Friendship, death, and writing in Michel de Montaigne's Essays


In the center of the first book of Michel de Montaigne’s (1533-1592) Essais we find his famous essay on friendship. We should not ascribe the central location of this essay to coincidence, in particular not when we take the introduction of this famous essay on friendship into consideration. In that introduction Montaigne compares his Essais with the work of a painter he had employed. This painter meticulously placed his paintings on the wall. In the middle of each wall he placed his best paintings, which showed all of his capabilities as a painter, and he filled the surrounding space with so-called grotesques, paintings that display fantastic and strange figures that are only enjoyable in that strange capacity. Montaigne’s analogy follows immediately:

And what are these things of mine, in truth, but grotesques and monstrous bodies, pieced together of divers members, without definite shape, having no order, sequence, or proportion other than accidental? (Montaigne 2010, 187).

However, Montaigne stresses that the analogy is not complete. Despite his Essais being like these grotesques, Montaigne deems himself incapable of producing the well-rounded central artwork. That is why he instead announces that as the 28th essay he will place an essay of his dear friend, Etienne de La Boétie, with a work from his youth that Montaigne deems fit to take this prominent place. In addition, sonnets from the same friend will make up the 29th essay. As the 28th and 29th of the 57 essays of the first part of the Essais, Montaigne thus places the work of his friend at the center of his labyrinth of grotesque writings; a labyrinth that thus, void of any intrinsic necessity, more or less accidentally and without order, floats around a focal point: around the friend, around their friendship. And in particular, as occurs so often in the history of the writing on friendship: around the deceased friend, the friend that has passed away.

In this essay I ask why the writing on friendship is so often connected to the death of the friend. In particular, what does this say about writing, and what does it say about the friendship? How do the motives of friendship, death and writing coincide in Montaigne’s essays?

Derrida on the love that mourns

The testamentary character of friendship is emphasized by Jacques Derrida in his book The Politics of Friendship. Although Derrida distinguishes historical periods in the writing and thinking on friendship - namely: the Greek-Roman model, the Christian model, and “Nietzschean” thought on friendship (Berns 2013, 218) - he observes that the relation between friendship and the death of the friend is a recurrent theme, parallel to or throughout those periods. Derrida remarks that already in Aristotle the relation between friendship and survival is present - and with that the mourning of the other, the friend (even though in the Greek-Roman model the friend still circulates in the economy of the self). That connection between friendship and death concerns the durability and stability (bébaios: ‘stable, established, certain, assured’ (Derrida 2005, 15)) of the friendship, and in particular Aristotle’s preference for the activity of loving rather than the passivity of being loved. What else is friendship rather than a particular form of loving - as an activity?

According to Aristotle friendship does not primarily exist in a particular event that is passively endured, but instead in the activity of loving even before any situation of being loved arises. Derrida summarizes this position on the passivity of being loved:

It says nothing of friendship itself which implies in itself, properly, essentially, the act and the activity: someone must love in order to know what loving means; then, and only then, can one know what being loved means. (Derrida 2005, 8)

This privileging of the act has everything to do with knowledge. According to Aristotle the highest friendship is for the sake of what is good, relative to which friendship for utility and pleasure are mere derivatives, and is thus always characterized by durability, bébaios, through the presupposition that reason is being used in making decisions for the sake of the good. Now, the particular type of loving specific to friendship is as an activity accompanied by knowledge, whereas being the passive object of love can remain a secret to the one being loved. Conversely, the loving considered as an activity is never strictly secret: even if the love1 is not proclaimed aloud, the love is always already at least proclaimed to the lover itself. In Aristotle’s view, the phenomenon of friendship can thus not, in its essence, primarily be understood as a passive and potentially unknowingly undergoing of a type of love.

As a result, Derrida argues that Aristotle’s view on friendship is embedded in a rational system of contrapositions and preferences for one over the other. Indeed, these preferences are traditional preferences of philosophy itself:

Loving will always be preferable to being-loved, as acting is preferable to suffering, act to potentiality, essence to accident, knowledge to non-knowledge. It is the reference, the preference itself. (Derrida 2005, 11).

