The quotidian quality of Montaigne’s essays, in fact, is their biggest appeal. They seem so drawn from life that they look effortless. Penso recalls that philosopher Eric Hoffman once tried to share Montaigne’s essays with some acquaintances, to no avail: “One man flipped through the book for a while and handed it back, observing that it was nothing special—anybody could have written it. Montaigne would have liked that.”
When Montaigne changed his mind about a subject, instead of revising his views seamlessly, he’d often just tack an addendum on his previous statement, leaving the original one intact. One can easily imagine a contemporary literary agent surveying this merry mess, then pitching it into the trash can.
If Montaigne doesn’t seem obviously concerned with pleasing an audience, it’s probably because he wrote his essays at least as much for himself as anyone else. Montaigne’s temporary withdrawal from public affairs came about because of what we might today call a midlife crisis.
…Others had written in the first person before Montaigne, but they typically offered their opinions from positions of authority. Montaigne simply wrote as himself: a guy at the apparent midpoint of his life trying to sort himself out. He called his compositions “essays,” which translates as a trial or attempt, and seemed like a shrewd way to lower expectations. Montaigne offered his prose as a first stab at wisdom, a work in progress rather than an intact philosophical system.
Someone writing randomly about what he’s thinking for hundreds of pages sounds pretty dull, but Montaigne pulls it off. “How does it happen that Montaigne is not ever, not on any of all those pages, even a bit of a bore?” Thomas asks, and then answers his own question: “He likes himself, to be sure, but is never swept off his feet after the fashion of bores.”
Montaigne, as I’ve said a few times, is probably my biggest role model here. He doesn’t come up often as a direct reference, or in the form of notable quotables (though this remains one of my absolute favorite posts I’ve ever written), but his spirit animates my whole understanding and practice of blogging. It’s always a delight to read another article about him. You should read it too. And then go pick up a copy of the Essays and read that.
April 18, 2015 @ 2:42 pm
Yeah, Montaigne was a quiet revolutionary. So much so that you easily forget how original he is. He managed to make himself eternally contemporary in a way that doesn't overawe you like Shakespeare, but either bores you (because it has become so much a part of our own idiom, whether in thinking, talking or writing, that you take him for granted) or thrills you, because you see the future being carved out of the past, and realize it has become part of your present.
This is such a perfectly written essay, and all the authors quoted are also such good writers. It makes me want to dust off my copies. When I was a Montaigne devotee I collected editions in French and English, struggled through the French, and took lengthy notes. That was 30 years ago! Alas. And I haven't read him since.
He's such a personable, likeable guy. If some cantankerous asshole had written them we wouldn't still be reading his Essays. I like Heitman's observation, that the writers and thinkers of that era were "glib." A surprising choice of words, but it's true. We like to think of ourselves as "liberated," but Montaigne, Shakespeare et al. were less inhibited, more spontaneous, and hence more freely inventive than most of us today. Montaigne has his neuroses, but those seem healthy compared with ours, and he never lost the crucial personality trait of candor. He is his own therapist, as Heitman points out, and reading him is like being placed in the position of a psychotherapist (not as bright as he is!) listening to confessions and reminiscences from somebody who isn't worried about what you think of him. He does your work for you. He knows that honest introspection–the talking cure–is the only means of making life–and himself–more interesting and bearable.