In this, Montaigne never succeeded yet he was not one to waste a plague. In his essay “On Physiognomy,” written in 1585, he described the wars as “profitable disasters.” The mutual butcheries, in effect, prepared him for the next plague. The cruelty and fury, ambition and avarice that consumed both sides taught him “to rely on myself in distress.”
The trick, though, was to first find that self. Or, more accurately, to found that self. In effect, as he wrote and rewrote his essays until his death in 1592, Montaigne wrote and rewrote his own self. In “On Giving the Lie,” he observed the strange alchemy between paper and person, between writing one’s life and becoming that life: “I have no more made my book than my book has made me — a book consubstantial with its author.”
More than a millennium earlier, thinkers like Epicurus and Seneca had already mapped out this path. Inscribing their words on the pages of his essays — as well as in the roof beams of his library — Montaigne grasped that, unlike philosophers in his day (or our own), these teachers sought not to inform their students, but instead to form them. As the classical scholar Pierre Hadot has argued, Stoicism and Epicureanism offered not airy abstractions but real-world “spiritual exercises.” Though the methods of these school varied, their mission was the same: to teach students how to master physics and ethics not as an end, but as the means to master their own selves and so better deal with life’s daily challenges, no less than its sudden catastrophes.
Yet self-mastery was itself a means to a greater end: the aligning of the self with the world. The recognition of reality — of what can and cannot be changed — teaches the need for self-control. This “plague of the utmost severity” in 1585 challenged Montaigne’s self-mastery even more than the wars did. When the pestilence reached his estate, he fled with his family in order to protect them. From the road, he recalled, he saw peasants digging their own graves.
We will never know what these men and women thought when they saw Montaigne and his household pass them on their horses and carriages. But what should we think? For many critics, Montaigne was, if not clearly a coward, less than a hero: Imagine if Mayor Bill De Blasio, learning that New York City had been struck by the coronavirus while he was vacationing in the Berkshires, had emailed the City Council to wish them good luck. Yet we need to remember that Montaigne never pretended or sought to be a hero. Instead, he sought to do what could be done — in this case, save his family — and sought to find what could be found in this experience.