When Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, met Torquato Tasso – Sarah Bakewell

When Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, met Torquato Tasso – Sarah Bakewell

When Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, met Torquato Tasso


Fleury François Richard, Fleury-Richard – Le Tasse en prison visité par Montaigne / Le Tasse et Montaigne [1821 – Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon]


Readers in the Romantic era admired Montaigne, but were troubled by a passage in which he described visiting the famous poet Torquato Tasso in Ferrara, on his Italian travels in 1580. Tasso’s most celebrated work, the epic Gerusalemme liberata, enjoyed immense success on its publication that same year, but the poet himself had lost his mind and was confined to a madhouse, where he lived in atrocious conditions surrounded by distressed lunatics. Passing through Ferrara, Montaigne called on him, and was horrified by what he saw.

Great though his sympathy was for the afflicted poet, Montaigne suspected that Tasso had driven himself into this condition by spending too long in states of poetic ecstasy. The radiance of his own mind had brought him to unreason: he had let himself be ‘blinded by the light’. Seeing a genius reduced to idiocy saddened Montaigne. Worse, it irritated him. What a waste, to destroy a mind in this way! He was aware that writing poetry required a certain ‘frenzy’, but what was the point of becoming so frenzied that one could never write again? ‘The archer who overshoots the target misses as much as the one who does not reach it.’

Looking back at two such different writers as Montaigne and Tasso, and admiring both, Romantics were prepared to go along with Montaigne’s belief that Tasso had blown his own mind with his poetry. They could understand Montaigne’s sadness about it. What they could neither understand nor forgive was his irritation. Romantics did blinding brilliance; they did melancholy; they did intense imaginative identification. They did not do irritation.

Montaigne is obviously ‘no poet’, spat one such reader, Philarète Chasles. Jules Lefèvre-Deumier deplored what he saw as Montaigne’s ‘stoic indifference’ towards another man’s sufferings – which seems a misreading of Montaigne’s passage about Tasso. The real problem was that Romantics took sides. They identified with Tasso in this encounter, not with Montaigne, who represented the uncomprehending world they felt was always opposing them, too. As Nietzsche could have warned Montaigne:

Moderation sees itself as beautiful; it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking.

Actually, in this situation, it was Montaigne who was playing the rebel. By singing the praises of moderation and equanimity, and doubting the value of poetic excess, Montaigne was going against the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Late Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states too, taking their cue from recently discovered classical traditions. Ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love.

Montaigne devoured classical literature as much as anyone, yet, thermostat-like, he switched off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. This was why he so admired Epaminondas, the one warrior who kept his head when the sound of clashing swords rang out. Montaigne acknowledged the need of poets and warriors for a specialized emotional climate. But if living in this climate turned the poet into a mumbling, incapable wreck, how could it be considered desirable? ‘These transcendental humors frighten me.’ Real wisdom derived from the realm of ordinary humanity. The qualities Montaigne valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the burning fiery furnace of inspiration.

He ever went so far as to claim that true greatness of the soul is to be found ‘in mediocrity’ – a shocking remark and even, paradoxically, an extreme one. Most moderns have been so trained to regard mediocrity as a poor, limited condition that it is hard to know what to make of Montaigne when he says this. His own generation would have found it just as odd. Is he playing games with the reader, as some suspect he does when he writes of having a bad memory and a slow intellect? Perhaps he is, to some extent, yet he seems to mean it too. Montaigne does not want godlike powers or knowledge, and does not trust those who do. When people try to rise above the human, they manage only to sink to the sub-human. Like Tasso, they seek to transcend the limits, and instead lose their ordinary human faculties.

Being fully human means behaving in a way that is not merely ordinary, but ordinate, a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘ordered, regulated; orderly, regular, moderate’. It means living appropriately, or à propos, so that one estimates things at their right value and behaves in the way correctly suited to each occasion. This is why, as Montaigne put it, living appropriately is ‘our great and glorious masterpiece’ – grandiose language, but used to describe a quality that is anything but grandiose. Mediocrity, for Montaigne, does not mean the dullness that comes from not bothering to think things through, or from lacking the imagination to see beyond one’s own viewpoint. It means accepting that one is like everyone else, and that one carries the entire form of the human condition. This could not be further removed from Rousseau and his feeling that he is set apart from all humanity. For Montaigne:

There is nothing so beautiful and legitimate as to play the man well and properly, no knowledge so hard to acquire as the knowledge of how to live this life well and naturally; and the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being.


Sarah Bakewell


Extracted from How to Live, Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

El Editor de Café Montaigne agradece a la autora su amable y totalmente desinteresada cooperación y su autorización para para la edición y publicación del texto. 


  1. Sarah Bakewell. How to Live, Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer [Winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography]. Other Press, New York, 2010. ISBN – 10: 1590514831 – ISBN-13: 978-1590514832
Categories: Historia, Literatura