Aristotle would accordingly claim that if a friend should choose between knowing and being known, he would choose knowing, precisely because knowing characterizes true friendship. In that context Aristotle claims that “we” (i.e. the Ancient Greek) praise the friend that keeps loving a dead friend, because in that scenario that friend knows, without the reciprocity of being known. The object of knowing can thus potentially be a dead friend or a lifeless object, whereas the knowing subject is necessarily alive in the act of friendship. Considering an object of knowing, there is thus always already the possibility of that object being dead. This holds accordingly in the act of friendship, which is necessarily accompanied by the (self-)knowledge of this love:

Friendship for the deceased thus carries this philía to the limit of its possibility. But at the same time, it uncovers the ultimate spring of its possibility: I could not love friendship without projecting its impetus towards the horizon of this death. (Derrida 2005, 12).

The limit case of loving the dead friend thus shows that in Aristotle’s view the object of love does not essentially have to exist. In other words, true friendship anticipates the death of the other. The possibility of loving a friend and possibility of the death of the loved one emerge from the very same origin:

I could not love friendship without engaging myself, without feeling myself in advance engaged to love the other beyond death. Therefore, beyond life. I feel myself – and in advance, before any contract – borne to love the dead other. (Derrida 2005, 12).

We thus see that that together with the heterogeneity between activity and passivity, act and potentiality, knowing and not knowing etc., an invisible line between life and death at the same time.
It is inherent to every friendship that one friend survives the other. Derrida will proceed to play out contradictions in Aristotle’s view on friendship in the usual fashion of deconstruction, transforming Aristoteles’ position into new insights along the way. Tracing the steps of that deconstruction is not the aim of this essay. Instead, the goal was to introduce the connection between friendship and death, because this thread returns throughout history in the thinking about friendship, for example in Cicero, Seneca, Augustinus, and also in Derrida himself, who published several memorials about friends. Another interesting author where this connection can be examined is Michel de Montaigne.

The essay as Grotesque

What Montaigne adds to the aforementioned connection between friendship and death is, I argue, that in his essay on friendship textuality itself enters into relation with death as well. I mean that in a more concrete sense than for example Derrida, when he argues that writing is the principle of death2 in a history of logocentrism, because writing breaks the ideality of the voice. The voice is there understood as an auto-affection that is seemingly not stained by the materiality of any signifier, fully present and self-present. This theme could perhaps shed a light on how Montaigne’s essay of friendship expresses the desire for the presence of a lost friend.3

But here I want to focus on the structure and status of the 28th essay itself, as well as its special position in the Essais as a whole, regarded in light of the remarks Montaigne makes about his own texts at the beginning of the essay on friendship. I already partly summarized those remarks in the introduction. But what we should add now is that the announced center piece dedicated to his friend Etienne de la Boétie - of essay 28 and 29, and as such also the center of the Essais as a whole - is remarkably absent. The “grotesques” of Montaigne thus circulate around an absent center, a central absence that we can understand in a negative fashion as a vanishing point. In the very heart of the Essais the disappearance of the friend is materially inscribed.

Moreover, in the rather bizarre introduction to his Essais Montaigne describes that he intended the essays as a self-portrait.

This, reader, is an honest book. It warns you at the outset that my sole purpose in writing it has been a private and domestic one. I have had no thought of serving you or of my own fame; such a plan would be beyond my powers. I have intended it solely for the pleasure of my relatives and friends so that, when they have lost me - which they soon must - they may recover some features of my character and disposition, and thus keep the memory they have of me more completely and vividly alive. Had it been my purpose to seek the world’s favour, I should have put on finer clothes, and have presented myself in a studied attitude. But I want to appear in my simple, natural, and everyday dress, without strain or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My imperfections may be read to the life, and my natural form will be here in so far as respect for the public allows. Had my lot been cast among those peoples who are said still to live under the kindly liberty of nature’s primal laws, I should, I assure you, most gladly have painted myself complete and in all my nakedness. So, reader, I am myself the substance of my book, and there is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject. (Montaigne 1993, 23).

We see first of all that the text anticipates the death of Montaigne himself, and is intended to function as a necrology for family and friends (here in the plural), in which Montaigne’s self becomes readable and recoverable. He adds immediately that, even though he is being honest in representing himself, he cannot offer a full-on nude portrait of himself, but only a portrait ‘in so far as respect for the public allows’. The self-portrait tries to conjure up the self in a lively fashion, but cannot do so completely. Montaigne’s remark reaffirms how such a narrative of the self is a construction, a simulation, which could be understood paradoxically as an illusion produced by the dissimulation of the self. He writes his self in the text as something that will essentially be absent. Who reads the Essais indeed has the idea, even if it is an illusion, that the voice of Montaigne speaks from the text itself, even though it is clear that structurally this particular presence signifies the absence, the death of Montaigne himself.
And Montaigne makes this insight even more explicit by anticipating his own death at the very moment of writing.

