am 1. Mai 2000
Montaigne wrote what he called "essays", in the sense of "attempts" - he was trying to find out what he thought about stuff. It helped that he'd read a great deal, led a pretty full life and had known some interesting people, although one of his great virtues is that he seems to have found them more interesting than they themselves probably thought they were.
Pascal struggled all his life with the example of Montaigne. The problem for Pascal was that he was only really concerned with one thing - God's grace - and he was scandalised that Montaigne didn't seem to find it that big a deal. MM will write as readily about theological disputes and poetry as he will about sex, forgetfulness and his own stupidity. Apart from anything else, he was perhaps the first person to observe that nobody can pretend that his s*** doesn't stink (I can't remember the exact page, but then there _are_ over a thousand.)
There's a lifetime's reading in here. For such a big fat classic of a book it reads like it was written yesterday, although if it _had_ been written yesterday, he'd've been all over Hello! magazine by now.
Wisdom is maybe underrated these days, but Montaigne isn't just spouting off. This is not a 16th century evening with Morrie. You can see him thinking. He _encourages_ you. (What a great word "encourage" is.) It's not that bad for about fourteen quid.
am 16. Februar 2006
Michel de Montaigne is considered by many to be the inventor of the literary form of the essay, so the collection from which these excerpts come is important in several ways. Montaigne was a humanist and a skeptic in his philosophical approach, and essentially looked at his own experience as the first topic for examination always.
The book of Essays was one he worked on periodically throughout his life, issuing different editions, the first of which appeared in 1580. Montaigne's style of writing is sometimes stream-of-consciousness, sometimes structured in more formal styles.
Montaigne's stated task in his preface to the reader is for self-examination, but it becomes very clear that Montaigne sees himself as an 'everyman' character. He strives for full-disclosure; indeed, he writes that were he another culture 'which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature's first laws', then he might have appeared naked.
This is a complete set of the Essays, together with a helpful introduction and notes for reading. As Montaigne added to his essays periodically, they are not necessarily in the order he wrote them, but this collection has preserved their order according to his standards.
Montaigne's essays show a pessimism and skepticism, perhaps based on the kinds of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants going on, in France and elsewhere, as well as the periodic flare of plague. He was a humanist who saw cultures as having value internal to themselves and preferred to not universalise morals, laws and other ideas.
Montaigne was sometimes conventional in thought (seeing marriage as necessary for children, and distrusting the idea of romantic love), but other times he was very much a free thinker (particularly when it came to religious dogma or absolutist kinds of philosophical paradigms). Montaigne had respect for those who followed religious codes and ways of life, but distrusted those who tried to impose such ideas upon others.
Montaigne added to his essays twice in major ways, but did not strive for consistency or systematic ways of thinking - he declined to remove previous essays if they contradicted new writings.
Montaigne is perhaps the most important French philosopher prior to the Enlightenment. His essays remain popular because they have a sense of the modern and the current about them.
"My library is in the third story of a tower; on the first is my chapel, on the second a bedroom with ante-chambers, where I often lie to be alone; and above it there is a great wardrobe. Adjoining my library is a very neat little room, in which a fire can be laid in winter, and which is pleasantly lighted by a window..." Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592) wrote in the chapter "On Three Kinds of Relationships".
Montaigne liked being retired, seeking distance to a world of bloody fights between religious groups. Did these things develop, 400 years later? Montaigne tried to escape dogmatic thoughts finding a new way of hammering out thoughts via his typical relaxed method of writing. Living 200 years earlier than the other genius of essay, the poor Soren Kierkegaard, Montaigne was not as filled up with anxiety as the Danish philosopher - he instead managed to stay calm with a solid resource of optimism, though things outside his favourite tower often run very worse.
His courageous goal was the overcoming of the stereotyped medieval conception of the world, in which humans usually had been overwhelmed by church- or government-authorities like puppets on a string. Montaigne established the departure to individual noticing, founded an anthropocentric view of world. This probably had something fresh to his contemporary readers.
Montaigne's program was to dip down in ones own mind: "Everyone, who is listening to his inner landscape of thoughts, is able to discover his identity, so that he is able to repel everything, which does not fit this." About his style of writing essayist Elias Canetti noticed: "Montaigne is most beautiful, because he does not hurry."
Aged 17 Michel de Montaigne had ridden to Paris, to complete his humanistic education. There he had attached important relations, had operated with prostitutes notoriously and had squandered the family wealth, until the father pulled the emergency brake and called him back to Bordeaux, where he had to begin a boring job at the local court (if we can trust the speculations of the French biographer Lacouture).
Historically more secured is Montaigne's political identity: the France of his time had torn up, the faith splitting escalated in the "St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre" in Paris on 24 August 1572, bloody amuck in many other French cities followed, also in Montaigne's Bordeaux. He had been the mayor, and particularly in the second term of office 1583-85, he skilfully succeeded to calm down the parties (Catholics tried to slaughter the Protestant Huguenots).
His "ideology-free" position had been developed in expanded studies of the classical philosophers - and in a thereupon diametrically opposite literary attempt to justify an own individual kind of thinking and writing: precisely analyzing human conditions (using oneself as the only field, one can explore without too much strange mistakes) without being paralyzed by social regulations of how to search and communicate.
"I do not proclaim doctrines of faith, but not obligatory opinions, which one can classify as a gesture alike done by children, trying to show their experiments: they only want to learn, not to instruct or indoctrinate."
The sceptical, further-asking, essentially open dialogue of Montaigne influenced such thinkers as Diderot, Lichtenberg or Nietzsche. His writing method encouraged philosophy, psychology - and hundreds of essayists. Indeed we hope that Montaigne's voice will never get lost...
am 3. November 1998
At critical junctures of my life I have found Montaigne to be the best source of understanding of what it is to be a civilized human being. The essays illuminate the self and our relationship to society. This book more than any other I know enables the reader to trace our relationship to issues that concern us today: freedom, appropriate behavior, individuals vs institutions, health, nature. You name it, MM deals with it. Buy this book.