Montaigne and Brief Narrative Form: Shaping the Essay

Me, Myself, And I
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If all complain that I talk too much about myself, I complain that they never even think about their own selves. But then Montaigne was himself exquisitely well fitted—by birth, by temperament, by talent—for the kind of writing he did. Probably attributable to it in some measure are his deep tolerance in an age when that was not in fashion; a rather detached attitude, typical of the Marranos and natural in them, toward the religion he consistently and very conscientiously practiced [Roman Catholicism]; his tireless curiosity, mainly but not solely intellectual; the cosmopolitanism natural to the member of a far-flung family.

This education was far from conventional. When he went off to school he had less luck with Greek and thought himself, as a boy, a lazy and unretentive student.

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Fortunately, he acquired a love of reading, especially of Latin literature, that would never leave him, even though in later life he regularly demoted the importance of books in his own education. It is thought that he studied law in Toulouse. In , at twenty-four, he became a conseiller , or magistrate, at the parlement in Bordeaux. After the death of his father in , Michel became head of his family and lord over its estates. He resigned from work at the parlement at Bordeaux in , retiring to Montaigne, where, in the tower he used as a study, he soon began the experimental writing that would result in the Essays.

He would later, between and , serve as mayor of Bordeaux, as his father had done before him, and his mature years were spent with his country riven by civil war over the Reformation. It is almost as if Montaigne had acquired just enough experience out of which to write, yet not so much as to despise the role of somewhat distanced observer that is central to the act of writing. It is also in the category of great large books. I have read in it for years, but have only now for the first time read through it.

The Harvard economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron has told of coming to the end of War and Peace with this feeling of sadness so heavy upon him that he paused, sighed, and then turned the novel over and began it again from the beginning.

Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne would have appreciated that digression if not necessarily the point. He is himself the most digressive of writers, always ready to tell a story, often from the chronicles of ancient history which he loved—usually to illustrate a point but sometimes, too, just because he thinks it a good story. In his essays he found the form that best fit the shape of his own mind. In bringing up this etymology most people wish to underscore the tentativeness of the form. Such modesty does not at all apply to Montaigne, who, while not out for the last word or seeking to be in any way definitive, nonetheless has fairly larger things in mind than the intellectual equivalent of a stroll around the garden.

Nor are the Essays merely a variety of disquisitions upon what its author happens to think on such subjects as Vanity, Experience, Sadness, Fear, Liars, and the rest, even though such words appear in the titles of his essays. What Montaigne is after in his essays is a method of discovering the meaning of such truths as he thinks available to man by studying the man he knows better than any other—himself.

Sounds, in theory, easy enough. Many other things are more likely to command us : bias, self-deceit, vanity, to name only three from a probably endless list. From this failure—a failure that nearly resulted in a nervous breakdown—Montaigne came to discover his form. Soon his essays began to feature these thoughts and that experience.

His models were Seneca and Plutarch, whom he quotes perhaps more than any other writers. If Ever the maxim about the style being the man applied to a writer, it applied to Montaigne. The speech I love is a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth; a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty and well-combed as vehement and brusque. He preferred not to be praised for his style, lest style seem to obscure his content.

As the book progresses, ordinariness becomes a kind of virtue, for to be ordinary, by which he means human, is high praise from Montaigne. He has his own little pantheon of heroes—Homer, Alexander the Great, the Theban general Epaminondas, and above all Socrates revered for his naturalness occupying prominent places in it. Yet his is chiefly a comic view of life—no matter how high the throne, Montaigne notes, even a king sits upon his arse—if a comic view that, somehow, does not deprive men of their dignity. He laughs at other men by laughing first at himself.

The temptation in reading him is to discover oneself in him—and, of course, to admire him and oneself correspondingly. Even Flaubert, who felt little commonality with anyone, felt much in common with Montaigne, whom he claimed to regard as a foster father. The beast knows a lot of things that I fondly hoped had been reserved for me.

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He had his books for company, his Muses for inspiration, his past for seasoning, and, to support it all, the income from a large estate, not to mention a fortune built on the salt-herring and wine trades, which, in the last century, had turned his family into landed gentry. It is as if Michel de Montaigne was struck by magic and for no particular reason decided to retire to his library tower with the movements of his mind. Dispatched from the UK in 3 business days When will my order arrive? Montaigne famously asks in The last edition, which could not be supervised by Montaigne himself, was edited from the manuscript by his adoptive daughter Marie de Gournay. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights The present essay situates Montaigne's writing practice in the context of the Renaissance natural sciences, among which.

Of the two great categories of writers—those who tell us things we do not know and those who formulate those things that have always been in our hearts but which we have had neither the time nor more likely the wit to formulate on our own—Montaigne is foremost among the latter.

He claimed for self-knowledge that from it he could understand other men, but it turns out that it works quite well the other way around, so that from our knowledge of him we can learn about ourselves. Along with formulating our own thoughts for us, what makes Montaigne seem so close to us, his readers, is his gift for intimacy. This man who has looked into his own heart has in the course of doing so looked into ours, and reverberations from our own life sound on his nearly every page.

Montaigne speaks to us because he speaks for us. When the first two of the ultimately three books of the Essays were published in , they were a commercial success if not quite a best-seller. Yet, pleased though he was with this success, Montaigne nonetheless continued to write chiefly for himself.

His essays were above all a form of self-discovery. Montaigne says literally up front, in his opening note to the reader, what he is about:. You have here, Reader, a book whose faith can be trusted, a book which warns you from the start that I have set myself no other end but a private family one. I have not been concerned to serve you nor my reputation: my powers are inadequate for such a design.

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If my design had been to seek the favor of the world I would have decked myself out better and presented myself in a studied gait. Here I want to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday fashion, without striving or artifice: for it is my own self that I am painting. After this note, Michel de Montaigne began writing the most personal book in the history of the world.

To write a personal book, it is best to have a personality—and, to go along with it, the impersonality required by the highest art to set it out properly. When he said that the study of himself was his metaphysics and his physics, he meant that subjective truth was sufficient for him. Intellectual method was of little use to Montaigne.

In logic he found crippling, even laughable, limitations—for logic, as he puts it, provides no consolation for gout. Even the senses cannot be counted upon. In that essay, Montaigne sets out after rationalism, whose chief internal danger he views as establishing the belief in men that they can achieve universal truth outside religion, through the sheer power of their reasoning. Montaigne mocks the attempt. Owing to this essay, Montaigne was thought to be hostage to Pyrrhonism, named after the founder of Greek skepticism.

Pyrrhonians doubted the efficacy even of doubt itself. How should a simpler man, a man like Montaigne or you and me , know better than they? Outwardly conventional in his religious views and practice, Montaigne appears to have rested in his own version of fideism, or faith based on a deep skepticism about all human knowledge. Religion as the complicated relations, fueled by faith, between men and God is a subject Montaigne is content to leave alone. Here, as in many another realm, the question he had had engraved on a medal, Que scay-je?

What do I know? He is instead keen on how to achieve the maximum contentment out of a life down upon which vicissitudes of every sort rain—how to find order and such happiness as is available here on earth. No Small problem, this, not least because of the changeability that Montaigne finds in himself and, by extension, in human nature.

As with his own nature, so with the world at large, everything seems mutable. Once you start digging down into a piece of writing there is simply no slant or meaning—straight, bitter, sweet, or bent—which the human mind cannot find there. Love someone and she seems more beautiful than she is.

Only God and, one might add, Michel de Montaigne. This last-named fellow, despite his many protestations about his shortcomings, is far from negligible. For if we cannot trust either knowledge or our senses, and if we can only by our best lights be obedient to but cannot hope to fathom the design of God, what guidance do we then turn to in the hope of living our lives with a modicum of decency, dignity, and contentment?

The long answer is the Essays.

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We no less laugh at him who takes pains to prevent it, than at him who is cuckold and knows it not. The character of cuckold is indelible: who once has it carries it to his grave; the punishment proclaims it more than the fault.

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It is to much purpose to drag out of obscurity and doubt our private misfortunes, thence to expose them on tragic scaffolds; and misfortunes that only hurt us by being known, for we say a good Edition: current; Page: [ 74 ] wife or a happy marriage, not that they are really so, but because no one says to the contrary.

Men should be so discreet as to evade this tormenting and unprofitable knowledge: and the Romans had a custom, when returning from any expedition, to send home before to acquaint their wives with their coming, that they might not surprise them; and to this purpose it is that a certain nation has introduced a custom, that the priest shall on the wedding-day open the way to the bride, to free the husband from the doubt and curiosity of examing in the first assault, whether she comes a virgin to his bed, or damaged by a strange amour.

But the world talks about it. I know a hundred honest men cuckolds, honestly and not unbeseemingly; a worthy man is pitied, not disesteemed for it. And, moreover, who escapes being talked of at the same rate, from the least even to the greatest? Seest thou how many honest men are reproached with this in thy presence; believe that thou art no more spared elsewhere. But, the very ladies will be laughing too; and what are they so apt to laugh at in this virtuous age of ours as at a peaceable and well-composed marriage?

Each amongst you has made somebody cuckold; and nature runs much in parallel, in compensation, and turn for turn. Miserable passion! The sharps, as well as the sweets of marriage, are kept secret by Edition: current; Page: [ 76 ] the wise; and amongst its other troublesome conditions this to a prating fellow, as I am, is one of the chief, that custom has rendered it indecent and prejudicial to communicate to any one all that a man knows and all that a man feels. To give women the same counsel against jealousy would be so much time lost; their very being is so made up of suspicion, vanity, and curiosity, that to cure them by any legitimate way is not to be hoped.

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They often recover of this infirmity by a form of health much more to be feared than the disease itself; for as there are enchantments that cannot take away the evil but by throwing it upon another, they also willingly transfer this ever to their husbands, when they shake it off themselves.

Pittacus used to say, that every one had his trouble, and that his was the jealous head of his wife; but for which he should think himself perfectly happy. A mighty inconvenience, sure, which Edition: current; Page: [ 77 ] could poison the whole life of so just, so wise, and so valiant a man; what must we other little fellows do?

Introduction to Montaigne (vs Populists)

Let us also consider whether the great and violent severity of obligation we enjoin them does not produce two effects contrary to our design: namely, whether it does not render the pursuants more eager to attack, and the women more easy to yield. For as to the first, by raising the value of the place, we raise the value and the desire of the conquest.

Might it not be Venus herself, who so cunningly enhanced the price of her merchandise, by making the laws her bawds; knowing how insipid a delight it would be that was not heightened by fancy and hardness to Edition: current; Page: [ 78 ] achieve? As to the second point; should we not be less cuckolds, if we less feared to be so? This animal, not to be roused with all this, and rendering her pleasures dull and flat by his too stupid facility, by which he seemed to authorize and make them lawful; what does she? Being the wife of a living and healthful emperor, and at Rome, the theatre of the world, in the face of the sun, and with solemn ceremony, and to Silius, who had long before enjoyed her, she publicly marries herself one day that her husband was gone out of the city.