The Essays From Montaigne Notes

The Essays From Montaigne Notes-70
_____________ Montaigne’s —one feels a sadness at coming to its conclusion.One has lived in the close company of an extraordinary man, swayed for weeks to the undulations of his mind, and now, at book’s end, it is over.

_____________ Montaigne’s —one feels a sadness at coming to its conclusion.One has lived in the close company of an extraordinary man, swayed for weeks to the undulations of his mind, and now, at book’s end, it is over.

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The Harvard economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron has told of coming to the end of 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.

Montaigne would have appreciated that digression if not necessarily the point.

Had Montaigne not chosen himself for his subject, in time someone else would no doubt have come along to write about himself with the same degree of candor—but not, the great likelihood is, with the same degree of success.

What makes Montaigne’s invention of the personal essay so extraordinary is that he not only was its first practitioner but may also have been, to date, its best.

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.Complying with a wish of his father’s, he translated Raymond Sebond’s lengthy He would later, between 15, 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.(How amusing he would have been on Marx and Freud, the two crushing systematizers of the modern era! Not until Rousseau’s , and Montaigne’s book, though written two centuries earlier, both feels more contemporary and is much wiser.) Finally, he strikes the modern note in his self-absorption, which, D. None of this would have been possible if Montaigne had not been precisely the man he was.Montaigne’s project was both much more and much less programmatic than this.Better to think of what he wrote not as essays, in the sense we have come to think of the form, but as assays—“’assays,’” as Professor Screech writes in his introduction to his new translation, “of himself by himself.” The critic Erich Auerbach, in his chapter on Montaigne in , suggests that the word “essay” as Montaigne used it might be rendered “Tests Upon One’s Self” or “Self-Try-Outs.” On behalf of his own revolutionary endeavor, the quotatious Montaigne cites the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales, of whom he remarks that “when Thales reckons that a knowledge of man is very hard to acquire, he is telling him that knowledge of anything else is impossible.” How pleasing it must have been to Montaigne that in his own lifetime the scholar Justus Lipsius called him “the French Thales”! To acquire larger truths about the world by looking into one’s heart is only possible if one is able to command an impressive honesty.“Authors,” he wrote, communicate themselves to the public by some peculiar mark foreign to themselves; I—the first ever to do so—by my universal being, not as a grammarian, poet or jurisconsult but [as] Michel de Montaigne.If all complain that I talk too much about myself, I complain that they never even think about their own selves.He set out the program for the personal essay—loose, digressive, elastic, familiar: “free association, artistically controlled,” is the way Aldous Huxley described Montaigne’s method—and then produced it in a quantity of more than a thousand pages.The impressive, the really quite astonishing thing is that Montaigne never bores on the subject of ; far from wishing him to go on to take up other matters, one is always rather pleased when he returns to it, even about such trivial things as his changing taste for radishes. Walker, the distinguished medievalist, has written: In many ways Montaigne was a startlingly original and independent thinker; but this can only be appreciated if one has some knowledge of relevant contemporary and earlier thought, for the most fundamental of Montaigne’s new ideas and attitudes have become our own unquestioned assumptions.


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