June 19, 2010


For my lit project, I read the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.

I began reading Montaigne shortly after the start of the new year and have been coming back to him in intermittent bursts throughout these six months. The past few weeks have seen my longest and most intimate association with his work, and now, faced with writing about the Essays, I do not think I will be able to properly separate myself from them in order to fairly assay them. But here I go:

Montaigne's subject is himself. Following Apollo's inscription at Delphi ("Know Thyself") and the lead of history's sages, Montaigne examines his virtues and follies, his habits and experiences, his mind and his body. Montaigne's voice is direct, realistic, and mature. He does not hide his vices or shy from uncomfortable truth. He is temperate and relaxed. He ambles through his thoughts with unassuming ease, detailed yet disorganized, rambling yet apt. He borrows heavily from the Ancients, whole essays structured around lines of poetry, others indebted to the examples of a philosopher. Socrates and Epicurus, the Stoics and Sceptics, Virgil and Juvenal, Plutarch and Cicero, Caesar and Alexander -- an endless run of wisdom which Montaigne examines (sometimes to accept, sometimes to criticize) and applies. He is right to. No wisdom is as rich as Ancient wisdom.

Montaigne began writing his Essays late in life and, finding them worthwhile, dedicated himself to them till his end. He published three books. Reading them beginning to end, as I have, reveals a writer who becomes more comfortable and confident with time. His first essays are short, his topics less personal. His final essays are breathtaking in their aimless length and frankness.

As Montaigne changed over the course of his Essays as a writer, I changed as a reader. This has little to do with Montaigne and more to do with the circumstances of my life, which have altered me, sometimes radically, between bouts of reading. With each change, my appreciation for Montaigne grew. My first approach to Montaigne was as an intellectual; I examined his thoughts and tested his world view, comparing his philosophy with my own. I was disappointed. By the end of his Essays -- by today -- I learned to approach Montaigne as a person, a man like any other. Few of us will fail to recognize aspects of ourselves in this detailed auto-portrait. Montaigne, as is his project, fully displays his humanity; and in so doing he displays our own.
We set our stupidities in dignity when we set them in print.
From the start, I always read Montaigne with a pencil by my side. My book is now filled with faint markings, bracketing off passages and lines which struck me while I was reading. To read them now is an experience of its own. Some passages strike me as dull or bizarre, and I cannot imagine what crossed my mind when I first read them and found them worth highlighting; other passages strike me through the heart, onto which I am moved to inscribe such clear and simple wisdom. It is something when but a sentence is needed to question the virtue and depth of my soul; I have opened my book to find this modest line --
in an age when so many behave wickedly, it is almost praiseworthy merely to be useless.
I shall return to your Essays later in my life, Montaigne. Then will age be my aid.

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