Tag Archives: Human Condition

From: Voltaire

“What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.”

– Voltaire

Paris, France

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Lessons in French – Part 4

Laurel and Paul and I made our way along the footpath to Montaigne’s tower for the 4:00 tour. We joined a small group that was gathering in the chateau’s inner courtyard. The brown donkey, still dusty from an earlier bath, poked her head out of a barn door. Laurel slowly approached her, murmuring softly (probably in French), and they had a little visit while we waited. A few minutes later a young woman announced that the tour was starting, and handed out laminated translation sheets.

Inner Courtyard of Chateau de Montaigne

Upon entering the tower, we were told to watch our feet as well as our heads as we climbed the narrow, stone stairs. The temperature was refreshing, and as we stepped into the chapel, I was taken by how tiny it was. Our tour group barely fit inside. I pressed my back against the cool wall, letting the unused translation sheet drop to my side. I took in my surroundings, staring at the altar as our guide spoke reverently of Montaigne, the skeptical author and accidental philosopher who had once worshiped in this room. I wondered if he had found comfort here, and I could imagine that he had.

Slowly we climbed up and up, through Montaigne’s bedroom and study, and then we were in his library. We were told to take no pictures except from the open leaded glass windows that overlooked the gardens. The library ceiling held long, wooden beams. I had read about the beams. On them were inscribed quotes and passages, in both Greek and Latin. And now here they were. It was said that Montaigne would walk around his library, deep in thought and contemplation, and gaze up at the inscriptions, as if gazing up at the stars, looking for guidance and inspiration.

After others in the group had taken their pictures, I strolled over to one of the narrow windows. The view was of a bright sky and motionless clouds. Below was a grassy area shaped like a lion’s paw, surrounded by hedges and trees. As I stood there, it struck me that Montaigne had done the same, in this exact spot, almost five centuries before me.

View from Montaigne's Library

I don’t know how long I was there, but after a few minutes I turned away from the window and looked around for the others. But the room was empty. The small tour group had moved on, and I found myself alone in his library. A sudden melancholy came over me, from where I didn’t know. Maybe Beethoven’s music had seeped into me and mingled with that bittersweet feeling of knowing that I would probably never see this place again. I would never walk through this tower, or stroll in the gardens or pass the vineyards. I may never again know the rustic and elegant beauty of the south of France.

I wanted to somehow capture and take with me the essence of the people and the places and all of my experiences. But how does one do that? How could I possibly hold onto my memories and share all that I had seen and done? I let out a long breath, and felt a deep appreciation for my life. I was so grateful for the gift of travel, and for my chance to explore other places and cultures, and to expand my awareness. This I would take with me and forever hold close.

As I was about to leave the library, I turned around for one last look, and I again thought of Montaigne. Though a nobleman, he considered himself an ordinary man; a man many say invented the essay as a literary genre.  Now, he is sometimes called the godfather of blogging. What made him extraordinary, I think, is that he took the time to explore and write honestly about his observations and ideas on the human condition.

He wrote of love and death, of friendships and dreams, and of cats and everyday events. His thoughts on the psychology behind successful confrontations would soon play out for me in real life. Montaigne couldn’t abide cruelty, having witnessed the atrocities committed during the never-ending religious wars of his time. And yet he trusted in the goodness of people, and welcomed all through his unlocked doors.

Montaigne wrote and re-wrote his Essais about all of these things and more, not as a way of telling others how he thought they should live, for often, after the completion of an opinion, he would doubt his conclusion by asking, Que sais-je? Instead, he explored his life and the lives of others, and shared with us how he lived, and in doing so, offered us a reflection of our own lives. Perhaps he was trying to say that in the end we are all the same, human and animal, and all lives matter.

I thought about this as I carefully navigated the steep stairs of Montaigne’s tower, a path he must have taken a thousand times. I wondered what he would have thought of blogging, about having a way to instantly share one’s stories. I’d like to believe that Michel Eyquem de Montaigne would have approved. But then again, Que sais-je?

Garden at Chateau de Montaigne