A brief glance at Montaigne’s everyday routine as mayor of Bordeaux has allowed us to see the diversity of his activities and the amplitude of his ambitions during the years 1581-85. Although he had begun his term ( by the appointment of King Henry III) with an open political affinity that placed him resolutely on the side of the nobility to which he belonged, political reality on the ground quickly led him to adopt a pragmatic politics that often contradicted his own convictions and aristocratic aspirations. It was only after 1585 that his political career was considerably compromised, though not entirely halted. The failure of the negotiations between Henry III and Henry of Navarre pushed Montaigne to the sidelines. His subdued passage through the mayor’s office in Bordeaux led him to glimpse a new orientation for his literary activity. Thus the third book of Essais- written after this experience as mayor- offers us several testimonies to his recent disillusionment with offices and honorific rewards.
Montaigne shows an attitude that is critical of but no less grateful to the ‘duties of honor’; and ‘civil restraint,’ because he had entered politics as the result of a favor or reward ( not only the King’s but his more wealthy noble patrons). On this point, the addition of the word recompense (reward) in the Bordeaux Copy is revealing:
Now I hold that we should live by right and authority, not by recompense. How many gallant men have chosen rather to lose their lives rather than own them! I avoid subjecting myself to any sort of obligation, but especially any that binds me by a debt of honor. I find nothing so expensive as that which is given me and for which my will remains mortgaged by the claim of gratitude, and I more willingly accept services that are for sale. Rightly so, I think: for the latter I give only money, for the others I give myself. The tie that binds me by the law of honesty seems to me much tighter and more oppressive than is that of legal constraint.
What conclusion can we draw from Montaigne’s two terms as mayor of Bordeaux? The economic situation at the times of the War of Religion greatly influenced his contemporaries’ judgment. In October 1585, Gabriel de Lurbe sketched a rather critical picture of the city’s economic activity. According to him, the city and the region were in a wretched state, but he admits that the religious conflicts were largely responsible for this crisis.
A few people spoke out to reproach Montaigne for his political weakness and lack of involvement in the everyday affairs of the mayor’s office. He was a decent manager, but no one ever saw him as a visionary. Some read the Essais in the light of Montaigne’s administrative functions. For example, in his Entretiens, Guez de Balzac recounts the following anecdote:
Our man tried to persuade us that the selfsame Montaigne had not much success as mayor of Bordeaux,. This news did not surprise Monsieur De La Thibaudiere, and he remembered well that in my presence he had one day told Monsieur De Plassac-Metre, the admirer of Montaigne who praised him that day to the disadvantage of Cicero: you can esteem your Montaigne more than our Cicero all you want: I could not imagine a man who knew how to govern the whole earth was not worth at least as much as a man who did not know how to govern Bordeaux.
The author of the Essais did not contradict his criticism “Some say that my administration passed without a mark or a trace. That’s a good one! They accuse me of inactivity in a time when almost everyone was convicted of doing too much.” Montaigne could have done more, but the political price would have been higher. The acceleration of public life resulted in the multiplications of negative judgments after Montaigne’s two terms as mayor, but most of these reproaches ignored the necessity of political stability in times of political and religious troubles – his constant preoccupation for social stability was perhaps less visible for his critics but no less essential for Montaigne. In politics, Montaigne never felt at ease with quantifiable results. He always defended the qualitative to the disadvantage of the quantitative, even if it made him seem nonchalant and indolent. “Some say about this municipal service of mine (and I am glad to say a word about it, not that it is worth it, but to serve as an example of my conduct in such things) that I went about it like a man who exerts himself too weakly and with a languishing zeal; and they are not all that far from having a case.” Haste was never his strong point, and he almost always us favored reflection and the status quo.
Montaigne’s role was more of an intermediary than that of a leader. He was expected to promote dialogue between Navarre and the king, under Matignon’s supervision, nothing more. From the outset, he had been chosen mayor of Bordeaux to calm people down and slow somewhat the rhythm of political action in the region. And on this point Montaigne had succeeding in calming things. It should not be forgotten that, as a “Protestant,” Henry Navarre was forbidden to sojourn within the city walls. None-the-less, he was the uncontested political and military leader in the southwest because he had succeeded in gaining the support of an appreciable number of members of the middle-level nobility (including a number of Montaigne’s relatives).
Montaigne considered the mayor’s office as a privileged space that could have positive repercussions on the national scale, and on this point he was not wrong. Aware of the reproaches being made against him, he nevertheless said that his conscience was clear and that he felt he had done his duty: “I did not leave undone, as far as I know, any action that duty genuinely required of me.” However, this claim- made shortly after the fact, since Montaigne expressed it in the 1588 edition of Essais- still shows a trace of bitterness. As had been the case fifteen years earlier in the parlement of Bordeaux, Montaigne was unable to avoid personal conflict,.. The mayor’s office had never been a goal in itself, because managing the city remained rather distant from his conception of public life (the King’s envoy to the Pope is the position he was angling for just before his appointment as mayor). From the moment that his administrative function allowed him to acquire visibility on the national level, he distanced himself from the jurats, (members of the municipal body- judges of fact rather than law) to play in the big leagues and try to influence politics on the national scale. In his slow , round-about return from Italy he took up his duties as mayor almost a year late, and detached himself from activities related to the office before the end of his second term. Montaigne was engaged full time in the work of this office a little more than two years out of the four he held it. Thus as we might expect for a mayor of the fifth largest city in France who managed to be absent half the time, his record of achievement is rather slim. The political situation in Guyenne might have required greater attention, but Montaigne – in the course of 1585- had finally ceased to believe that he could influence the state of affairs that was constantly being redefined by the various episodes of a merciless war between the Catholics and Protestants.
