Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Original Essayist

The Complete Essays 
by Michel de Montaigne

“I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more as I grow older.” 

"When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind."
-   Michel de Montaigne 

This is a difficult book to review, not because it is difficult to read or comprehend but rather because it is so exceptionally comprehensive in its topics and thoughts and ideas. In one sense it began in 1571 when Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write what we know now as his Essays. At the age of thirty-eight he could look out his windows to see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about 60 maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him.

In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and he wrote in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof-beam carvings of his "solarium" convey his general frame of mind and include sayings like these: "The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge. I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine. Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head. Not more this than that -- why this and not that? Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool. Man, a vase of clay. I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me."

The essays that he wrote defined the form of his thought while providing a window into both his mind and his life. Through his essays he has influenced writers and thinkers in every place and century since. One of my favorite examples of those he influenced is the self-taught working-man's philosopher Eric Hoffer who commented on the influence of Montaigne in his life. When on a gold-digging trip to the Sierras he took along a copy of Montaigne's essays. "We were snowed in and I read it straight through three times. I quoted it all the time. I'll bet there are still a dozen hobos in the San Joaquin Valley who can quote Montaigne." Montaigne's collected essays are worth returning to again and again to spur one's own thoughts about living and dying. I have read and enjoyed these essays over most of my adult life.  With them I would also recommend those of Francis Bacon, Emerson, and Orwell, among others.

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Brian Joseph said...

This something else that I need to read.

I really like it when thinkers, in a single work or throughout a body of work, try to lay out a comprehensive belief system.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Montaigne demonstrates a complex body of thought over his many essays. They are fun to dip into from time to time.

Blaine Hill said...

I just discovered your fine blog, and I will return often. I remember reading Montaigne a long time ago, but I doubt that I can remember anything specific about his essays. Your posting encourages me to revisit the old fellow. In the meantime, I invite you to my new blog; a question is waiting for you there.

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. Montaigne is an author worth returning to again and again. I appreciate your invitation to visit your blog.