28 July 2013

Treasured Books No. 3: Michel de Montaigne

A detail of an anonymous portrait of Michel de Montaigne,
courtesy The Guardian and Bridgeman Art Library

There are some authors who come to be constant companions, whose words enter our minds as easily as conversations with a dear friend. This summer, despite a larger than usual stack of stimulating reading, I've found myself drawn back into Montaigne's Essays. Michel de Montaigne has been called by many the father of the familiar essay, and with an umbrella of influence that includes Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf and Anne Fadiman, it's no wonder. 

An anonymous 17th century portrait of Montaigne,
courtesy the University of Chicago's Montaigne Studies Forum

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, was born near Bordeaux in the Chateau de Montaigne on February 28, 1533. His father was a wealthy humanist merchant who, unusually for the time,  meticulously planned his son's education, even arranging for him to have the advantage of Latin as his first language. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in the Essays, his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition." 

The Chateau de Montaigne, in Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, in the Dordogne, France.
The castle dates to the 14th century and was Montaigne's family home.
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Indeed, Montaigne is known for being extremely quotable. When I first read the Essays, being an incurable note-taker, I found myself practically re-writing the entire text! Here, I've used what I consider to be tremendous will-power to limit myself to a few gems to give you the flavor of Montaigne's voice:

"He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live."
--Essays, Book I, Ch. 19, That To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die

"Accustom him to everything, that he may not be a Sir Paris, a carpet-knight, but a sinewy, hardy, and vigorous young man."
--Essays, Book I, Ch. 25, On the Education of Children

"I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more, as I grow older."
--Essays, Book II, Ch. 2, Of Repentance

"If anyone is charmed by his own knowledge, whilst he looks only on those below him, let him but turn his eye upward toward past ages and his pride will be abated, when he shall find so many thousand wits that trample him under foot." 
-- Essays, Book II, Ch. 6, Use Makes Perfect

"The middle sort of historians (of which the most part are) spoil all; they will chew our meat for us."
--Essays, Book II, Ch. 10, Of Books

An anonymous portrait of Montaigne, ca. 1590
Image, courtesy the Montaigne Studies Forum

My 4-volume set of the Essays was published in 1880 in Boston by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Bound in green tooled leather, with not-very special end papers, these octavos are perfect for me: neither too precious to take along in the car or plane, nor too ordinary to spend hundreds of hours with. The pages, 133 years old now, have the lovely texture of the text imprinted into the paper, and I find myself reading as much with my fingers as my eyes, a sort of aesthetic braille.
They have a charming detail: the frontispiece of each volume includes Montaigne's seal, a set of balance scales with his motto: 'Que sais-je"-- "What do I know?" His library, into which he "retired" to write his essays, is a beautiful space. Montaigne inscribed the following above the fireplace:

IN THE YEAR OF CHRIST 1571 Michael Montaigne, aged 38, on his birthday, the day preceding the Calends of March, already long wearied of the servitude of the law-courts, and of public offices, has retired, with faculties still entire, to the arms of the learned virgins, there to pass in all quiet and security, such length of days as remain to him, of his already more than half-spent years, if so the fates permit him to finish this abode and these sweet ancestral retreats consecrated to his freedom and tranquility and leisure.

Montaigne's tower library, the only surviving 16th century section of the Chateau.
Image courtesy St. Georges.

The ceiling in Montaigne's library, with inscribed beams. For a translation of the
maxims inscribed, click here.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Montaigne's voice has traveled from this inspiring library, down through the centuries with no loss of humor, potency or relevance. These are the perfect books to pick up and enjoy as the mood strikes, as the essays can be taken individually. But beware-- Montaigne is so likable,  so entertaining, that you might find yourself, like me, lost in conversation with him while the rest of your reading stack grows unchecked.


  1. Hello Erica, Essays are perhaps my favorite form of literature, because of their intimacy, the direct connection they give to the mindset and mental acuities of the author.

    Your quote of Montaigne's admonishment "turn his eye upward toward past ages and his pride will be abated" resonated with me because just today I was noting that although I have read several authors lately who were clever and had some point to say, when I started reading an old volume of Christopher Morley essays, it was like a breath of fresh air, everything deftly well-put and clearly the product of a far-reaching mind, yet written with a light touch.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your message. I also enjoy personal essays, with Montaigne at the top of a list including Hazlitt, Lamb, and Anne and Clifton Fadiman. It's funny, I seem to have trouble connecting with current writing as well-- perhaps there is just so much being written that it's difficult to sift through it all to the really good stuff... perhaps it's that our contemporary culture doesn't allow or rewards the time/reflection/erudition necessary for writing like Montaigne's... In any case, thank goodness we have these treasures-- enough for a lifetime, surely!
      Warm regards,

  2. Dear Erica - a big regret of mine is that we did not visit Montaigne's library tower whilst staying near to St. Émilion - his ivory tower - a place where suffering from melancholy he retreated to write his essays.
    The quotation that rings true for me is the one you mention from Essays, Book II, Ch. 2, Of Repentance
    Two gems I like are "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself." Book 1 Ch. 39.
    "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?" Book 11 Ch. 12
    Not only is Montaigne entertaining, and very readable, but so is your post for reawakening my lost interest in him.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your comment. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed rekindling your interest in Montaigne. I think it would be fantastic to read Montaigne in that tower, in situ. Can you imagine?! I'm sure when I finally make it there, the guards or docents will be very annoyed with me for staying too long...!
      Warm regards,

  3. Dear Erika,

    I have always been intrigued by Montaigne's early retirement to his tower, and wondered what that tower might have looked like. My mwntal image was of something completely isolated from any other architecture because I suppose I imagined a more reclusive life than Montaigne probably actually had. But I do note that the tower is ivory-colored — perhaps that is the origin of the term.

    Best wishes, Mark

    1. Dear Mark,
      I don't know if it's my 'artist's temperament', or just plain anti-social tendencies, but I've always looked at Montaigne's self-imposed retirement with a bit of awe and envy! Just imagine the freedom to be surrounded by your favorite books, with no pesky social duties to perform... It sounds wonderful to me, with so many imposed duties pulling me away from the work and people I care about the most... I hope that doesn't make me sound horrible! His writings, often so funny and carefree, don't seem to be the work of a depressed hermit; they seem more like the product of someone just selfish enough to devote his full attention to the work he really wanted to do... I'm so glad he did! I'm intrigued by your comment about the ivory tower- perhaps more investigation is in order!
      Warm regards,

  4. Hello, Erika -
    Thank you for featuring this 1880 4 volume set from your library. Sounds absolutely divine! The next time I attend an antiquarian book fair, I will be sure to ask about this set. I trade in 17th - early 19th century European vellum bound bibles and books of revelations. And a few illuminated manuscripts.

  5. Hello Loi! Thank you for your comment-- I'm intrigued by your own book collection! Perhaps the subject for a future post?! I's love to hear more about the illuminations, too...

    Warm regards,