Montaigne’s service as mayor was a failure so far as the reconciliation between Henry III and Henry Navarre was concerned. The duke of Guise and his supporters had not made this rapprochement any easier. The edict of Nemours issued on July 7, 15855 made Navarre an outlaw. When Montaigne left the mayor’s office, nothing remained of the compromises envisioned a few months earlier. The end of his term as mayor marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Wars of Religion. The division between Catholics and Protestants was greatly exacerbated by the rise in power of the duke of Guise, who was now acting on his own. The house of Lorraine was gaining the ascendant among the people, and particularly among the bourgeois in the large cities. Montaigne- and his moderate Catholic position- was sidelined by the omnipresence of the Catholic extremists. The rise of this third party upstaged him and complicated his plans.
[ As mayor, Montaigne had defended the bourgeois merchant classes against the prerogatives of 1) Catholic nobles who controlled two strong fortresses with armed retinues within the city, 2.) the lesser noble magisterial classes of which he was a member 3) the king’s commissioners appointed from the parlement in Paris who deemed to arbitrate legal and mercantile matters and, 4) Royal concessions that deprived the city of its tax revenues. He reported to the King’s military governor in Guyenne whose own power was circumscribed by the great Lords of the region both Catholic and Protestant- got that? The practical concerns of his administration were regulating the wine trade, proper certification of the various crafts, warehousing, and harbor control, managing city ‘militia’, removing garbage and sewage from the streets and provision for the poor- about 20% of the population- J.S]
In the third book of Essais, Montaigne inserted a chapter devoted almost entirely to his experience in the public sphere. “On husbanding your will” (III:10) answers many of the questions and reproaches that were addressed to him by his friends and contemporaries regarding his management of the city or his style of governance. Montaigne explains himself, presenting an image that is distinguished from the realpolitik often formulated at the time, first of all by Machiavelli. This chapter was for the most part written immediately after his service as mayor, when he returned to his chateau after having been on the road for almost six months, keeping away from the plague that was raging in Guyenne.
[ It was also becoming more and more dangerous to travel once the eighth war of religion had begun because the roads were taken over taken by deserters, foreign mercenaries and highway robbers. Since Montaigne’s own estate was as ‘the hub’ of the war in Guyenne, and having barely escaped with his life on at least two occasions, Montaigne would soon be forced to flee with his wife and a few servants in a comparatively destitute state since his fields were sacked and famine stalked the land]
Montaigne admits that he could sometimes seem detached from the responsibilities incumbent on him “I do not engage myself easily. As much as I can, I employ myself entirely upon myself” ( he actually set up a special office in Bordeaux where he could withdraw somewhat from incessant demands upon his time but often simply removed himself to his own estate). He developed an individualist position with regard to social relationships: “My opinion is that we must lend ourselves to others and give ourselves only to ourselves," or again: ‘The main responsibility of each of us is his own conduct.” This judgment after the fact is an understandable reaction. Montaigne’s setbacks in politics forced him to work out a theory of turning inward on himself. That was when what modern criticism learned to appreciate in him was born: an introspection that allows the subject to judge and ‘ “taste” himself.
Not being able to list or comment on his successes as an administrator and politician, Montaigne begins to talk about himself, for lack of a better subject. His political defects thus naturally became human qualities. For example, he confesses his lack of commitment, which he transforms into a positive attribute : “I do not know how to involve myself so deeply and so entirely. When my will gives me over to one party, it is not with so violent an obligation that my understanding is infected by it. In the present broils of this state, my own interest has not made me blind to either the laudable qualities in our adversaries or those that are reproachable in the men I followed.”
Montaigne failed in politics because he was “too human; that, at least, is the idea he would like to spread. His unconditional confidence in people is supposed to have caused him to be deceived. In the same way, his alleged difficulty in conceiving people as aggregates or groups sharing a single ideology is supposed to be revealed as a disadvantage for someone who felt at ease only in individual relationships. He was never a party man, and his personal judgment was ill adapted to political platforms or positions based on unnatural alliances. Ultimately, Montaigne was a lone wolf in his political behavior. The Essais allowed him to invert his experience and to emphasize the positive flip side of a coin that had been considerably tarnished by his experience as a public man . . .
If people have sometimes pushed me into the management of other men’s affairs, I promised to take them in hand, not in lungs and liver; to take them on my shoulders, not incorporate them into me; to be concerned over them, yes; to be impassioned over them, never. I look at them, but do not brood over them.
Montaigne notes that by nature, people like to serve, continuing on the theme of voluntary servitude that had fascinated him in La Boeti : “Men gives themselves for hire”, he writes, but in doing so they lose their judgment and freedom. But we might wonder about his election to a second term as mayor. Did he not owe it to the temporary alliances he was able to form – in a purely political way- with the bourgeoisie? Did he realty think that chance alone made it possible for him to be elected? ”Fortune willed to have a hand in my promotion, "he wrote. However, this remark is contradicted by reality. Even if politics always involves a element of chance, since Machiavelli we know that the essence of politics consists in minimizing the role played by fortune in order to increase the role played by free will. Whatever he says, Montaigne knew Machiavelli well enough to be aware of this fundamental rule in politics.
Montaigne engaged in a literary exercise that consisted in producing a theory of detachment when faced with the proximity of events: “We never conduct well the thing that possess and conduct us." For Montaigne, when a politician is called upon to serve, he must become a technician or a technocrat:
He who employs in it only his judgment or skill proceeds more gaily. He feints, he bends, he postpones entirely at his ease according to the need of the occasions; he misses the target without torment or affliction, and remains intact and ready for a new undertaking; he always walks bridle in hand. In a man who is intoxicated with a violent and tyrannical intensity of purpose we see of necessity much imprudence and injustice; the impetuosity of his desire carries him away. These are reckless movements, and, unless fortune lends them a hand, of little fruit.
Moving things along without becoming too involved is in a way a good manager’s modus operandi. What was perhaps only a character trait thus becomes a political philosophy .Being reproached for inaction became a mark of honor for Montaigne, who criticized those who act without having weighed the consequences of their actions. The author of Essais thinks that “most of our occupations are low comedy,” scenes independent of one another and of limited value in the tragedy of the Wars of Religion. . .
We must play our part duly, but as part of a borrowed character. Of the mask and appearance we must not make a real essence, nor what is foreign is our very own. It is enough to make up our face, without making up our heart.
After his political career was over Montaigne wrote;
For my part, I stay out of it; partly out of conscience (for in the same way that I see the weight attached to such employments, I see also what little qualification I have for them) partly out of laziness. I am content to enjoy the world without being all wrapped up in it, to live merely an excusable life, which will merely be no burden to myself or others.
After 1588, Montaigne even claimed to have always been motivated by the search to discover the character of men he made met in the course of his public service. The political realism of the time was based on the Machiavellian principle that gave priority to appearances over reality. Montaigne very early opposed this modern paradigm of politics and defended the possibility of judging human actions in a general way, apart from particular actions and words. This idealism with regards to politics was nonetheless contrary to his experiences as mayor of Bordeaux, four years during which he had shown realism and political pragmatism. Despite this Machiavellian apprenticeship, Montaigne persisted in believing in a form of sincerity that transcended history and its events, leaving to others what he called ‘The chicanery of the Palace of Justice.
[Thus the contradiction in Montaigne’s political philosophy, at once the humanist and the technocrat, a man who judges by universal standards of virtue abstracted from History, and the man who plays ‘lazily’ in the mirage of current circumstances.]
You must not consider whether your action or your word may have another interpretation; it is your true and sincere interpretation that you must henceforth maintain, whatever it costs you. Your virtue and our conscience are addressed; these are not parts to be put behind a mask. Let us leave these vile means and expedients to the chicanery of the Palace of Justice.
After the first year as mayor in which he was rather proud to have been a ‘nonmayor’, Montaigne rapidly caught up with the political game, hoping to make use of his position to seek further responsibilities on the national level. He did his best to administer a city that could serve him as a springboard to higher office on a national level and secure the title to nobility wrestled from the obscurity of the merchant class from which his grandfather had come. Confronted by the rising power of regional parlements, the mayors office was supposed to serve as a counter-authority to provide a firmer basis for royal power and to emphasize Montaigne’s competence as a proven negotiator ([a notion that was the prime motive behind the first editions of Essais]. His mission was to be Matignon’s eyes and Henry III's herald in a city that had a long tradition of administrative and political independence, indeed even of uprising against royal authority. The Wars of Religion had only poisoned a situation that had been tense for generations and Montaigne had not succeeded in imposing his conception of politics. He did not regret any of his decisions, and ended up attributing success – and his failure – in politics to chance.
Leaving office after two terms as mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne felt that he had performed his function well. If he had been able to do it over again, he would have made exactly the same decisions. A good administrator judges things on the spot, while a humanist puts things in a universal perspective. The two positions were thus irreconcilable, and that is perhaps why Montaigne’s municipal service can be considered a failure. Too humanist to become a good manager, and too concerned with resolving current problems to leave a mark on the political history of his time. Montaigne did not succeed in establishing his way of seeing of politics during his time as mayor of a municipality riven into pressure groups defending irreconcilable interests and ideologies. The practice of politics led him to discover what he called his “natural disposition” and the self could then be constructed on the ruins of politics.