“What do I know?”

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601). Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo.

In the year 1570, Michel de Montaigne, age 36, was riding “an undemanding but not very reliable horse” through the woods near his Dordogne estate. It was a leisurely outing, a respite from his duties in local politics and the management of the family lands. He was accompanied by some of his workers, one of whom decided to show off by racing his powerful farm horse to the front of the line. But the show-off misjudged the width of the path. Instead of dashing triumphantly past Montaigne’s horse, he rammed it from behind, “striking us like a thunderbolt with all his roughness and weight, knocking us over with our legs in the air.” 

Montaigne flew a good ten yards beyond his fallen horse, losing consciousness when he hit the ground, “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” His companions thought him dead, and sought to carry his inert body back to his home. Along the way, however, he began to revive, “but only little by little and over so long a stretch of time that at first my sensations were closer to death than to life.”

Over the next few hours, Montaigne’s thoughts “floated on the surface of my soul … not merely free from unpleasantness but tinged with that gentle feeling which is felt by those who let themselves glide into sleep.” For that blessed interval, the pain of his body did “not belong to us.” When that pain finally entered his conscious awareness, its severity felt like a second brush with death, but without the dreamy gentleness of his initial encounter with fatal proximity.

The last thing his mind recovered was the memory of his accident. At first he thought he’d been hit by a stray bullet. The Wars of Religion had reached the Dordogne, and the distant pop of primitive firearms was not uncommon in his neighborhood. Eventually, his memory of colliding horses returned, “but that perception had been so sudden that fear had no time to be engendered by it.” And whatever happened next—his horse disappearing under him, his flight through the air, the hard landing and loss of consciousness—remained an utter blank.[a]

Although Montaigne’s Essais are an essential part of the literary canon, I must confess that I had not read his account of this unfortunate fall until my later years—last month, in fact, about twelve hours after I flew off my bicycle to make my own painful fall to earth. Such a timely reading was itself an accident. I happened to have with me Patricia Hampl’s reflections about Montaigne in The Art of the Wasted Day, and when I opened the book in my hospital room the next morning, her chapter about his fall was the next one up.

My own Montaigne moment occurred after the penultimate session of the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where I was spending ten days in athletics heaven. Bicycling across the University of Oregon campus at dusk, I was surprised to discover—too late!—that the sidewalk suddenly morphed into three descending steps, the kind of impossible shape-shifting that only happens in bad dreams or cartoon catastrophes. I remember a violent bounce off the first step, but not what happened next. I probably squeezed the brakes, pitching the bike into a forward roll and throwing me into space, but I retain no memory of my flight path. I can only recall the moment of impact and the immediate sensation of pain in my right side and shoulder. Thankfully, my head was untouched. Unlike Montaigne, however, I did not drift in a painless state of gentle detachment. But I did have the experience of a certain doubleness in my awareness. While part of me was howling with pain, another part was busy assessing the damage, noting the details, and wondering at the strangeness of my new reality.

Thanks be to God, I was soon supplied with angels of mercy—three students, plus a nurse who had finished her shift at a Catholic hospital only two blocks away. These angels helped me hobble to the emergency room. After two days in hospital, I was on the highway home with my wife at the wheel. Three and a half weeks later, I’m pretty much back to normal life while awaiting the orthopedic verdict on a displaced clavicle.

“I am myself the matter of this book,” said Montaigne of his immense and influential collection of essays. Although his voice is very personal in its wide-ranging reflections on self and world, vivid stories about himself are rare in his writings. Many have attributed the inclusion of his riding accident to its significance as a turning point for Montaigne. A year after his fall, he would withdraw from the world for a life of reading, thinking, and writing. For the next 22 years until his death, he spent the majority of his days philosophizing in the stone tower adjacent to his house.

His near-death experience had produced a clarity of purpose. Close encounters with extinction tend to focus the mind on what truly matters. Since I’m not going to be here that long, how shall I spend the time that remains? But what happened to Montaigne was more than a sense of heightened resolve. It also sparked a new perception of how consciousness works. Hampl describes this pivotal shift:

“In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall—but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced, and he saw the experience.”[b]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Hampl compares Montaigne’s fall to the conversion of Saul. While the Book of Acts (9:1-6) says only that Saul “fell to the ground” in the face of blinding revelation, Caravaggio’s biblical painting makes it a fall from a horse, dramatizing the image of transformation as a great tumble from the heights of control and self-assurance, terminating in a shocking, shattering thud. Thus did Saul become Paul, someone altogether new. 

As for Montaigne, he might not have invented the personal essay had he not first been knocked silly, discovering in the process that the self is not just trapped within its own individual experience, but is capable of a larger, less narcissistic, more reflective understanding of mind and world. As Hampl writes, Montaigne’s head wound “gave him a new, enlarged consciousness. In his Essais he found the purpose of this self: to see and then to say. The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”[c]

Montaigne’s fall changed the course of his life, but it also changed his relation to death. He struggled with the fear of it through the loss of his father, brother, best friend and five infant daughters, not to mention the persistent slaughters of the religious wars. But when, in the first hours after his fall, he hovered in a strangely tranquil state of letting go, death appeared to have a “friendly face.” It seemed no longer a feared stranger or an impersonal nullification, but a companion as near to us on our first day as our last. 

For the rest of his life, the embrace of our mortality would be a recurring theme. His essay, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,”[d] offers various perspectives to help us live with death:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it … Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls, or a pin pricks, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?”

Why are you afraid of your last day? It brings you no closer to your death than any other did. The last step does not make you tired: it shows that you are tired. All days lead to death: the last one gets there.

‘Leave this world,’ Nature says, ‘just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world.’

I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!

Que sais-je?

And what has my own fall produced in me? I am not Paul. I am not Montaigne. But after that close encounter with the precipitous boundary of my existence, can I remain the same person I was before my short flight into the unexpected? 

The meanings of that Oregon night are still sinking in. Time will tell what I will make of them, or what they will make of me. As Montaigne always said, “Que sais-je?” [e]



[a] Michel de Montaigne, “On Practice,” in The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003), II:6, pp. 416-427.

[b] Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day (New York: Viking, 2018), 214.

[c] Ibid., 215-216.

[d] The Complete Essays, I:20, pp. 96, 107, 103, 99.

[e] Montaigne’s motto (“What do I know?”) reflected his suspicion of certainty and final conclusions, and his inquisitive open-mindedness.

9 thoughts on ““What do I know?”

  1. Wonderful Jim. Wonderful!Great insight and gorgeous context stories I was completely unaware of. Time for a cup of Zealong Sweet Amber tea and some reflecting.

  2. Dear Jim, This is such an excellent post, and I thank you. Prayers and blessings for a complete recovery. Sallie Shippen

    >

  3. My hunch is you’ll discover some Trinitarian significance in those three steps which will pitch you further along a life path that has been full of mostly wondrous surprisingly unexpected things.

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