The Essays: A Selection (Penguin Classics) Info

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Reviews for The Essays: A Selection (Penguin Classics):

4

May 01, 2015

So now, on this journey of self-education, we arrive at Montaigne, the instrospective French essayist who was both devout papist and syphilitic whore-master. This is exactly the type of internal conflict that I like in a philosopher and avoid in, say, a husband or a physician or what have you.

Of all the reading I've done in the past two years, Montaigne has taken up the most space in my copybook. I wrote down things he said that supported my biases and I wrote down things that challenged them. So now, on this journey of self-education, we arrive at Montaigne, the instrospective French essayist who was both devout papist and syphilitic whore-master. This is exactly the type of internal conflict that I like in a philosopher and avoid in, say, a husband or a physician or what have you.

Of all the reading I've done in the past two years, Montaigne has taken up the most space in my copybook. I wrote down things he said that supported my biases and I wrote down things that challenged them. For instance, here he agrees with my bias against burning people at the stake for heresy:

"After all, it is to put a very high value on your surmise to roast a man alive for them."

While here he takes a firmer stance than I have taken against the questionable literary taste of young pupils:

"Were our pupil's disposition so bizarre that he would rather hear a tall tale than the account of a great voyage or a wise discussion...I know no remedy except that his tutor should quickly strangle him when nobody is looking."

Lately, this has spoken to me:

"Others never see you: they surmise about you from uncertain conjectures; they do not see your nature so much as your artifice. So do not cling to their sentence: cling to your own."

As has this:

"Sometimes it is the bravest who may prove most unlucky...True victory lies in your role in the conflict, not in coming through safely: it consists in the honour of battling bravely, not battling through."

I could not be more persuasive in getting you to read Montaigne than Montaigne himself. Which is why I've let him do most of this review. ...more
4

Jan 11, 2011

Alas, Real Life has intruded, and I had to cut short my acquaintance with M. Montaigne. I had mixed feelings about this, much like you have mixed feelings about a friend coming to save you from a fascinating person you've just met at a party- one with rather a high opinion of himself that he isn't shy of airing, but one that might possibly be well-justified. In a conversation with this person, you might find yourself bereft of something to say to him after the fifth or sixth time his Alas, Real Life has intruded, and I had to cut short my acquaintance with M. Montaigne. I had mixed feelings about this, much like you have mixed feelings about a friend coming to save you from a fascinating person you've just met at a party- one with rather a high opinion of himself that he isn't shy of airing, but one that might possibly be well-justified. In a conversation with this person, you might find yourself bereft of something to say to him after the fifth or sixth time his cliche-filled comments nonetheless leave you with only, "Well.. that's one way to look at it," to say.. instead of "Who the eff does this guy think he is?"

Montaigne may sound like a college freshmen high on his first Philosophy 101 class sometimes, but he was possibly the first guy to express himself that way. It can read as douchey now, but I think even with that, he manages to weave in enough of an interesting story to make it compelling reading. I also don't think the impression of him as an immature man lasts all that long- he expresses enough of living here that he has something to offer adult readers as well as those still in formation. His essay "On Books" in particular is memorable and brilliant (though take that with a grain of salt, from a bibliophile), and I recommend getting your hands on just that essay if possible. He can also be wonderfully self-deprecating and wise, humble and brutal in his own self-examination- he's apt to dismiss emotional problems with an Oscar Wilde like witty line like a flick of the wrist, a sensibility that is remarkably modern. He's a man of his time with all the prejudices that entails (including those against women and about religion), but it is the way he thinks about things and frames problems that will be familiar to the modern reader. ...more
5

Aug 07, 2008

Ive read a handful from the Donald Frame translation but prefer Screech. If anyone can be placed on a plane with Shakespeare for me, it is Montaigne. This selection includes some of the big ones, such as On some lines of Virgil, On experience, On education, On fear, and so on to the tune of 400 superlative pages. The Complete Essays is the true gem, but I bought that for the apartment; this one is for the train. I’ve read a handful from the Donald Frame translation but prefer Screech. If anyone can be placed on a plane with Shakespeare for me, it is Montaigne. This selection includes some of the big ones, such as “On some lines of Virgil,” “On experience,” “On education,” “On fear,” and so on to the tune of 400 superlative pages. The Complete Essays is the true gem, but I bought that for the apartment; this one is for the train. ...more
5

Sep 12, 2014

It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being lawfully. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside. Yet there is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rear.

It seemed to me as if I had written the book in some former life, so sincerely it spoke It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being lawfully. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside. Yet there is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting only on our own rear.

“It seemed to me as if I had written the book in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience,” wrote Emerson of his first encounter with Montaigne’s essays. And, indeed, I feel that I could copy and paste my review of the works of Emerson here and amend it as needed, perhaps splicing in a few sections of my thoughts on Whitman as well (for he too embraced a similar sort of “tolerant individualism,” as the translator of this work – Donald Frame – calls it). And, as Thoreau said of Whitman, there is something also “wonderfully Oriental” in his philosophies. As with Emerson these essays sometimes are prone to meandering, and rather than taking us directly to some wisdom Montaigne gives us a scenic tour of his mind, and it is at these moments that he seems most relaxed and perhaps most enjoyable. As with both Emerson and Whitman there is a tolerance to these essays, an egoism (and also an interest in the general well-being and progress of humanity), an embrace of relativism and of healthy skepticism (“Only the fools are certain and assured”) and, we also find a man with many layers and contradictions, for he, like these two later writers, was of the belief that “Each man bears the entire form of human nature.”

