Review of Essays (1580)


Michel de Montaigne (writer).

Read in 2023.

Read in Donald M. Frame’s English-language translation.

The author’s thoughts and feelings after learning Latin as a first language in Reformation-era France, retiring as a lawyer and getting diagnosed with kidney stone.

The main reason to read Montaigne is because it’s as close as you can get to a direct link with the mind of someone who lived more than 400 years ago. You can “get to know” more ancient writers parasocially through their work, but Montaigne openly writes about the sort of thing you would learn by really getting to know him. For example, when he reads a book and decides he’s never going to read it a second time, he takes notes at the back of it, because he knows he’s too old to remember whether he’s read the book already or not. It’s an ugly and destructive habit, but he explains himself with honesty and charm. Like a lot of readers, I related to him across the centuries, which is wonderful.

There’s a lot of variety in the volumes of essays, but the general theme is masculine and status-conscious. Montaigne’s father Pierre fought in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Italy, and Montaigne thinks of himself—wrongly—as a soldier. In volume 3, chapter 12, there’s a thrilling anecdote from his theoretically military life as a landowner, when he’s kidnapped. There’s a wide variety of more sedate pleasures, like his collection of examples from ancient authors. Through variety there are many glimpses of everyday life, but this is not the literary equivalent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Skating before the St. George's Gate, Antwerp”, preserved from ca. 1558 in Frans Huys’s version. The Antwerp engraving is one of the earliest pictures of ordinary Europeans that does not make a spectacle out of them. Montaigne almost manages to do the same in writing, but the world around him is seen almost entirely from the perspective of a rent-seeking hereditary upper class, albeit an interested member of that class, with quite few “de Montaignes” before him.

Montaigne’s medical complaints add depth to the masculinity typical of his time. He’s very much an armchair landlord, a critical thinker, and smart enough to discuss what is now called the placebo effect, but not really a good philosopher. In the longest of the essays, the “Apology of Raymond Sebond”, he actually fails to come to a solid argument in defence of Sebond, but the attempt is fascinating. He lays out some of the limits to human knowledge, including an impressive catalogue of ancient experts hopelessly contradicting one another in their prescientific speculations. This catalogue of irreconcilable accounts is like the library of Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville, the 18th-century French cartographer, who concluded from his studies that it was time to stop drawing maps of the African interior, because the many available accounts were not reliable enough.

Montaigne is not so absolutist as d'Anville. Like Herodotus, Montaigne discusses the credibility of his sources but then chooses to relate them as stated. He thus repeats a number of falsehoods, such as the idea that Mohammed “forbade learning to his followers”, but his pragmatism and self-reliance are profound. Among many quotes from ancient authors, he says that such quotes substitute for one’s own thought. His most quoted non-conclusion, “What do I know?”, is truly the essence of Montaigne’s philosophy. That attitude of intellectual humility and thinking for oneself makes for a weak defence of Sebond, but it is beautifully typical of the Renaissance and the ongoing Scientific Revolution’s triumph over the classics. René Descartes’s famous first principle, “I think, therefore I am”, could have been formulated as an answer to Montaigne’s endearing and vivacious doubt.

References here: Berserk (1989).

text non-fiction