When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me: Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life, penned by Saul Frampton, is an analysis and commentary on the 16th century philosopher/writer/connoisseur Michel De Montaigne’s vast body of work, known as his Essays.
Montaigne was a fascinating character, and his musings on life in general range over a vast array of subjects – from how best to avoid being shot, to the alleged beauty of the prostitutes of Florence. Frampton excellently encapsulates Montaigne’s thoughts on these and other topics, as well as giving us a feel for Montaigne the man, by framing the topics of discussion in 16th century France, which was a troubled and violent time. I wouldn’t quite call this a biography, although it does come close to being one with regards Montaigne’s later life. This book also serves as a nice little introduction to 16th century France, with the religious civil wars, plague outbreaks etc.
However, the main thrust of this work is of course Montaigne’s essays, and his thoughts on life and death. Montaigne considered “essays” to be “examinations”. After suffering great personal loss of loved ones lives, and fearing his own imminent death, Montaigne retreats to his vast library tower, to wait out his imagined final days in relative peace. His outlook on life at this stage is bleak to say the least, thinking life to really just be a preparation for death. To cut a long story short, he gradually changes his outlook on life, to such an extent that he enunciates a real “joy de vivre”.
It is here that he starts to serve as the “antidote” to Descartes’ separation of mind and body. What I love about Montaigne, as Frampton puts it, is that to Descartes, existence itself was a problematic or questionable – hence “cogito ergo sum”. However to Montaigne, existence was unproblematic and should be whole-heartedly embraced and accepted, and life was there to be tasted in all its flavors. Rejecting his earlier theory that life was purely preparation for the real life of death, he now states that life is “an aim unto itself; a purpose unto itself”, with death now merely being “its limit, but not therefore its object”.
There are countless fresh ideas, theories, musings and thoughts in this portrayal of Montaigne’s work – enough I believe to give you a fresh perspective on many things, maybe even on life itself!