Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Ultra brief bio: born in 1533 to a minor noble family in Bordeaux, Montaigne studied law and worked in the local parlement for a number of years before retiring at age 37 (my age now, coincidentally) to write his essays. The first edition was published in 1580 and it was an instant hit. He took a year and a half off to travel to Italy, but he was eventually called back to public life to serve as the mayor of Bordeaux. He never ceased working on his essays, which were continually revised and expanded. He died in 1592.
How was it I got through 19 years of education and heard the name Montaigne exactly once? I remember it was in 12th-grade English. Someone asked where the essay came from and my teacher mentioned Montaigne. I think the phrase “ivory tower” was used at some point too.
While the term “ivory tower” conjures the image of an academic cloistered from the world who spins theories about abstract concerns, Montaigne was exactly the opposite. His writing was concerned with the down-to-earth and practical. “For him, abstract systems were of no use; what counted was critical self-awareness: the ability to into one’s own motivations and yet to accept oneself as one was,” Bakewell writes. He ignored subjects like metaphysics. Philosophy should be useful.
His essays are informal, rambling, searching, tentative, and anecdotal. Bakewell says his writing “follows its authors stream of consciousness without attempting to pause or dam it. A typical page of the Essays is a sequence of meanders, bends, and divergences. You have to let yourself be carried along, hoping not to capsize each time a change of direction throws you off balance.” Is this the reason he’s all but absent from our educational system? Because his example runs precisely counter to the rigid structure we’re taught in high school and college?
But how refreshing and charming to find a thinker of such modesty, who continually emphasized his ordinariness and the limits of his knowledge. His attitude stands in stark contrast to someone like Descartes who proclaimed, “Everything I perceive clearly and distinctly cannot fail to be true.” Montaigne, on the other hand, will throw out some ideas, describe his personal experience and whatever else he’s picked up along the way, and then offer with a shrug, “But what do I know?”
A few quotes:
- “Even if all that had come down to us by report from the past should be true and known by someone, it would be less than nothing compared with what is unknown.”
- “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”
- ”It seems to me that we can never be despised as much as we deserve.” (It should be noted he said this cheerfully.)
- “Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.”
- “I suspend judgment.” (The motto he lived by.)
- “We are all patchwork and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.”
- “I should certainly like to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I do not want to buy it as dear as it costs. My intention is to pass pleasantly, and not laboriously, what life I have left. There is nothing for which I want to rack my brain, not even knowledge, however great its value…I speak my mind freely on all things, even on those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction. And so the opinion I give them is to declare my measure of my sight, not the measure of things.” (This could be the epigraph for this site.)
A couple of extended excerpts. This is from “That our desire is increased by difficulty”:
What is the use of that art of virginal shame, that sedate coldness, that severe countenance, that profession of ignorance of things that they know better than we who instruct them in them, but to increase in us the desire to conquer, to overwhelm and subdue to our appetite all this ceremony and these obstacles? For there is not only pleasure but glory in driving wild and seducing that soft sweetness and childlike modesty, and in reducing a proud and commanding gravity to the mercy of our ardor. It is a glory, they say, to triumph over rigor, modesty, chastity, and temperance; and whoever dissuades the ladies from these attitudes betrays both them and himself. We must believe that their heart shudders with fright, that the sound of our words offends the purity of their ears, that they hate us for it and yield themselves to our importunity only with a forced constraint. Beauty, all-powerful as it is, has not the wherewithal to make itself relished without that interposition.
And this is from “Of the disadvantage of greatness”:
I sharpen my courage toward endurance, I weaken it toward desire. I have as much to wish for as another, and I allow my wishes and inclinations as much freedom and indiscretion; yet it has never occurred to me to wish for empire or royalty, or for the eminence of those high and commanding fortunes. I do not aim in that direction, I love myself to well. When I think of growing, it is in a lowly way, with a constrained and cowardly growth, strictly for myself: in resolution, wisdom, health, beauty, and even riches. But that prestige, all that powerful authority, oppresses my imagination. And quite in contrast with that other, I would perhaps prefer to be second or third in Perigueux rather than first in Paris; at least, without prevarication, rather the third in Paris than the first in responsibility. I want neither to be a wretched unknown, wrangling with a doorkeeper, nor to make the crowds where I pass split in adoration. I am trained to a middle station, by my taste as well as by my lot…
My soul is so craven that I do not measure good fortune by its height; I measure it by its facility.
So what’s your experience with Montaigne? Have you read his essays or travel journal? If not, Bakewell’s book is a great introduction to his work. And, although I’d prefer to read an ebook given that his complete works are over 1,300 pages, this Everyman’s Library edition that I have is handsome.
A few other resources:
- Back here, Paleo Retiree wrote an introduction to the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, for whom Montaigne was a hero. Toulmin wrote a book arguing that Western Civ sorta went off the rails by following Descartes instead of Montaigne.
- Paleo Retiree’s Toulmin piece also flags this excellent Paul Grahman piece on the history of the essay.
- Here’s a short interview with Sarah Bakewell.
- Here’s a nice intro by Alain de Botton.