(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
Michel De Montaigne’s Essays
First written on November 9, 2019)
Book first published in 1572
Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, singlehandedly responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. This Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Essays is translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech.
In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. There he wrote his constantly expanding ‘assays’, inspired by the ideas he found in books contained in his library and from his own experience. He discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. But, above all, Montaigne studied himself as a way of drawing out his own inner nature and that of men and women in general.
This time I am not gonna share quotes as there are hundreds of them and many are from authors’ quoted by Montaigne. These essays are the kind of stuff I wish I had read when I was younger. It is probably the best kind of eloquence for a non-fiction author – not too heavy on verbosity, matter-of-factly and yet retaining a certain grace.
By ‘Grace’, I mean a way of holding oneself, I mean a quality which attracts natural respect. Montaigne writes with such grace that even if where his opinions are very opposite of yours, the difference of opinion becomes irrelevant. It is like listening to some old wise man – somewhat like the protagonist of ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’. And you kind of know Montaigne won’t mind you disagreeing to himself – he says he prefers those whose opinions are contrary to his. He speaks of his own opinions with quiet confidence but with no inclination of forcing his views on others.
He perceives the plight of women in his own times and seems to be capable of understanding them but is not moved to ask for equality for them. He also perceives that the cultures termed as ‘barbarous’ have as much reason to perceive other cultures as barbarous. While he sees also that laws of his time show great injustice to others, he shows great resistance to changes and revolutions.
The essays tend to grow larger as we move ahead and more personal. From general topics to talk about his opinions on different things including philosophical ones (Voltaire thinks him to be a philosopher of the best quality) to his own temperaments. This last gives you very deep insight into his nature – something better than a biography. We sort of know him (or quality of the material of which he is made) as much as we know Harold Bloom (from James Joyce’s Ulysses) – in fact we do learn quite a bit about Montaigne’s toilet habits too.
Talking about oneself with honesty is probably one of the most difficult things to do. When we do see people talking about themselves at any length – we perceive real or imagined complexes these people have. Perhaps this is why we are too self-conscious when talking about ourselves. Montaigne seems to be free of these complexes (perhaps because like Hadrian he was more or less waiting for death when he wrote) – he talks of weaknesses without trying anything to defend himself or showing low self-worth based on them and strengths as if they were gifts by someone else (God, nature etc).
Not only Montaigne knows ‘how’ to talk about oneself, he also knows ‘what’ to talk about when talking about oneself. If only everyone talked about himself or herself like that!
He sometimes explains that essays were meant to show his temperaments and so this excuses his talking so much about himself. But it is really some of the essays where he is talking of his own temperaments that are my favorite parts.
When talking about philosophical subjects, he talks such as death, aging etc; he sticks to an observational attitude he adopts while talking of customs, his favorite heroes, etc. This keeps him from getting too lost in his philosophical systems. Perhaps that is why he is not counted among philosophers despite influencing so many of them. Unlike most philosophers, Montaigne understands that he doesn’t know it all. Probably ahead of his times in his ideas (church considered the book ‘dangerous’) – he is still open-minded enough often admitting there might be good reasons to have opinions different than his own.
The essays, especially bigger ones, are really like a stream-of-consciousness thing as they move freely between his thoughts sometimes spending several pages on a thought or idea which has nothing to do with the heading. Montaigne didn’t edit his essays much which were mostly written each in a single sitting.
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan