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THE MONTAIGNE QUATER-CENTENARY HERBERT L. STEWART S AINTE-BEUVE once described Montaigne as "the wisest Frenchman- that ever lived." The year just past was crowded with centenaries, but the place given to this one in the journalism of countries very different in culture and tradition shows a certain unique quality in the feeling it aroused. Has Sainte-Beuve's tribute been endorsed? What, in particular, suggested to him the epithet "wisest," and how far has later criticism justified it? Wisdom is correlative-is it not?- to the life and problems of one's own time. I t is shown in choosing an attitude to contemporary difficulties which, perhaps, no one can solve, but which some handle in practice less disastrously than others. . At times it may be no more than a sagacious choice of the least among evils. It is something distinct from either heroic character or brilliant originality, and Montaigne was neither genius nor hero, as he himself often pointed out. Yet, for some cause, his figure has fascinated generation after generation, .including many men whom hero and genius have bored, especially men conscious of their mediocrity-perhaps because he has shown how mediocrity itself has resources they had not suspected. Herein, I think, lies the aptness - at once striking and questionable-of Sainte-Beuve's epithet. . I shall try to give reasons by a rapid survey of Montaigne's career. I In a sense, indeed, he had no career, and perhaps it was this very withdrawal from public activity which 208 l I I I THE MONTAIGNE QUATER-CENTENARY showed his wisdom. He knew what a man of his type ought to avoid. His father destined him for the profession of law, and as legal positions were so largely a matter of purchase, the Seigneur de Montaigne could give his son a most advantageous start. He was duly subjected to the requisite training, obtained formal qualification, and was given a place in the Court of Aids ofPerigueux. Such was the scandalous procedure of the time that in his twentyfifth year he found himself on the Bench of the Supreme Court of Justice. But it. was wholly against his will. Montaigne used to say that his knowledge of jurisprudence was merely that such a study existed, and he admired the wisdom of the King of Spain in excluding all lawyers and students of law from the Spanish colonies, lest the discords of the Old World should be reproduced in the New.' The violence of his language on this point is partly explicable by the peculiar nature of the trials in which, from time to time, he must have been called upon to act. It chanced that the years of Montaigne's judicial office were those of fierces t conflict between the French monarchy and the Huguenots; he retired just two years before the St. Bartholomew massacre. The records of the Parlement of Bordeaux for this period are strewn with savage edicts of persecution, and we can guess how these must have been regarded by the author of the Essais. Scornful as .he ·was of the Reformation movement,' Montaigne's master passion was hatred of cruelty. But what availed his solitary protest on the Bench? I t is not strange that he has left no memorandum of any particular horror in which he may have been officially and compulsorily involved. The death of his two older brothers lEssa)J) Florio's translation, Everyman edition, lII, p. 324. (References throughout are to this edition.) '1 , p. 313. 209 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY brought him, unexpectedly, in 1570 the inheritance of the ,. family estates, so that he was able to escape from the work he despised to a leisure for thought and study. Among the most familiar of literary inscriptions are the lines on the walls of his chateau, in which, when no more than thirty-seven years old, he recorded his most welcome hejira. So began his rural retirement, suspended once when in 1582 he was prevailed upon, with very hard persuasion, to accept the mayoralty of Bordeaux, and occasionally interrupted for a journey to his publisher in Paris, or for a holiday trip in Germany, in Italy, or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 208-227
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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