator without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and, after all, the fool of the farce.

I will cover other freedoms of Montaigne in the next two blogs.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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