Montaigne is often credited with pioneering the essay as a literary form and his essays are at times extremely personal, for he opens these essays with a note to the reader which begins: “This is an honest book, reader. . . I am myself the matter of my book.” And for this alone, perhaps, he deserves to be read. He deserves to be read though too because of the breadth of what he has to say. As laid out in the introduction to this book, “‘If people realized,’ writes Christopher Morley, ‘that almost everything conceivably sayable has been said in Montaigne, why should they ever buy a new book?’ Every age has found something—and something new—in the Essays.” Indeed, one could probably read these essays again and again and find something new and more worthwhile on each reading. They are fresh and easy to read even more than 400 years later (and very funny too), for Montaigne taps into eternal truths in his writing (and in this there is longevity). For as much as we may feel that we have changed, with our computers and smartphones, with modern medicine and airplanes, the human condition is still very much the same as it was not only 400 years ago but going back to the ancient Greeks (who Montaigne is so fond of quoting) and even earlier. We may have eradicated certain diseases and made the world smaller through globalization (for better or worse), but the problems of the human soul are still the same. We still have not perfected the art of living.

At the same time, though, as the essential truths in Montaigne are constant and eternal, in other ways Montaigne has not aged well. He was very much a product of his times, and his writings are extremely misogynistic (“The most useful and honorable science and occupation for a woman is the science of housekeeping”; “It irritates me to see in many households Monsieur coming home around noon, fretful and dirty from the mill of business, when Madame is still busy doing her hair and fixing up in her boudoir . . . . It is ridiculous and unfair that the idleness of wives should be supported by our sweat and toil”; “I have seen some people get angry to be told that their color was good and their pulse even; I have seen them restrain their laughter because it betrayed their recovery, and hate health because it was not pitiable. What is more, they were not women”). But this is forgivable now because of the time in which he was writing, though it would not be excusable for a writer today. We find similar views expressed by the likes of writers like Emile Durkheim, Shakespeare, Immanuel Kant and Sigmund Freud, among others.

And like his views on the roles of the sexes, his political views are also a bit suspect today, an ardent conservative, who believed that even the worst political regime was preferable to social change for the possibility that a new government could be worse than the existing one. Indeed, many times what has been done in the name of ‘progress’ has not necessarily made the world better, and the same goes for technology as for governmental affairs. Yet, it seems a bit narrow-minded to reject all change with so broad a sweep as does Montaigne. As much as Montaigne professes open-mindedness, tolerance and exploration for the individual, in matters of governance he is rather conservative and unyielding. This is one of his many contradictions and the one that I had the most difficulty with, but I have come to forgive similar shortcomings in writers such as Hegel and Machiavelli (which I have commented on in my reviews of their works).

But Montaigne is more than just his shortcomings, and his strengths outweigh his weaknesses. Not only did he advance the essay as a literary form, not only are his main points still relevant today (if some of his ideas are a bit dated and even offensive), not only was he extremely influential (in his own country, allegedly, last of all – appreciated first in England and later in literary circles in America; the opposite could be said of Whitman), but his writings are in many ways a guide for living. He doesn’t moralize, but he shows us ways that we can perhaps improve ourselves. And his writings are far more sophisticated and worthwhile than the loads of self-help books that flood the shelves of modern bookselling chains today. If one can look past his faults, there is much to appreciate in this great 16th century innovator.
...more
5

Aug 25, 2014

Simply wonderful! Montaigne: a man for all ages.

I also really like this translation by M.A. Screech - where other modern(ish)translations I have read reshape the sentence structures to achieve a more familiar modern tone - Screech remains faithful to the Latinate structures that Montaigne employs (for Montaigne's first eight year, he was exposed only to Latin, and, though he wrote in French, Latin remained as his linguistic DNA).

The essays never cease to amaze and delight; they are a wonderful Simply wonderful! Montaigne: a man for all ages.

I also really like this translation by M.A. Screech - where other modern(ish)translations I have read reshape the sentence structures to achieve a more familiar modern tone - Screech remains faithful to the Latinate structures that Montaigne employs (for Montaigne's first eight year, he was exposed only to Latin, and, though he wrote in French, Latin remained as his linguistic DNA).

The essays never cease to amaze and delight; they are a wonderful combination of erudition, intelligence, humility and humanity. ...more
5

Jun 19, 2019

The hardest part of this book is knowing that you'll never be able to have Montaigne for a friend.

There is such a huge variety of insight, interesting digressions, humour that a little goodreads review cant really do it justice. There is an eclectic nature to this book which makes it somewhat difficult to read quickly but makes it a truly fantastic book to keep at your bedside and chip away at over time.
4

Feb 07, 2009

I first read The Essays in high school and was astounded that, amidst all the really terrible literature that I had to read, these essays came through like a breath of fresh air. Admittedly, this wasn't required reading, but it was a fortuitous meeting for my relatively unstructured yet passionate psyche.
What I admired more about Montaigne more than anything was his restraint and dedication to creating a format: each of the essays was constructed with such beauty and grace that each lacked a I first read The Essays in high school and was astounded that, amidst all the really terrible literature that I had to read, these essays came through like a breath of fresh air. Admittedly, this wasn't required reading, but it was a fortuitous meeting for my relatively unstructured yet passionate psyche.
What I admired more about Montaigne more than anything was his restraint and dedication to creating a format: each of the essays was constructed with such beauty and grace that each lacked a sense of urgency, but maintained a kind of necessity. I was left with the feeling that not only was I agreeing with the man, and I certainly didn't want to do that as a rebellious teen, but I found myself liking the man. I would have liked to have spoken with him at length, maybe invited him over for tea. My parents would have been pleased.

Montaigne writes with such clarity of purpose that one cannot help by being impressed with his focus. Whether one agrees with everything, one has to admire the majestic power, even as it is disguised as a simple man's thoughts. ...more
5

Jun 03, 2019

Surely one of the greatest books of Western civilization. The length was daunting at first, but soon I could not wait to get back to it every evening. Equal parts philosophy and psychology, it marks a clear departure from medieval thinking in its moderation, love for the physical world (including the body), personal nature, and free speculation. Plus it includes, in the deceptively titled On Some Lines of Virgil, a lengthy consideration of penis size. Surely one of the greatest books of Western civilization. The length was daunting at first, but soon I could not wait to get back to it every evening. Equal parts philosophy and psychology, it marks a clear departure from medieval thinking in its moderation, love for the physical world (including the body), personal nature, and free speculation. Plus it includes, in the deceptively titled “On Some Lines of Virgil,” a lengthy consideration of penis size. ...more
4

May 22, 2016

A great rambling journey of introspection, but like the best of introspective writing the lessons, ideas and topics Montaigne travels through have universal appeal. Here is a man who in one section can read like a modern liberal, and in another very much a man of his time. It is my second reading of this translation, and as so many times with translations I regret my feeble language skills and wonder how much better it might have been in French. A worthy book to dip into time and again.
5

Mar 26, 2009

There are so many kernels of truth in Montaigne's writing that I won't even bother making a list of quotes - but I will say that it's hard to tell that his essays were written in the 16th century. They're an exploration of his true character and I think it's safe to say that not much has changed about the human experience or psyche in 500 years. Montaigne seems so modern (and often so humorous and frank) because he holds nothing back from himself or his readers and that's refreshing to read - to There are so many kernels of truth in Montaigne's writing that I won't even bother making a list of quotes - but I will say that it's hard to tell that his essays were written in the 16th century. They're an exploration of his true character and I think it's safe to say that not much has changed about the human experience or psyche in 500 years. Montaigne seems so modern (and often so humorous and frank) because he holds nothing back from himself or his readers and that's refreshing to read - to this day.

"Hardly anything stirs in me that is secret or hidden from my reason; hardly anything takes place that has not the consent of every part of me, without divisions and without inner rebellion. My judgment takes the complete credit or the complete blame for my actions; and once it takes the blame it keeps it forever."

That quote from Montaigne sums up what each essay is like. He puts himself and all he stands for on trial and bares it for all to see - the best and the worst of who he is.

Montaigne's Essays are the most honest and articulate exploration of character and personality I've ever come across (which is why we're still talking about them over 500 years later) and as I read of his epiphanies and moments of self-discovery I often find myself nodding in agreement.

When writing is truly universal, which all great literature is, any reader can see his or her self reflected in its words. The passing of 500 years, the separating distance of an ocean and several nations, a difference in sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity and language proves no hindrance to the power or poignancy of true honesty. ...more
4

Jul 22, 2011

A collection of humanist essays
19 September 2010

It took me a while to actually get into this book, but now I have completed it I must say that I am quite glad that I read it. The version that I read was only a collection of his essays, so today I made my way to the second hand bookshop and pick up a copy of his complete essays (which I plan on reading a bit at a time).

Montaigne was a French noble living about the time of Shakespeare (actually a little before) and these essays are more a A collection of humanist essays
19 September 2010

It took me a while to actually get into this book, but now I have completed it I must say that I am quite glad that I read it. The version that I read was only a collection of his essays, so today I made my way to the second hand bookshop and pick up a copy of his complete essays (which I plan on reading a bit at a time).

Montaigne was a French noble living about the time of Shakespeare (actually a little before) and these essays are more a collection of thoughts that he writes throughout his life. We learn a lot about Montaigne, his joys and his habits, from these essays. He writes about many topics, and interweaves examples from his life and from the classical authors into them. Montaigne was a humanist, and his writings show it, and we can see the development of humanism in his essays as he explores topics of life. To put his work down to a simple theme, it is about living the good life. Okay, Montaigne was wealthy, so he had a lot a privileges that others did not have, but the essays weren't even written for general consumption but more for his inner circle of friends.

One thing that stuck out is his way of reading books. He describes it as simply delving into parts but never actually reading it from cover to cover unless he is heavily persuaded to do so (and when he does he is pleasantly surprised). I can't say that that is something that I would do though. I like to read my books cover to cover, and generally do not put a book down until I have completed it, though in recent times I have had multiple books on the go, though I generally select one book and read it straight through (commentary and all). I also do not like to read a book unless I can learn something from it, which is why most novels that are published these days do not even appear on my radar.

I since read the entire collection of essays (and it took quite a long time as well), however since my review takes up more room that Goodreads allows, I have instead posted it on my blog. ...more
5

Jul 11, 2016

In this collection of essays, Montaigne established the essay form in the modern way that we still recognize today. From this collection I would like to focus on one of the most famous essays; namely, "To philosophize is to learn how to die". Montaigne begins by referencing Cicero (who himself was paraphrasing Socrates as he was presented by Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo). He quickly concludes that the purpose of philosophy "is to teach not to be afraid of dying." (p 17) This, however, he In this collection of essays, Montaigne established the essay form in the modern way that we still recognize today. From this collection I would like to focus on one of the most famous essays; namely, "To philosophize is to learn how to die". Montaigne begins by referencing Cicero (who himself was paraphrasing Socrates as he was presented by Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo). He quickly concludes that the purpose of philosophy "is to teach not to be afraid of dying." (p 17) This, however, he immediately modifies this to say that "the labor of reason must be to make us live well, and at our ease," with a target of happiness (quoting scripture rather than Aristotle).

The essay could have ended here, but Montaigne goes on at length about the nature of virtue and how it abhors death. He also references common opinions about death but comes around to his own recommendations that death is part of the human condition. The answer, it seems, is to always have our death in mind so that we become used to it, and as such prepared for it. He provides quotes from his predecessors including the following, from Plutarch, that sounds just a bit fatalistic:
"Believe that each day is the last to shine on you. If it comes, time not hoped for will be welcome indeed."(p 24)
He even invokes religion and its contempt for life: "why should we fear to lose something which, once lost, cannot be regretted? Death is inevitable, does it matter when it comes?" (p 30) This would seem to be an end to the discussion.

However, he turns to the works of Lucretius in the closing pages of the essay and lets Nature speak about how one should view death: "Leave this world,' she says, 'just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once mad without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world'"(p 31)
Thus he suggests living is like a project and one should not regret the unfinished project in anticipation of death. This view is not dissimilar from that later thinker and essayist, David Hume, that puts forth a sense of benevolence for life and death as a natural part of human existence.

Montaigne concludes his essay with an exhortation to seek happiness in the most natural way possible. This will dispel any interest in immortality; even as Nature claims that a life that lasted forever would be unbearable. We should be aware rather of the advantages of death and recognize that what bits of anguish this life may contain only serve to make death more palatable and our acceptance of it more reasonable. Lucretius painted a poetic vision of how natural death is for humans in his great poem, On the Nature of Things. In this essay Montaigne reasons with himself and with us as fellow humans toward that same end in his own philosophical way as an essayist. ...more
0

Sep 02, 2009

"In truth, either reason is joking or her target must be our happiness" 17

"Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil." 24

"Life itself is neither a good nor an evil: life is where good or evil find a place, depending on how you make it for them." 32

The usefulness of living lies not in duration but in what you make of it. Some have lived long and lived little." 34

p. 54 "Some philosophers..."

"Learning must not only lodge with us: we must marry her." 73

"In truth, either reason is joking or her target must be our happiness" 17

"Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil." 24

"Life itself is neither a good nor an evil: life is where good or evil find a place, depending on how you make it for them." 32

The usefulness of living lies not in duration but in what you make of it. Some have lived long and lived little." 34

p. 54 "Some philosophers..."

"Learning must not only lodge with us: we must marry her." 73

"There is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities." 75

"We must either totally submit to the authority of our ecclesiastical polity or else totally release ourselves from it. It is not for us to decide what degree of obedience we owe to it." 78

"It is in our soul that evil grips us: and she cannot escape from herself." 99

"You ask me: 'What is the origin of our custom of saying Bless you when people sneeze?' Well, we break three sorts of wind: the one which issues lower down is very dirty; the one which issues from the mouth comports an element of reproach for gluttony; and the third is sneezing, to which, since it issues from the head and is blameless, we give that honorable greeting. Do not mock such subtle reasoning: it is (so they say) from Aristotle" 330-331

"There are more books on books than on any other subject." 369

"As long as I can find earth or sky open to me elsewhere I will never remain anywhere cowering in hiding." 373

"I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics." 374 ...more
1

Jun 16, 2016

I fell asleep while writing this review. So boring...

more on the blog...
https://unklethan.wordpress.com/2016/...

...
5

Jul 21, 2016

"To learn that we have said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing; we must learn that we are nothing but fools, a far broader and more important lesson."
3

Feb 19, 2011

I only read 3 1/2 essays from this but I really enjoyed all three. They were hard to follow at times but very thought provoking.

"On Educating Children"
"On Coaches"
"On Cannibals"
"On Experience" (1/2 of this essay)
4

Oct 08, 2014

Despite some unevenness in the content and readability of these essays, it is a privilege to live inside Montaigne's mind for a time. He was deeply schooled in the classics and manages to weave an impressive number of quotations and references to antiquity around practically every observation. But his style is folksy and humorous enough for a casual reader to be entertained, so the essays aren't too dry or heavy.
4

Nov 18, 2018

Montaigne speaks across 430 plus years with a voice as fresh and genuine as anyone writing today. In some ways he is a man very much of his time, but he is often startlingly modern, straight talking and honest in his appraisal of the world and himself. I felt an affinity with this fellow, actually a little younger than me. We shared many opinions and experiences, even though we also differed in significant ways as well. I leave him with an appreciation of his humour, his idiosyncratic worldview, Montaigne speaks across 430 plus years with a voice as fresh and genuine as anyone writing today. In some ways he is a man very much of his time, but he is often startlingly modern, straight talking and honest in his appraisal of the world and himself. I felt an affinity with this fellow, actually a little younger than me. We shared many opinions and experiences, even though we also differed in significant ways as well. I leave him with an appreciation of his humour, his idiosyncratic worldview, and his deep humanity. ...more
0

Oct 13, 2014

a truly marvelous read. Montaigne deserves to be called the father of modern blogging. the problem with most authors is that fact that they don't really acknowledge the little trivial things in our day to day( which actually are the essence of life in its deepest sense)lives and how they would add up to sort of present deep philosophical challenges in our lives. in this regard Montaigne has succeeded in captivating his readers and casting new dimensions on our views of life and its a truly marvelous read. Montaigne deserves to be called the father of modern blogging. the problem with most authors is that fact that they don't really acknowledge the little trivial things in our day to day( which actually are the essence of life in its deepest sense)lives and how they would add up to sort of present deep philosophical challenges in our lives. in this regard Montaigne has succeeded in captivating his readers and casting new dimensions on our views of life and its trivialities.he presents trivial day to day activities in a more deep insightful perceptions and interpretations. it makes reading the book worth a while.. ...more
4

Jan 10, 2012

From BBC Radio 3:

In 1588, the essayist and landowner Michel de Montaigne, set out on a journey round the troubled kingdom of France. He was on a mission - to reconcile the Valois King Henri the Third, a Catholic, with his likely successor, the Bourbon King of Navarre, a Protestant. It's high stakes: intensified Civil War the consequence of failure.

It's a Kindle freebie at Amazon either in English or in French. Thanks Misfit for the tip on Dumas books, I found almost one hundred more books in From BBC Radio 3:

In 1588, the essayist and landowner Michel de Montaigne, set out on a journey round the troubled kingdom of France. He was on a mission - to reconcile the Valois King Henri the Third, a Catholic, with his likely successor, the Bourbon King of Navarre, a Protestant. It's high stakes: intensified Civil War the consequence of failure.

It's a Kindle freebie at Amazon either in English or in French. Thanks Misfit for the tip on Dumas books, I found almost one hundred more books in French. ...more
0

Aug 05, 2012

I anticipated a philosophy book when I started reading this. I had a real "take my annual medicine" attitude, especially given how old the essays are.

All of these are eminently readable, though, if (pleasantly) meandering. While the subject matter is philosophical, the writing is not intently logical, often choosing instead to meander around anecdotally.

I've got a few quotes written down, but I do have to say this is a book I feel like I should've gotten more out of. Maybe that's the lack of I anticipated a philosophy book when I started reading this. I had a real "take my annual medicine" attitude, especially given how old the essays are.

All of these are eminently readable, though, if (pleasantly) meandering. While the subject matter is philosophical, the writing is not intently logical, often choosing instead to meander around anecdotally.

I've got a few quotes written down, but I do have to say this is a book I feel like I should've gotten more out of. Maybe that's the lack of focus in the individual essays talking - I can't say that one idea really drove itself home and stuck with me. Maybe this is something I should revisit at some point in the future, when I can actually reflect on things. ...more
3

Mar 26, 2016

He really does read like the first blogger, as a biographer has described him. These essays create a strong impression despite often seeming like a record of random thoughts. Yet they are not fully satisfying. It isn't so much Montaigne's opinions. He seems simultaneously convivial and a cold fish, fully candid yet suggestive of coyness. He shows great empathy for the newly discovered and murderously maltreated natives of the Americas. But he writes of women as decidedly second-class beings. He He really does read like the first blogger, as a biographer has described him. These essays create a strong impression despite often seeming like a record of random thoughts. Yet they are not fully satisfying. It isn't so much Montaigne's opinions. He seems simultaneously convivial and a cold fish, fully candid yet suggestive of coyness. He shows great empathy for the newly discovered and murderously maltreated natives of the Americas. But he writes of women as decidedly second-class beings. He also seemed to be distant from his wife and daughter; and his mother goes unremarked on while his father receives a number of admiring and grateful comments. (It's possible that his distance from his daughter also had something to do with seeing his five other children die very young.) The essays themselves are fountains of aphorisms and common sense. They make for stimulating although not provocative reading. I take historians at their word when they write that Montaigne created a new class of written works and exemplified the new, humanistic point of view that emerged during the Renaissance. It was worth reading them, once. But why was I glad to reach the end, and to have read a volume only of selected essays rather than the complete works? Something to do with that remoteness, I think, and with a nagging feeling that the open window on his life was not quite fully open, no matter what he intended or said. ...more
4

Jan 12, 2014

The French nobleman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was one of the originators of the modern discursive essay, a walk through and around a subject as if it were a garden or an interesting property or house. He is a hinge figure, in some senses, between the classical era (still a great influence on the educated classes of Europe) and the subsequent ventures into the Age of Reason and Romanticism.

Montaigne isn't a writer to be read front to back. He's to be read a little bit at a time. His chief The French nobleman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was one of the originators of the modern discursive essay, a walk through and around a subject as if it were a garden or an interesting property or house. He is a hinge figure, in some senses, between the classical era (still a great influence on the educated classes of Europe) and the subsequent ventures into the Age of Reason and Romanticism.

Montaigne isn't a writer to be read front to back. He's to be read a little bit at a time. His chief subject is how he fits into the world, what kind of man he is, his defects, his influences, his virtues--if there be any--and his persuit of a kind of wholeness or completeness that could be said to be best found in his great hero, Socrates.

Like Socrates, Montaigne was imperturbable when encountering his own ignorance. In the "Selected Essays" I recently read, I found him deeply passionate about one thing only: friendship. Here he reflects his feelings for Estienne de la Boetie in terms that amount to a merger of wills, identities, sensibilities, world views, moods and humors. He is clear about this kind of friendship. You look at one another and know what you're both thinking or will both say. Almost all of us have had, however briefly, such an attachment. It's not romantic or sexual; again, it's a congruence of selves, a happy happenstance, something one can trust (and something that, when it dissapears, is a bitter loss.)

Montaigne goes so far as to say--and I agree with him--that the best thing you can do as a friend is ask your friend to do something for you. He explains the paradox as follows: Allowing your friend to help you is a gift, as giving is a gift. There's meaning in a gesture that benefits another one cannot obtain from doing something for oneself.

