Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in 1533 and died (following an attack of kidney stones, like his father) in 1592. His mother was of Marrano descent; her family had been Sephardic Jews, forced into Catholicism. Montaigne himself was always formally obedient to the Church. ‘Otherwise’, he wrote, ‘I could not keep myself from rolling about incessantly. Thus I have kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience.’ In this respect, he was somewhat the precursor of Evelyn Waugh, who said that, had he not been a Catholic, he would scarcely have been human. Montaigne, however, was a genial man of no officious piety; a dutiful mayor of Bordeaux, unaggressive lord of his modest Périgordin manor, and a courtier without grand ambition. His essays advocated good-humoured acceptance of the vagaries of human life. For all his formal orthodoxy, he was a manifest sceptic: ‘There is’, he observed, ‘no hostility that exceeds Christian hostility.’ In practice, he preferred the Stoic amor fati to religious absolutism and abominated the righteous cruelty of those with undoubting convictions: ‘It is putting a very high price on one’s conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account.’ Sarah Bakewell takes this to be an allusion to the spate of witch-hunting which accompanied the religious wars, but it is no great stretch to see in it a reference to the ongoing series of autos-da-fé on the other side of the Pyrenees. For those who choose to read him so, Montaigne was a bit of a crypto-Jew.
more from Frederic Raphael at Literary Review here.