Michel de Montaigne is best imagined on horseback; firstly, because that was how he traveled around his own lands and between his estate and Bordeaux, as well as elsewhere in France—to Paris, Rouen, or Blois, and even farther afield (during his great journey in 1580 he traveled through Switzerland and Germany all the way to Rome). But he should also be pictured this way because he never felt more comfortable anywhere than in the saddle; it was here that he found his equilibrium, his seat:
Travel is in my opinion a very profitable exercise; the soul is there continually employed in observing new and unknown things, and I do not know, as I have often said a better school wherein to model life than by incessantly exposing to it the diversity of so many other lives, fancies, and usances, and by making it relish a perpetual variety of forms of human nature. The body is, therein, neither idle nor overwrought; and that moderate agitation puts it in breath. I can keep on horseback, tormented with the stone as I am, without alighting or being weary, eight or ten hours together.
First of all, traveling enables us to experience the world’s diversity, and Montaigne insists that there is no better education. Traveling shows us the richness of nature, proves the relativity of customs and beliefs, and shakes up our certainties; in short, it teaches us skepticism, which was Montaigne’s fundamental doctrine.
Next, Montaigne gains particular physical pleasure from riding horseback, which allies movement and stability and gives the body balance and rhythm conducive to contemplation. Riding frees us from work without encouraging idleness; it lends itself to daydreaming. Horseback riding puts Montaigne in a state of “moderate agitation,” a lovely combination of terms he uses to designate a sort of ideal intermediary state. Aristotle both thought and taught while walking; Montaigne has his best ideas while in the saddle, an activity that even allows him to forget about his bladder and kidney stones.
However, Montaigne also admits—as is his wont—that his taste for travel, particularly on horseback, could also be interpreted as a mark of indecision and powerlessness: “I know very well that, to take it by the letter, this pleasure of travelling is a testimony of uneasiness and irresolution, and, in sooth, these two are our governing and predominating qualities. Yes, I confess, I see nothing, not so much as in a dream, in a wish, whereon I could set up my rest: variety only, and the possession of diversity, can satisfy me; that is, if anything can. In travelling, it pleases me that I may stay where I like, without inconvenience, and that I have a place wherein commodiously to divert myself.”
To be too fond of traveling is to prove yourself incapable of stopping, of making a decision, of settling down; it is to lack confidence, to prefer inconsistency to perseverance. In this, for Montaigne, travel is a metaphor for life. He lives like he travels—aimlessly, open to the attractions of the world: “They who run after a benefit or a hare, run not … and the journey of my life is carried on after the same manner.”
So great is Montaigne’s love of riding that if he were able to choose the manner of his death, “I think I should rather choose to die on horseback than in bed.” Montaigne dreamed of dying in the saddle, off on some voyage, far from his home and family. Life and death on horseback represent his philosophy perfectly.
—Translated from the French by Tina Kover
Antoine Compagnon is a professor of French literature at Collège de France, Paris, and the Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary degrees from King’s College London, HEC Paris, and the University of Liege.
Tina Kover’s translations include Négar Djavadi’s novel, Disoriental, which was short-listed for the National Book Award; Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better; and The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, by Adélaïde Bon. Kover is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for the translation of Manette Salomon, by the Goncourt brothers.
Excerpted from A Summer with Montaigne, by Antoine Compagnon, translated by Tina Kover. A Summer with Montaigne is published by Europa Editions.