“Hey Michel, what are writing about?” says a friend who is visiting castle Montaigne on a Sunday afternoon, while looking down at his friend writing. A lot of pages are scrambled around in the room, looking all messy. Every page has been written on a couple times, showing notes to things written on them. “Trying to work out some philosophy?”
“Oh no, nothing that interesting I’m afraid.” responds Michel. “I’m just writing about myself.” He says this while keeping his eyes on his pen and paper.
“Yourself? But why Michel, why would someone just write about themselves? And why so much?” His friend was shocked. He knew Michel was a thoughtful guy but to write about himself only, he audacity!
“It’s the only real thing I think I know.” says Michel calmful. “It was Socrates who said that an unexamined life wasn’t worth living! So, I want to examine my life to the fullest in order to be alive the most.”
His friend just couldn’t understand it and left Michel to write his ‘essays’. Whatever, he thinks, no one will read those things anyway!
Michel de Montaigne wrote the essays as a way to self-reflect. He didn’t think many people would read it. In his foreword he writes that ‘no one should be interested in such a vain subject as himself’. And then bids them goodbye, as if that was enough to claim that no one would read his essays about himself. But yet here we are, and his 1400-page book is being regarded as the Bible of humanism. And I agree with this full-heartedly.
This book was amazing, not because of the topics or particular philosophical insights he gives (there are some but not many), this book has something which other philosophy books most of the time lack: humanity. Montaigne grounds himself in him being human. Where other philosophers try to construe great philosophical theories which encompass everything, Montaigne doesn’t want any of those things. The only think he wants to know is himself. He is highly skeptical around knowledge (even preceding Descartes in his radical doubt) and so doesn’t bother trying to learn everything about the world, metaphysics or politics. He just tries to get to know himself, that’s already hard enough.
Montaigne is the ‘inventor’ of the essay format. An essay comes from the French verb ‘essayer’ which means to try. So, an essay is a try. It doesn’t have a concrete structure and is about one thing but is able to divert into many other subjects. And that is what Montaigne essays are. Every essay is about something in particular, but Montaigne hasn’t even written a page or he’s already diverting his attention to other subjects. Because of this, most of his titles of his essays don’t really correspond all that well with the subject of his essay.
With Montaigne it’s not about the structure or the content, it’s rather about the journey while writing the essay. The meditative experience you get when you write about a subject is central to an essay. You might discover a new idea mid-sentence and that’s exactly what you want and have to write down. You’re having a conversation with yourself because that’s the only way you’ll be able to get to know yourself. And before you know it, you’re able to write a 1400-page book about nothing other than what you think.
I believe Montaigne was crucial in the renaissance age. He created a new way to perform philosophy, inspiring philosophers like Descartes, Pascal and Bacon to do the same as he had done. He created a dialogue with himself. Where Plato needed two actors in his books, Montaigne now only needs himself. The idea of the individual has been thoroughly established in Montaigne’s work.
To read all the essays of Montaigne is a lot of work, definitely if you want to read them all as attentively as possible. Some of them just aren’t interesting, while others are gems. So, it’s a bit of an explorer’s job to find the wisdom of Montaigne. The thing I just found amazing was the sheer humanity of Montaigne. He was always asking himself questions. He never thought he knew something better than others. Reading Montaigne is like looking into a reflection of yourself in a river. You don’t really recognize yourself when the water is moving wildly but sometimes you find that moment of calm and it’s like you’re looking at yourself and you see who you truly are. Know thyself. Montaigne took it to heart. And I want to take it to heart as well.