Somewhat unfortunately Montaigne is the author who focused on Aristotle's peculiar statement--"O friends, there is no friend!"--because this enignma gave birth to one of the most tedious books I've ever wrestled with, Jacques Derrida's The Politics of Friendship. What, Derrida asks for hundreds of pages, could Aristotle have meant? If you are addressing friends, then you cannot say there are no friends, can you?

I still don't have the answer to this conundrum, but I eventually concluded that from the title forward Derrida had everything wrong: there are, in fact, no politics in friendship, there are no trade-offs, deals, alliances, competitions. The fact that Aristotle seems to have said otherwise would point, I should think, to the fundamental Aristotelian premise that man is a political animal. A deeper soul-to-soul interpenetration wasn't his chief subject.

Above I used the word "discursive" advisedly. Montaigne maintains in "On Books" that he is an intermittent, scatter-shot reader, but this isn't quite true, given his mastery of the classics and the apposite stories and quotes he draws on, mostly from the Latin authors because his Greek wasn't strong. What he seems to mean in observing himself closely is that the mind wanders and "bloweth where it listeth." He's suggesting that there are impentrable mysteries in everyone, perhaps divine, perhaps originating in study or that modern rarity, solitude.

"On Solitude" is one of Montaigne's more famous essays; it's a theme he returns to elsewhere as well. How can one be alone and what comes of being alone? How do you manage being alone? What do you think when your purpose is neither to speak nor write but simply understand the peculiarities of your being? In "Of Three Commerces" Montaigne writes about his famous tower, where he often hid himself with his books or simply secluded himself to reflect toward no specific end. I have long thought that in the pre-Internet age, or let's go further: in the pre-Information Age, men and women expressed themselves with more clarity, more definition. Why? Because they were less distracted by trivia--and perhaps also because the better-educated classes were….well, better educated.

Montaigne makes a point of saying that it's possible to maintain one's solitary integrity in a royal court, more difficult to do so in the presence of a beautiful woman, and almost impossible to do so when wrestling with what he and we both would call business--the getting and spending of things.

As an essayist and a person, what interested him was the core, sentient self, nourshing and expressing it. He valued life, as he makes clear in "On Cruelty." He saw enormities in a man as complexly simple as Socrates. By the same token (and I am not the only one to sense this) he served as a kind of moderate precursor to what Shakespeare had in mind when he created Hamlet. I say "moderate" because Montaigne was temperate,never rash, and little provoked. But when you read him and encounter him thinking…and thinking…and thinking…it's almost inevitable that you wonder if an unprovoked Hamlet wouldn't have been somewhat like him. (Though of course Hamlet was provoked, and therein lay the tragedy.)

The balance we had in Western Civilization in Montaigne's time was provided by classical precedents that had not yet succumbed to the self-absorption of Romanticism, yielding wild claims to the meaning of indvidual sovereignty (U.S. insistence on democracy for everyone) and a counter-reaction emphasizing unity of all beneath one God/Allah/state (Islamacism, Marxism-Leninism, Maoism).

Montaigne always found ways to lean forward and yet hold himself back at the same time. He was acute,but he was cautious. He had a sense of the golden mean, the desirable middle between two extremes. Not being systematic, he could continue to explore, and that's precisely what he thought he should do, as laid out in "That It Is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity."

For more of my comments on literature, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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Oct 27, 2014

This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. "When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost"

"In truth it is reasonable that we should make a great difference between defects due to our weakness and those due to our wickedness."

"Anything you can do another day can be done now"

"The usefulness of living lies not in duration but in what you make of it."

"Only fools have made up their minds and are certain"

"instead of learning about others we labour only to teach them about ourselves and are more concerned to sell our own wares than to "When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost"

"In truth it is reasonable that we should make a great difference between defects due to our weakness and those due to our wickedness."

"Anything you can do another day can be done now"

"The usefulness of living lies not in duration but in what you make of it."

"Only fools have made up their minds and are certain"

"instead of learning about others we labour only to teach them about ourselves and are more concerned to sell our own wares than to purchase new ones" -"silence and modesty are most useful qualities"

"have no guide but reason"

"Let him not so much learn what happened as judge what happened"

"So many millions upon millions of men dead and buried before us encourage us not to be afraid of going to join such goodly company in the world to come."

52 (What to teach a boy)

"Philosophy has arguments for Man at birth as well as in senility"

"philosophy, that Former of good judgement and character who is privileged to be concerned with everything"

"By punishing boys for depravity before they are depraved, you make them so."

"The world is nothing but chatter: I have never met a man who does not say more than he should rather than less."

"All those fine 'colours of rhetoric' are in fact easily eclipsed by the light of pure and naive truth."

"a useful saying or pithy remark is always welcome wherever it is put. If it is not good in the context of what comes before it or after it, it is good in itself"

"Just as in dress it is the sign of a petty mind to seek to draw attention by some personal or unusual fashion, so too in speech; the search for new expressions and little-known words derives from an adolescent schoolmasterish ambition"

"a belief is like an impression stamped on our soul: the softer and less resisting the soul, the easier it is to print anything on it"

"there is a dangerous boldness in despising whatever we cannot understand"

"A man's worth and reputation lie in the mind and in the will: his true honour is found there. Bravery does not consist in firm arms and legs but in firm minds and souls: it is not a matter of what our horse or our weapons are worth but of what we are. The man who is stuck down but whose mind remains steadfast, (if his legs give way, then on his knees doth he fight), the man who relaxes none of his mental assurance when threatened by imminent death and who faces his enemy with inflexible scorn as he gives up the ghost is beaten by Fortune not by us: he is slain but not vanquished"

"True victory lies in your role in the conflict, not in coming through safely: it consists in the honour of battling bravely not battling through."