Besides this subtle textual self-renunciation in the self-portrait, it is also remarkable that in the very display and literary creation of his ‘self’ Montaigne circumscribes his own subjectivity with the words of others. In this light the comparison of his own essays with grotesques is not innocent at all, because Montaigne thus places himself in a position of marginality and eccentricity with respect to the central theme of death.

As Brad Epps puts it:

What arises is a self-portraiture beside itself, or better yet, a self-portraiture which consists of an elaborate cir-cumlocution, or en-framing, of the words and images of others: La Boétie, of course, but also Horace, Catullus, Ariosto, Cicero, Terence, and so on (Epps 1995, 41).

Montaigne’s autobiography is thus simultaneously a biography of his dead friends, and in particular of his dead friend (in the singular), Etienne de la Boétie. In his article Grotesque Identities Brad Epps considers the grotesque as a method of self-portraiture. The strangeness and even the monstrosity (a term that Montaigne himself uses in essay 28 with emphasis) of the grotesque thus becomes more insightful:

For if the grotesque is strange, even monstrous, it is in part because it styles the self as twisted round and shot through with otherness. (Epps 1995, 41).

This fascinates me because the blending in of the other in the self - an otherness so radical that it becomes a monstrosity - is a crucial element of how Montaigne describes the true friendship:

In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again. If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I. (Montaigne 2010, 192).

So according to Montaigne, he and La Boétie where such good friends that one could no longer discern a rigid difference between ‘I’ and ‘you’, between ‘you’ and ‘I’. This is different than the reciprocity that is central to the Greek-Roman thinking on friendship, in which the otherness of the friend is from the onset considered to be a mirror of the self, on equal footing, and in which the otherness of the friend is thus immediately assimilated in the economy of the self. The equality and reciprocity of the Greek-Roman model of friendship are replaced by Montaigne by the ‘heteronomy, transcendence and infinity’ (Berns 2013, 220, my translation) that is so typical of the Christian idea of friendship4. That transcendence and infinity are illustrated clearly when Montaigne says about his friend:

he surpassed me infinitely in every other ability and virtue, so he did in the duty of friendship. (Montaigne 2010, 198).

By speaking of this infinite transcendence Montaigne’s praises his friend quite literally into heaven; almost as if the friend here replaces the position of God. What thus takes shape is some sort of negative theology through which Montaigne strictly distinguishes his friendship with La Boétie from ‘normal’ friendships, family ties, sexual relations with women (and from the ‘Greek love’). What is left after the negation of these expressions is beyond words. The only utterance that is left for Montaigne to express this friendship is “Because it was he, because it was I.” In this mystical experience - I think you can call it that - he can find no reason for the friendship outside of the singularity of the other. The ontological question what friendship is, as for example Aristotle asked it, is rendered inoperable and of no use for structuring and articulating the friendship (Berns 2013, 220).

This point is important for my overall argument because I want to show how the structure of the Essais incorporates, as it were, Montaigne’s thinking on friendship. That the essay is a grotesque means that the written self-display of Montaigne encircles the heterogeneous other, the infinite transcendence of the friend. There is thus a connection between Montaigne’s writing and his experience of friendship. But there are more connections to point out. Both friendship and the grotesques relate to death. I already highlighted the connection between friendship and death with the help of Derrida’s interpretation. With respect to Montaigne I would like to add that friendship does not only anticipate the death of the other, as we saw in Aristotle, but that friendship as Montaigne envisions it is so ideal, so mystical, that perhaps it could only take place if and only if the friend is dead.

The suspicion that gave rise to this essay is that that the ideal friendship of Montaigne only first takes place in the text, in the writing about friendship, in the grotesque writing of a self-portrait in which the dead friend is being remembered and the ideal friend is being born.

My main claim thus is that Montaigne’s friendship is fundamentally written.

