Montaigne and Lucretius

2012-09-28

I've taken a detour in my research on "The Poets of Epicurus" by delving a bit into Montaigne (I got enticed by the influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare, and might write a post about Shakespeare as an Epicurean poet at some point, although after a post about Lucretius). Montaigne first read Lucretius at the age of 31 and the experience had a significant influence on his thinking. Indeed, it was only 15 years ago or so that Montaigne's copy of The Nature of Things was discovered, and even just from dipping into it I can tell that Montaigne truly grappled with the Epicurean theories that Lucretius propounded so beautifully. Apparently two ideas struck him most forcefully: that the universe is eternal and nothing is created ex nihilo, and that the gods (if any) are utterly unconcerned about human affairs and live in blissful tranquility. It was just such a human form of tranquility -- what Epicurus called ataraxia -- that Montaigne sought in life. Consider the inscription he had made above the fireplace in his library when he retired from public life seven years after he first read Lucretius:

IN THE YEAR OF CHRIST 1571 Michael Montaigne, aged 38, on his birthday, the day preceding the Calends of March, already long wearied of the servitude of the law-courts, and of public offices, has retired, with faculties still entire, to the arms of the learned virgins, there to pass in all quiet and security, such length of days as remain to him, of his already more than half-spent years, if so the fates permit him to finish this abode and these sweet ancestral retreats consecrated to his freedom and tranquility and leisure.

Is there anything more Epicurean than a life consecrated to "freedom and tranquility and leisure"?

Yet, as Sarah Bakewell shows in her excellent biography How to Live, Montaigne was no strict Epicurean, and actively raided the three major schools of Hellenistic philosophy (Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism) for insights and practices that he could apply to his own life. For instance, he turned Pyrrhonian Skepticism against the Epicurean premise about the absolute trustworthiness of the senses. He also embraced the Stoic concept of amor fati ("love of fate"), as did Nietzsche 300 years later. Yet I think Epicureanism suited him best of all, since Montaigne seems to have been a friendly, open, sociable person -- and Epicurus continually emphasized the importance of friendship to the pursuit of happiness (e.g., Vatican Saying 52: "Friendship dances around the world, announcing to each of us that we must awaken to happiness."). There is much to explore here, and I haven't read Montaigne's Essays in many a year, so I might report further once I've had a chance to, happily, complete more research.


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