"There is hardly less torment in running a family than in running a whole country"

"If you do not first lighten yourself and your soul of the weight of your burdens, moving about will only increase their pressure on you, as a ship's cargo is less troublesome when lashed in place"

"We should have wives, children, property and, above all good health . . . if we can: but we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on them"

"The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself."

"When any good things happen to come to us from outside we should make use of them, so long as they remain pleasurable; we must not let them become our principal base"

"make me content with myself and with such goods as are born within me."

"If a hangover came before we got drunk we would see that we never drank to excess: but pleasure, to deceive us, walks in front and hides her train."

"we should go to the very boundaries of pleasure but take good care not to be involved beyond the point where it begins to be mingled with pain"

"Ambition is the humour most contrary to seclusion"

"We should not ask that all things should comply with our will but that they should comply with wisdom"

"even sound authors are wrong in stubbornly trying to weave us into one invariable and solid fabric."

"Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly"

"drunkenness, considered among other vices, has always seemed to me gross and brutish."

"The worst state for a man is when he loses all consciousness and control of himself."

"It suffices that a man should rein in his affections and moderate them, for it is not in his power to suppress them."

"For why should pain make me confess what is true rather than force me to say what is not true?"

"Barbarians reckon it horrifying and cruel to torture and smash a man of whose crime you are still in doubt."

"The things which have cost us most are dearest to us - and it costs us more to give than to receive."

"Reason alone must govern our inclinations."

"Some fathers will give them plenty of toys when they are children but will resent the slightest expenditure on their needs once they have come of age."

"Since in sober truth things are so ordered that children can only have their being and live their lives at the expense of our being and of our lives, we ought not to undertake to be fathers if that frightens us."

"We should make ourselves respected for our virtues and our abilities loved for our goodness and gentlemanliness."

"I owed the same treatment to the children born to me; they all die, though, before they are weaned." :( pathos

"Virtue demands a rough and thorny road."

"the soul of Socrates, which is the most perfect to have come to my knowledge"

"A lack of intelligence or even animal-stupidity can counterfeit virtuous deeds: I have often seen men praised for deeds which deserved blame."

"when its force is at its climax it overmasters us to such an extent that reason has no way to come to it"

"anything beyond the straightforward death penalty seems pure cruelty, and especially in us Christians who ought to be concerned to dispatch men's souls in a good stat, which cannot be so when we have driven them to distraction and despair by unbearable tortures."

"I fear that Nature herself has attached to Man something which goads him on towards inhumanity. Watching animals playing together and cuddling each other is nobody's sport: everyone's sport is to watch them tearing each other apart and wrenching off their limbs."

"Women who weep most ostentatiously grieve least."

"She madly darted out of the chair she was sitting in and, with all her might, bashed her head against the nearby wall."

"What a prodigious thing it is that within the drop of semen which brings us forth there are stamped the characteristics not only of the bodily form of our forefathers but of their ways of thinking and their slant of mind."

"Following Epicurus I believe pleasures are to be avoided if they result in greater pain, and pain is to be welcomed if it results in greater pleasure."

"The world is but a perennial see-saw."

"When a man is commonplace in discussion yet valued for what he writes that shows that his talents lie in his borrowed sources no in himself."

"Anyone can take part in a farce and act the honest man on the trestles: but to be right-ruled with, in your bosom, where anything is licit, where everything is hidden - that's what matters."

"Few men have been wonders to their families."

"We must therefore judge souls in their settled state, when they are home with themselves - if they ever are - or at least when they are nearest to repose in their native place."

"You cannot extirpate the qualities we are originally born with: you can cover them over and you can hide them."

"Souls are most beautiful when they show most variety and flexibility."

"there is nothing we can do longer than think, no activity to which we can devote ourselves more regularly nor more easily"

"Above all, to my mind, it is to act like a fool to claim to be in the know amidst those who are not, and to be ever speaking guardedly. You must come down to the level of those you are with, sometimes even affecting ignorance."

"That doctrine which they have learned could not reach their minds so it has stayed on their tongues."

"sexual fulfilment is more than the physical slaking of an appetite."

"It(reading) is the best protection which I have found for our human journey and I deeply pity men of intelligence who lack it."

"I find that it is somewhat more tolerable to be always alone than never able to be so."

"Wisdom has its excesses and has no less need of moderation than folly."

"To be able to enjoy your former life again is to live twice" Martial

"A mind that is ill can tolerate no hardships whatsoever" Ovid

"I loathe a morose and gloomy mind which glides over life's pleasures but holds on to its misfortunes and feeds on them - like flies which cannot get a hold on to anything highly polished and smooth and so cling to rough and rugged places and stay there; or like leeches which crave to suck only bad blood."

"The worst of my deeds or qualities does not seem to me as ugly as the ugly cowardice of not daring to avow it. Everybody is circumspect about doing: daring to do wrong is to some extent counterweighted and bridled by the courage needed to confess it."

"To be really able to keep a secret you need to be made that way by nature, not doing so because you are under bond."

"I prefer my dealings with women to be somewhat private: the public ones lack intimacy and savour."

"In marriage, alliances and money rightly weigh at least as much as attractiveness and beauty."

"I know no marriages which fail and come to grief more quickly than those which are set on foot by beauty and amorous desire. Marriage requires foundations which are solid and durable; and we must keep on the alert. That boiling rapture is no good at all."

"We cannot do without it yet we go and besmirch it, with the result that it is like birds and cages: the ones outside despair of getting in: the ones inside only care to get out."

