In between 1569 and 1570, the exact date is uncertain, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne underwent a life-changing experience.
A catastrophic riding accident left him teetering between life and death, and as he was carried lifeless, back to the family estate, the transformation was already beginning in his subconscious.
The seigneur of Périgord had always been a man of anxieties. He lived in an age of turbulence, and his affairs in the politics of Bordeaux gave him pain and disappointment. He felt the burden of duty and someone always needed him; too many people found fault in his actions. Now, as he drifted away from his body, he gained a lightness and clarity that had eluded him for years. In a slow recovery he determined to do as the philosophers said. He had avoided death, it held no fears for him now. For him, to philosophise became a way to unlearn how to do that; he would think about life.
We know all this of course because Michel de Montaigne wrote in his Essays about his musings on life, everything from friendship, crying and cruelty, to the usefulness of his thumbs. His Essays have been reprinted countless times and millions of copies have been read. Every student ever asked to write an essay must thank Montaigne for a new literary genre. Of course he never intended his writings to be the cause of so much student angst. He intended his jottings to be thought about and in turn, to trigger more thinking. His lightness of being could become a contagion – if people just found the time to think about it.
I write this because just recently I was captivated by an exhibition of Renaissance books at a Library.
I had criminal intentions on a 1633 copy of George Herbert’s poems (in a glass case unfortunately), but it was the beautiful leather-bound edition of Montaigne’s Essays that I pored over for the longest. A book that Shakespeare must have known, and a miscellany of inward contemplation: a companion for life.
Also just recently, the horse that I have been effortlessly riding for so long, has fallen and crushed me under its considerable weight. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that I have been carried away lifeless, but a little death has happened all the same. A familiar old friend has become a heavy burden. The dead weight on me became oppressive; I couldn’t breathe; life was being squeezed out of me. It was one of those moments that can mean sadness or renewal: probably both.
As I start out on some sort of recovery, I know that out of those feelings will almost certainly come the lucidity that Michel, and many others, have found and that many struggle to find. I intend to breathe deeply; to find out the joys of living and thinking again.
Now, how do these thumbs work?