When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life

When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life
Saul Frampton
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £16.99

The great French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne seems to have become a man for our times. Last year, Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer was shortlisted for the Costa biography prize. In January, BBC Radio 3 devoted five late-night slots to the man regarded as the inventor of the essay, topping off the series with a Montaigne-themed play.

Yet exactly who was Montaigne? Not a philosopher. Even as he deals in his writings with Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, his manner is conversational. He wasn't a scholastic commentator, but more of an observer - of food, say, of bathroom habits, or of what it is like to be on the battlefield. Five hundred years later, Saul Frampton, entering a crowded field of admirers, shows how we might profit from the great man's companionship.

Born in 1533, Montaigne lived near Bordeaux in a rather grand property he inherited from his father. He studied law, entered the Bordeaux parlement, or high court, served as mayor, and enjoyed a successful career as a diplomat. He retired at the age of 37 to "essay" his view of the world. The Montaigne estate had two towers, and he took one for himself where he could write, assigning the other to his wife. It seems to have been family, rather than conjugal life, that he loved, and the early deaths of five of his six children encouraged him to meditate on happiness and chance. He was nominally a practising Catholic, perhaps more because of the pressures of the time than through any deeper conviction. The atheist and Stoic Seneca was his model towards the end of his life, but at the last moment, aged 59, he sent for the priest.

Montaigne was sweet-natured; he couldn't bear to see animals suffer and was generally "compassionate for the afflictions of others". The solitude he needed in order to write and think did not stop him being convivial. He believed in human nature, for all its faults. A neighbour, thinking to use the occasion of the French wars of religion to seize Montaigne's property, was disarmed when the smiling writer opened the door and invited him in.

As Bakewell (who has a better ear than Frampton) puts it, Montaigne shows us by example how to live "porously and sociably". How to eat, how to raise children and how to die are among his great and lasting topics. He had a gift for living feelingly and happily among people and things - what Frampton calls a "proxemic sense". Frampton also sees in him a model for the trust we need in order to find our way to "agreement, tolerance and hence truth".

Montaigne valued friendship, of which there were two great instances in his life. A young female admirer kept him company in his mid-fifties, but his real kindred spirit was Estienne de La Boétie, a writer and public servant, just like Montaigne, whom he met at 25. Close in age, the two men shared a love of philosophy and literature and were inspired by the great Platonic tradition of male friendship. When La Boétie died just five years after they first met, Montaigne was distraught.

Montaigne was an individual, but not an individualist. His scepticism kept him from any idealisation of his "self". For him, it was just as likely that his cat was playing with him as the other way round, a view that supplies Frampton with the book's very long title. Frampton glosses the point by saying that human nature, for Montaigne, is "a babbling menagerie of gestures and actions, an unfinished symphony of animal, human, female, feline, playful".

There are similarities between Montaigne and Nietzsche in their love of animals and their sceptical attitude to the idea of a stable, core self. But one can also get Montaigne's measure by contrasting him with the German, who has been adopted as a mascot for an aggressive individualism. In these post-consumerist times, Montaigne's appeal lies in the alternative he offers: not so much "Go for it!" as "Let it be".

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Secret Artist: a Close Reading of Sigmund Freud" (Quartet Books, £12.50)

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City