Michel de Montaigne and the frontispiece to an early 1900’s publication of Florio’s translation of his ‘Essayes’. Below is a later one by Donald Frame
‘This man I had [stay at my house] was a simple, crude fellow–a character fit to bear true witness: for clever people observe more things and more curiously, but they interpret them; and to lend weight and conviction to their interpretation, they cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest, or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory.’
– From Michel de Montaigne’s Essays: ‘Of Cannibals’
Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Essais are the perfect mate to accompany anybody, throughout all stages of life. It’s always interesting to explore Michel de Montaigne‘s life and his marvelous book: the Essais. Within his lifespan, Montaigne was able to find true friendship for himself and record its effects therein. Here we propose to navigate Montaigne’s approach to friendship.
In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that friendship was “one soul in two bodies.” Montaigne, on the contrary, always thought that friendship was a free exchange between two people.
Montaigne thought that true friendship was rare. He himself acknowledges to have found only one proper friend in his life: Etienne de La Boétie. And he could enjoy this friendship only for a mere four years. They met as adults and death took Montaigne’s soulmate early. An irreplaceable loss. After La Boétie’s death (in 1563), Montaigne didn’t feel the desire to find a substitute for his dead friend. Perhaps the reason was that our French friend knew intuitively that such a profound bond could only happen once in a lifetime.
Is it possible to have many different friends at any given time? According to Montaigne, true friends are not only scarce, but they should be unique, if only for loyalty’s sake.
If two friends asked you to help them at the same time, which of them would you dash to? If they asked for conflicting favours, who would have the priority? If one entrusted to your silence something that was useful to the other, how would you manage?
— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”
The dilemma set here finds an easy solution for Montaigne, since the balance will always incline towards one of them. A succession of these choices would lead him to the real friend. Thus, it would be proved that true friendships tend to uniqueness.
When Montaigne talks about friendship, he does so from his own feelings towards a person of flesh and blood: Etienne de La Boétie. He transferred what he felt for his kindred spirit to the Essais. He loved his friend to the point where he felt despondently lost when La Boétie died. Montaigne attempted to find solace in his writing about La Boétie, even though he failed to portray the true nature of their relationship.
We can find a good deal of mystery in a friendship like these two men had. That strange and powerful empathy that Montaigne tried to describe is difficult to understand. Montaigne concludes that: “They are unimaginable facts for those who have not tried them.”
Montaigne distinguished true friendship from ordinary friendship. Ordinary friendships have, in a way or another, self-interest behind their development. It’s an investment made not with money, but with affection. On the other hand, true friendship is described by the author with the following words:
For the rest, which we commonly call friends, and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance, and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which, there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls: but in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoyn’d.
— Montaigne, Essais, “On Friendship”
In an attempt to describe the nature of his friendship with La Boétie, Montaigne concludes with his famous expression: “If a man should importune me to give a reason why I lov’d him; I find it could no otherwise be exprest, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I.”
We can only add here that in the example of Bordeaux of the Essais, Montaigne wrote first “because it was he.” Later he added “because it was I.”