I have been reading Montaigne’s Essays off and on four the last forty years or so, but I had never read a biography of the man, until I picked up Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. It’s quite readable, and I like her thematic treatment of his life, rather than a detailed run-through of what happened where and when. After all, Montaigne’s life was his reading and writing, or at least that was the part of his life he valued most.
Bakewell is very informative and lively on the topic of how the Hellenistic Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics provided the intellectual context for Montaigne, and his friends in the educated upper stratum of Renaissance French society. How to live is a question that never goes out of style, and their answers still have power, especially when filtered through Montaigne’s good humor.
Quite a lot of time is spent on Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de La Boétie, his youthful best friend who died of the plague in his thirties. He is known mostly for being the companion of Montaigne, but also, it turns out, as a great granddaddy of anarchism and libertarian thought. He is the author of the seminal, and heretical, for the time, short piece, On Voluntary Servitude.
His thesis is quite simple: nobody governs but with the consent of the governed. The consent may be granted because of love, respect, or apathy, but granted it is. How else was England able to rule the Indian sub-continent with only a few thousand troops? Examples multiply endlessly. The corollary is equally simple: to defeat and dethrone a tyrant, all that is required is to refuse to provide consent. According to La Boétie, no blood need be shed. If people simply refuse to give what is demanded, the tyrant will fall.
Reading his essay, I am struck by the Gandhian logic of it all, but Gandhi was more realistic. He knew that much blood might indeed be shed. La Boétie also seems to radically underestimate fear as a motive for giving consent. He talks as though the only reasons give consent are stupidity, lack of imagination, or corrupt ethics, i.e. benefiting from the tyranny. Classical heroes scorned mere fear, I guess..