The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus

 

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.

 

An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.

 

“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.

 

Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

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3 thoughts on “The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

  1. Wow, what a great review of a very loooong book! I love Montaigne for his deep and sometimes very quirky thoughts. While he admired the classic writers, Montaigne certainly was his own person with his own unique ideas. And he was personable, which made me feel like I knew him after I’d finished. He’s one of my favourite essayists!

    • I admit I skipped Raymond Sebond (the longest essay) and a few of the smaller essays that didn’t seem interesting here and there, but otherwise I read most of them. He is very personable. Bauer in the Well-Educated Mind counts this as a biography, right? That’s an interesting way of categorizing the work. I haven’t really read much in the way of essays. What other essayists have you enjoyed?

      • I thought it was curious that she labelled it as a biography as well, but I do think Montaigne’s thoughts often tell us as much about himself as the subject about which he’s speaking. I’ve just recently begun to read essays, but some favourites are C.S. Lewis (his ideas can range from the ultra-organized to the hard-to-follow, but he always has some fascinating thoughts to explore), G.K. Chesterton, Francis Bacon, Joseph Addison, Jerome K. Jerome, Hilaire Belloc, Virginia Woolf (although her scathing comments can sometimes take away from her words), George Orwell, Dorothy Sayers, and Wendell Berry (love him!), I thought E.B. White was a little bit of a weirdo until I finally “got” him this year and now I realize what a brilliant essayist he was. I do have a little problem with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Too much to wade through to reach the interesting nuggets but perhaps there is still time for me to gain an appreciation of him. I’ve heard that Samuel Johnson is excellent as well, but I haven’t read anything of his yet.

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