"the customs and practices of life in society sweep us along."

"at last she retired, inflamed by a cunt stiffened by tense erections, exhausted by men but not yet satisfied." Juvenal

"The whole movement of the world tends and leads towards copulation."

"What great harm is done by those graffiti of enormous genitals which boys scatter over the corridors and staircases of our royal palaces! From them arise a cruel misunderstanding of our natural capacities."

"we bait and lure women by every means. We are constantly stimulating and overheating their imagination. And then we gripe about it."

"I think it easier to keep on a suit of armour all your life than to keep a maidenhead. And so the vow of virginity is the noblest of all the vows and also the harshest. As Saint Jerome says, 'The Devils' power is in the loins'.

"The prize of victory is valued for its difficulty."

"jealousy, the most vain and turbulent distemper which afflicts our human souls"

"Oh, what a mad advantage lies in the opportune moment! If anyone were to ask me what is the first quality needed in love I would reply: knowing how to seize an opportunity."

"a good marriage needs a blind wife and a deaf husband."

"What enriches a language is its being handled and exploited by beautiful minds - not so much by making innovations as by expanding it through more vigorous and varied applications, by extending it and deploying it. It is not words that they contribute: what they do is enrich their words, deepen their meanings and tie down their usage; they teach it unaccustomed rhythms, prudently though and with ingenuity."

"I might have done it better somewhere else, but this work would then have been less mine: and its main aim and perfection consists in being mine, exactly."

"Anyone I look at with attention easily stamps something of his on me."

"the more I struggle to find it the more I bury it in forgetfulness."

"Alas, wretched Man, you have enough necessary misfortunes without increasing them by inventing others. Your condition is wretched enough already without making it artificially so. You have ugliness enough which are real and of your essence without fabricating others in you mind." QUOTE 308

"Let Martial, as he does, pull up Venus' skirts: he does not succeed in revealing her all that completely. The poet who tells all, gluts us and puts us off: the one who is timid about expressing his thoughts leads us in our thoughts to discover more than is there. There are revelations in that sort of modesty; especially when, as they do, they half-open such a beautiful highway for our imagination. Both that act and its portrayal should savour of theft."

"What must be courted and ensnared is the will. I am horrified by the thought of a body given to me but lacking love."

"Applying ourselves to petty things diverts us from the pressing ones."

"Philosophy does not do battle against such pleasures as are natural, provided that temperance accompanies them: she teaches moderation in such things not avoidance; her powers of resistance are used against bastard unnatural pleasures."

"I have absolutely no other passion but love to keep me going."

"nothing casts us into dangers so much as rash hunger to get out of them."

"the people are usually right: money earned to feed their bellies is used instead to feed their eyes."

"Even munificence is not truly resplendent from a sovereign's hands: it more rightly belongs to private citizens; for strictly speaking a king has nothing which is properly his own; even his person belongs to others. Sentences are not passed in the interests of the judge but of the plaintiffs. We never appoint our superiors for their own advantage but for that of their inferiors; we appoint a doctor for his patients not for himself. All public offices, like all professional skills, aim at something beyond themselves: 'no art is concerned with itself'."

"The subjects of a prince who is lavish in giving become lavish their demands."

"The property of covetousness is, above all, ingratitude."

"And against the idea of a universe which flows on while we are in it, how puny and stunted is the knowledge of the most inquisitive men."

"It is wretched to be reduced to the point where the best touchstone of truth has become the multitude of believers, at a time when the fools in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise"

"You make me hate things probable when you thrust them on me as things infallible. I love terms which soften and tone down the rashness of what we put forward, terms such as 'perhaps', 'somewhat', 'some', 'they say', 'I think' and so on. And if I had had sons to bring up I would have trained their lips to answer with inquiring and undecided expressions such as, 'What does this mean?' 'I do not understand that', 'I might be so', 'Is that true?' so that they would have been more likely to retain the manners of an apprentice at sixty than, as boys do, to act like learned doctors at ten. Anyone who wishes to be cured of ignorance must first admit to it: Iris is the daughter of Thaumantis: amazement is the foundation of all philosophy; inquiry, its way of advancing; and ignorance is its end."

"To kill people, there must be sharp and brilliant clarity; this life of ours is too real, too fundamental, to be used to guarantee these supernatural and imagined events."

"Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies."

"You can conjure them away better by courtesy than by bravado. We must quietly suffer the laws of Man's condition. Despite all medicine, we are made for growing old, growing weaker and falling ill."

"We must learn to suffer what we cannot avoid."

"Philosophy says that all activities are equally becoming in a wise man, all equally honour him."

"A fine thing to get up on stilts: for even on stilts we must ever walk with our legs! And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still upon our ass."


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Mar 12, 2020

The best essays in this collection are by far To philosophize is to learn how to die, On prayer, On some lines of Virgil, On the lame, and On experience.

Nature, to display and show her powers, needs no great destiny: she reveals herself equally at any level of life, both behind curtains or without them. Our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book: not to win provinces in battle but order and tranquillity for the conduct of our life. Our most great and glorious The best essays in this collection are by far ‘To philosophize is to learn how to die’, ‘On prayer’, ‘On some lines of Virgil’, ‘On the lame’, and ‘On experience’.

“Nature, to display and show her powers, needs no great destiny: she reveals herself equally at any level of life, both behind curtains or without them. Our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book: not to win provinces in battle but order and tranquillity for the conduct of our life. Our most great and glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly. Everything else—reigning, building, laying up treasure—are at most tiny props and small accessories.” (pp. 415-416) ...more

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