Essays Of Michel De Montaigne
Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it. ‘He has passed over his life in idleness,’ we say: ‘I have done nothing today.’ What? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious of all your occupations.One feature of the Essays is, accordingly, Montaigne’s fascination with the daily doings of men like Socrates and Cato the Younger; two of those figures revered amongst the ancients as wise men or “sages”.When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind.He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favourites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles.It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called “a way of life”.
More recently, Sarah Bakewell’s charming engagement with Montaigne, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) made the best-sellers’ lists.Their wisdom, he suggests, was chiefly evident in the lives they led (neither wrote a thing).In particular, it was proven by the nobility each showed in facing their deaths.Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change.Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.Without pretending to untangle all of the knots of this “book with a wild and desultory plan”, let me tug here on a couple of Montaigne’s threads to invite and assist new readers to find their own way.Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic, hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars, and his grief at the loss of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie through dysentery.Montaigne’s persistence in assembling his extraordinary dossier of stories, arguments, asides and observations on nearly everything under the sun (from how to parley with an enemy to whether women should be so demure in matters of sex, has been celebrated by admirers in nearly every generation.Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare.He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all.With an almost Socratic irony, he tells us most about his own habits of writing in the essays titled “Of Presumption”, “Of Giving the Lie”, “Of Vanity”, and “Of Repentance”.