And perhaps the grotesque nature of Montaigne’s writing thus structures his friendship. His writings are grotesque in sofar as they are scribbles in the margin of a central absence, an emptiness that is inscribed in essay 28 as an empty space at the place where La Boétie’s La Servitude Volontaire should have been. It is this central emptiness, the death of the friend, that perhaps inspired the writing of the Essais and the writing on friendship. Kuisma Korvonon states:

One important story about the Essais (…) is the one where Montaigne starts to write his book after the death of his friend Etienne de la Boétie – the story of an ideal friendship, with the text serving as its memorial. (Korvonen 2006, 78).

Montaigne’s friendship has a testamentary character, it exists by the grace of an epitaph, a series of testamentary signs that summon a ‘living’ image of the friend, while inevitably it is the very death of this friend that is its possibility and inspiration5. The form of the grotesque is appropriate for this structure of friendship. Epps states about this form:

The ornamental flourish of figures neither fish nor flow, the reticular profusion of cryptic signs and images, is the most visible stuff of the grotesque, but so too are death, burial, emptiness, creativity, excess, and exuberance: an entire thematics of mortality and vitality that heightens, and is heightened by, the significance of form (Epps 1995, 44).

In this regard the form of the 28th essay itself highly meaningful: its profusion of signs results from a central lack and emptiness, namely the strange and plural absence of the announced text from La Boétie. I say plural, because at the end of the 28th essay Montaigne first of all excuses himself for not placing the text of his friend that he promised, due to the controversial and unintended role it had started to play in its use by protestants under the name Le Contre Un6. But secondly, the piece that he promised to publicize instead, ‘produced in that same season of his life, gayer and more lusty’ (Montaigne 2010, 199), he also did not publish.

In the line of my argument this however make sense: which text could possibly live up to his image of the infinite transcendence of his friend? Both Montaigne’s grotesque writing and his notion of friendship encircle a void left by a central death, that is too ideal to be filled materially.

About this essay:

This essay is a translation and edit of a Dutch essay I wrote about five years ago. You can contact me if you are interested in the Dutch version.


Berns, Gido. 2013. “De tijd van de vriendschap. Vriendschap, broederschap en democratie bij Derrida.” Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 75: 215-46.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins. London: Verso.

Derrida, Jacques. 1974. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Epps, Brad. 1995. “Grotesque Identiteit: Writing, Death, and the Space of the Subject (Between Michel de Montaigne and Reinaldo Arenas. " The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 28: 38-55.

Korhonen, Kuisma. 2006. Textual Friendship. New York: Humanity Books.

Kurz, Harry. 1950. “Montaigne and la Boétie in the Chapter on Friendship.” PLMA 65: 483-530.

Montaigne, Michel de. 2010. “On Friendship.” In Other Selves. Philosophers on Friendship, redactie door Michael Pakaluk, 185-99. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Montaigne, Michel de. 1993. Essays. Vertaald en ingeleid door J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books.

Schlossman, Beryl. 1983. “From La Boétie to Montaigne: The Place of the Text.” MLN 98: 891-909.

  1. I consider friendship here as a specific form of love. This essay does not go into further detail about the relation between concepts of friendship and love. ↩︎

  2. ‘What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit’s relationship with itself. (…) Cutting breath short, sterilizing or immobilizing spiritual creation in the repetition of the letter, (…) it is the principle of death and of difference in the becoming of being.’ (Derrida 1974, 25). ↩︎

  3. For an exposition about the Essais from this more psychoanalytic perspective, consider ‘From La Boétie to Montaigne: The Place of the Text’ from Beryl Schlossman. He argues that Montaigne’s love for the friend cannot be seen apart from a homosexual desire, a possibility that Montaigne himself explicitly excludes in his essay. ↩︎

  4. Although Berns emphasized together with Derrida that Montaigne’s position cannot be seen as a radical departure from the Greek-Roman model of reciprocity. That is not of direct concern for us though. ↩︎

  5. To clarify: it is death that give cause to place a tombstone to remember the deceased person, and to praise his friendship. The placing of a tombstone for a living person is nonsensible. But even if the person for whom the tombstone is intended is still alive, the tombstone as such still presupposes his death. ↩︎

  6. For a history of this piece and its protestant renaming see the article ‘Montaigne and La Boétie in the Chapter on Friendship’ by Harry Kurz. ↩︎

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