This article originally appeared in UChicago News on February 2, 2017.
Prof. Philippe Desan has spent most of his academic career studying the life and work of French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne. When he set out to write his definitive biography, Montaigne: A Life, Desan intended to complete the image of Montaigne as a great philosopher, but also a shrewd politician.
“The biography is really meant to balance our perception of Montaigne today,” said Desan, the Howard L. Willett Professor in Romance Languages and Literatures.
The English translation of Desan’s landmark 2014 French edition book was published in January by Princeton University Press. “Montaigne the author was created in the 19th century, but there was a much more political motivation for Montaigne to use his book to play the political cards he had in mind at the time,” Desan said.
That book was Montaigne’s Essays, a collection of writings first published in 1580 that reflected on a variety of topics including war, government and even cannibalism. Often regarded as one of the most important thinkers of his time, Montaigne fell out of style in the age of rationalism and reason in the 17th and 18th centuries. His popularity exploded in the 19th century as Romantic writers like Emerson and Nietzsche embraced the imagination of Montaigne’s writing and the image of the solitary philosopher, locked away in his tower.
That myth, however, eschewed a major aspect of his life, Desan said.
“Montaigne was the mayor of Bordeaux for four years, which is the fifth-largest city in France in the 16th century,” Desan said. “It’s a big deal, and people have historically underplayed that in order to see him as the first intellectual removed from the world contemplating the human condition.”
Desan said that Montaigne purposefully cultivated that image late in his life—built on the ruins of his political ambitions, and embraced by thinkers who chose to ignore the earlier aspects of his life.
Shortly after the first edition of Essays was published, Montaigne retreated to Rome, which most scholars have attributed to the need for a vacation. But Desan discovered during archival research in Bordeaux, Périgueux, Paris and Rome that Montaigne’s trip had real political motivations.
“This is a totally absurd conception,” Desan said about the idea that Montaigne was tired and needed a break. “I found documents that he went to Paris to give his book to the king, and he begged the king to give him a position in Rome. He went to Rome waiting to be named ambassador. That fell through, and Montaigne was recalled to Bordeaux to become the mayor, which was a consolation prize.”
In 2015, l’Académie Française honored Desan for his scholarship on Montaigne. Reviews for his new book have appeared in The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, and the book topped Amazon‘s bestseller list for French literature. While some have been critical of what is perceived as Desan’s “effort at disenchantment,” which Desan said misses the point of the biography.
“I like Montaigne a lot, I’m not bashing on Montaigne,” Desan said. “I tried to show the evolution of Montaigne.”
Montaigne scholars have praised Desan’s biography for illuminating the complete picture of the writer. “Philippe Desan’s biography offers a refreshing corrective to those…that have underplayed [Montaigne’s] political activities and aspirations,” said Richard Scholar, professor of medieval and modern languages at the University of Oxford.
Desan’s next project will pick up where this book ends and will look more closely at the myth created in the 19th century of Montaigne the isolated author. As for today’s world, Desan thinks he knows what Montaigne the politician would recommend.
“Skepticism about everything,” Desan said. “Certainly he doesn’t make the mistake of having only one point of view for everything. He’s always trying to go to the other side and see himself from the other’s eyes. I think this is the great lesson of Montaigne that might be helpful today.”
Desan will discuss Montaigne: A Life at an April 5 event at the Seminary Co-op bookstore.