|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.