Montaigne on Stoicism

Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) published a collection of highly original essays in 1580, with revisions and additions in 1588 and again (posthumously) in 1595. Widely read, urbane, and intensely curious about both the world and himself, Montaigne wrote frankly, often daringly, and with irresistible charm about a remarkable array of subjects, including God, self-knowledge, and exploration of the New World. His essays, written in French, circulated widely, making their way to England as early as the 1590s, where they were read in the French original by Francis Bacon, John Davies, and John Donne. An English translation by Edward Aggas, entered in the Stationers' Register in 1595, has not survived, but John Florio's translation of 1603 is famously paraphrased in Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611), the earliest provable allusion to Montaigne by his younger English contemporary.

If Shakespeare knew Montaigne as early as 1599, the year Julius Caesar was first performed, Montaigne could have helped him understand three philosophical positions that various characters represent in Julius Caesar: stoicism, Epicureanism, and skepticism. Montaigne titles his most stoic essay from a treatise by Cicero that Montaigne quotes in his first sentence: "to study philosophy is to learn to die." This rather grim affirmation is in keeping with the stoic assumption that the gods have fated everything to happen as it in fact does happen, so human beings cannot control events, but they can control their response to events. Death is the most obvious example. As Montaigne repeatedly affirms in various ways, death is unavoidable, so the most rational response to death is to accept it and live one's life in preparation for it. As his essay makes clear, Montaigne is not counseling resignation and asceticism but moderation and sober-minded realism.

Like most of his contemporaries, including Shakespeare, Montaigne means "stoicism" when he says "philosophy." Comforting Romeo, when Romeo has just received the order banishing him from Verona, Friar Laurence speaks to his young friend about the word, "banishment":

I'll give thee armor to keep off that word, Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy, To comfort thee, though thou art banishd. (Romeo and Juliet, 3.3.54-56)

Romeo can do nothing about his being banished, Friar Laurence urges, but he can do something about his response: he can accept his banishment with equanimity and forbearance, so that by bowing to the inevitable with dignity, he can reduce the pain he suffers.