Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1

I have been loosely interested in the works of Montaigne for a while (i.e. I knew of his name), but I was not yet ready to read them for myself; I just hadn’t worked up the interest and have a lot of other stuff on my reading list.

Then Audible did one of its sales where you can get two books for a single credit, and a biography of Montaigne was one of the options. I recently finished listening to Sarah Bakewell’s biography/analysis of Montaigne, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (affiliate link). I reserve judgment as a critic, but as a listener I enjoyed it quite a bit; the reader (I keep recommending it to long-suffering friends and family members).

The more I heard about Montaigne the more I felt a burning desire to read his work, not only because it has survived so long and been so well thought of but also because his style of writing, assays (which is the root of the modern essay), is somewhat related to mine. I haven’t been doing as much independent writing on topics as I once did in my youth–age has knocked some of the hubris out of me–but the subjects of the essays are very interesting.

Montaigne is sometimes referred to as the first modern man, sort of a proto-Shakespeare (in fact, literary historians actually believe that Shakespeare read Montaigne in an English translation, according to Bakewell). This is despite his heavy influence from the classics: he makes constant allusions to ancient history as well as contemporary events. Nonetheless, his thoughts are interesting. He has no compunction against saying “I don’t know” and he will often rakishly propose a point only to abandon it or even condemn it later.

Montaigne is capable of holding two viewpoints at once and leading the reader to agree with both. He is either wrong in the most correct way possible, or correct in the lest correct way possible. This could be frustrating, but I think it’s actually a sign of depth: Montaigne was a moderate’s moderate: his most radical movement was toward tolerance and acceptance, though not necessarily to what we would consider such in the modern sense.

The most important thing that I’ve noticed from the sliver of essays that I have read so far (I am through just about an eighth of the Essays) is that Montaigne is willing to step back and let the reader take his point on most things. His most polemical work that I’ve seen so far is probably his “Of Pedantry”, which is willing to mock but not outright condemn the educators of Montaigne’s era.

The essays ring true today, as they may have back in Montaigne’s era. Reading Montaigne, the only real indication that he is not a modern writer is his limited knowledge of science (which he generally freely admits, preferring to cite prevailing wisdom in a way that shields him against blame of falsehood) although he is shrewdly observant enough that he knows many things that we would consider revolutionary–he is humble about this, so maybe it is rather our poor perception of how much early Renaissance thinkers really knew rather than Montaigne being revolutionary.

As a figure, Montaigne is interesting because he was humble. One thinks of the stereotype of a Zen master, detached from the world like Buddha sitting under his tree. Montaigne is, of course, a classicist (Latin was his first language), and he has an understanding of the Stoic philosophy that is far beyond almost anyone else I have read (though that may be a fault of mine, rather than other Stoics).

He is also a disciple of Pyrrhonian skepticism, doubting his own ability to come to a certain conclusion on anything. Montaigne lived through one of the darkest times in history, a dark and violent period in French history that would only be rivaled by the French Revolution or Vichy France, and perhaps not even then. The Wars of Religion may not have been as devastating as later nationalized conflicts, but they were compounded by plague and apocalyptic attitudes.

Montaigne lived through this era without locking the gates to his manor. He was not necessarily a saint, but he was reserved in casting judgment and mistrusting people. He survived being robbed by bandits on multiple occasions, and was a worldly man, though also a devout Catholic (or at least professed to be one).

His essays reflect this. They welcome everyone to read them, which perhaps explains how Montaigne’s work achieved literary fame in a period where political and religious schisms were tearing Europe apart.

My own edition of the Essays is the Penguin Classics complete edition on Kindle (affiliate link). Honestly, I don’t recommend it. I didn’t shop around, and I wound up choosing the most expensive way to get it in digital format. It does seem to be a quite capable research volume, clearly denoting the different editions of the Essays and how it has hybridized them to include all of the major published versions, also including footnotes that contain other interesting information. It also seems to be complete (Amazon reviews to the contrary seem either to be out-of-date or on the wrong product), based on my own review.

However, it is a good deal more expensive, and I don’t know that you really miss that much (or that other, cheaper editions do not include footnotes). The opening foreword is interesting, but gives way to a lengthy interlude on Montaigne’s translation of and essay about Raymond Sebond’s Theological naturalis, which honestly was a massive bore (Bakewell has a radically different interpretation, and one which is explained in a more interesting fashion; not having yet read “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” I have no capability to render judgment based on my own opinion).

The internal quality of the text may be better, but I have no comparison. The foreword is dull, and Montaigne would probably consider it so dull that he would have discarded it (he willfully admits his own caprice in his reading habits). I do enjoy having it on Kindle, where highlighting sections is easy and where the multitude of pages won’t stress my wrists, but I’d look for one of the various 99-cent editions if you want the book on Kindle and don’t care about minute gradations in quality (though these seem to be a good deal shorter, so caveat emptor).

As a closing note, however, Montaigne’s Essays brings back the parts of my university experience I most loved: great conversations with friends and experts, authentic dialogue that pierces to the heart of a matter. They’re unpretentious, but they’re also deep and meaningful. A must-read for anyone who can stomach them, and they’re remarkably friendly.

I shall include further reflections and a finished review as I progress through the book.

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