08 November 2014

Whose shoe is this?

This foot and this shoe belong to one of the greatest Renaissance writers that France produced. In other words, he lived more than 400 years ago. A statue of him stands in front of the main entrance to the Sorbonne in Paris. While rewarding and entertaining, his writing is hard to decipher, for two reasons: first, his French is the old French in spelling, grammar, and expressions. Also, he peppered his paragraphs with quotations from the classics in Latin and Greek. He is said to have influenced many other writers through the ages, from Shakespeare (who was 30 years his junior) to Pascal and Descartes to Proust.

In his memoirs, he says that his father arranged for him learn Latin up to the age of six, before he was allowed to learned French or his local dialect. In other words, Latin was his native language and he had a purely classical education. It has been said that he loved his father dearly but didn't care much for his mother. He went to law school and became a judge. Later, he was a member of parliament and mayor of the city of Bordeaux. The French king Henri IV, who was assassinated in 1610 after a twenty-year reign, was a personal friend of his — they were from approximately the same region in southwestern France.

One of the authors snappiest quotes: « Sur le plus beau trône du monde, on n’est jamais assis que sur son cul ! » — "On the most beautiful throne in the world, one is still only seated on one's own rear end!"

His greatest friendship (it became legendary in France) was with a learned humanist and writer who was a member of the parliament in Bordeaux and who died at the age of 32, probably of plague. He wrote that if pressed to explain why they became such close friends, he realized he couldn't put it into words. Later, he wrote this about why they were friends: it was "because he was who he was, and because I was who I was." (In French, « parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi ».

Here's an example of French from the late 1500s. It's the author's preface to his most famous book:

C'EST icy un livre de bonne foy, lecteur. Il t'advertit dés l'entree, que je ne m'y suis proposé aucune fin, que domestique et privee : je n'y ay eu nulle consideration de ton service, ny de ma gloire : mes forces ne sont pas capables d'un tel dessein. Je l'ay voüé à la commodité particuliere de mes parens et amis : à ce que m'ayans perdu (ce qu'ils ont à faire bien tost) ils y puissent retrouver aucuns traicts de mes conditions et humeurs, et que par ce moyen ils nourrissent plus entiere et plus vifve, la connoissance qu'ils ont eu de moy.

Si c'eust esté pour rechercher la faveur du monde, je me fusse paré de beautez empruntees. Je veux qu'on m'y voye en ma façon simple, naturelle et ordinaire, sans estude et artifice : car c'est moy que je peins. Mes defauts s'y liront au vif, mes imperfections et ma forme naïfve, autant que la reverence publique me l'a permis. Que si j'eusse esté parmy ces nations qu'on dit vivre encore souz la douce liberté des premieres loix de nature, je t'asseure que je m'y fusse tres-volontiers peint tout entier, Et tout nud.

Ainsi, Lecteur, je suis moy-mesme la matiere de mon livre : ce n'est pas raison que tu employes ton loisir en un subject si frivole et si vain. A Dieu donq. De Montaigne, ce 12 de juin 1580.

And here's my translation, FWIW:

Dear reader, I give you this book as an act of good faith. Be forewarned at the outset that I had no motives other than the familial and personal in writing it. I had no preconceived idea about it being useful to you, or flattering to myself. I am not capable of such designs. I dedicate the book especially to my relatives and friends, so that after my passing (which will happen soon), they might gain a better understanding of my ideas and moods, and thus better and more fully preserve their knowledge of who I was.

If I had wanted to curry favor with the world at large, I would have focused the book on what I considered my best qualities, real or imagined. Instead, what I want is to portray myself at my simplest, plainest, and most ordinary, without forethought or artifice. This book is my self-portrait. My flaws will be apparent, along with my imperfections and naïveté, as much as public decency allows. If I had been born in one of those countries where people supposedly live in sweet liberty under the primary laws of nature, I assuure you that I would gladly have presented myself more completely, and completely naked.

So, dear reader, I am myself the subject of this book. There's no reason for you to spend your valuable time and energy on a subject so frivolous and vain. Farewell. From Montaigne, this 12th of June 1580.


  1. moliere? anyway, he has better legs than I do!

  2. He does seem to spell it out, without saying the word that was kind of non existent then.

    1. Oui, je suis d'accord. Mais on ne peut jamais vraiment présumer.

  3. As Andrew suggest, I always thought that La Boëtie and Montaigne were gay. But maybe that was my own bias.

    1. This statue is a bronze copy of a stone one by the French sculptor Paul Landowski (1896-1961) to save it from vandalism! Doctus cum Wikipedia!

      P.S. It goes without saying yours is an excellent translation.

    2. Bonjour Cousin,

      C'était sous-entendu car , premièrement La Boétie était mariée à Marguerite de Carle, une veuve qui avait eu un enfant avec le frère de Montaigne et on ( l'église Catholique) torturait à cette époque tout homme suspecté d'être gai. Ironiquement le beau-frère de la Boétie était un évêque :-)

  4. Wonderful post, Ken. Thank you.

  5. Melvyn Bragg / In Our Time did a radio programme on the BBC on Montaigne last year. Here is the link: In Our Time, Montaigne.

  6. Great post! Well written, Ken.

  7. Ah,but you didn't explain why his shoe is so polished. (One of my heroes, by the way: there's a very good book about him by Sarah Bakewell, "How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer".


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?