This Distracted World We Live In

“Four hundred years have passed since Montaigne was born. It is hard to realise that this adorer of the Ancients is already becoming so ancient himself. He remains so modern — the first modern man, more advanced in many ways than this distracted world we live in, which only too closely resembles his in its fanaticism and brutality, and has so much still to learn from him. Today he seems nearer to us in mind than Shakespeare, who was younger and is as immortal; than Rousseau, who imitated his ideas and his self-revelations two centuries later; than our own grandparents. Generations have peered over Montaigne’s shoulder into the little mirror where he studied himself, to find their own features looking back at them; generations to come, for whom the most flashing novelties of 1933 have grown dull and rusty, will bend over that mirror still. That a gaily self-indulgent old gentleman in Périgord once loved scratching his ears is and will be remembered where lives, by the thousand, of desperate industry and devoted idealism leave not a ripple on the inky waters of oblivion. Such is justice. He would have been the first to smile at the irony of it. And yet it is not unreasonable. Montaigne has done more to civilise Europe by quietly recording what he was, than they by all they do. That quiet voice has filled our whole world with echoes. They meet us, disguised, in Hamlet and Measure for Measure and The Tempest. Webster wove its sentences into his bitter verse. Ben Jonson remarked in verse as bitter how good Montaigne was to steal from. Bacon followed in his tracks (Montaigne had been familiar with Anthony Bacon at Bordeaux); then Burton, and Addison, and Sterne. His influence has crossed the Atlantic as easily as the Channel, to mould Emerson and Thoreau. And in his own country, unlike Ronsard, he has never lost his place: admired as ‘l’incomparable auteur de l’art de conferer’ and detested as a pagan by Pascal; a still living friend for Madame de Lafayette and Madame du Deffand; a master for La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld, for Montesquieu and Rousseau; the sceptic ancestor of Sainte-Beuve and Renan and Anatole France.” (F. L. Lucas, 1934, The Master Essayist)