Monday, January 12, 2009

Michel de Montaigne


It was Montaigne's conviction that in spite of the range of human diversity, there is a basic unity to human experience. "Each man bears the entire form of man's estate." And if such is the case, then writing about oneself is not a private, narcissistic act but will strike a chord of grateful recognition in readers everywhere. Montaigne's unique talent for communicating himself proved the point: we now have thousands of verbal self-portraits in print, and few have inspired readers to identify themselves with the writer nearly as much as Montaigne's.

Part of the reason for its success was Montaigne's ability to see himself as an average human being. Of course, he was scarcely average in intelligence and literary gifts. But he regarded the ups and downs and pleasures of his daily life as typical; he chose to write not in Latin, the learned language of his time, but in conversational, vernacular French; and he minimized his singular career (a valued diplomat used by kings, and twice mayor of Bordeaux), opting instead for a tone of ironic self-deprecation. This grew partly out of his view of the human condition.

Montaigne regarded humanity as constantly in flux, vain, ashamed of itself, and contradictory. Rather than condemning people, however, he recommended a generous self-forgiveness. He preferred not to aim so high (there is little of the mystical, transcendent, or tragic in this author) but to steer a middle course. His thought evolved from an early expression of Stoicism (including the concern about dying well) to skepticism and eventually a brand of epicureanism (giving counsel on the art of living well).

One of the most radical of Montaigne's practices was to follow his thoughts no matter where they led him. The result conveyed the spontaneity of mental discovery, on the one hand, and a heedless lack of structure, on the other. In "Of Books" and elsewhere, he made a case for the common reader, the non scholar, who will simply say what he or she thinks about a book. His literary preferences were for Senecan conclusions rather than windy lead-ups, for language that is to the point, not bothering with elegance but "rough and contemptuous". His own sentences were sinewy, dry, yet succulent; they explode like pomegranate seeds on the tongue.

Phillip Lopate, from The Art of the Personal Essay
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1 comment:

Seth said...

Thank you for your essay on Montaigne. I just finished a leisurely reading of the Donald Frame translation, and can only react by admitting that this book changed me. I am not the same person. Being in his company has somehow penetrated every cell of my being and precipitated a chemical reaction. I did not want my reading to end.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a person with so much wisdom and simplicity--”The simplicity of profundity” as I believe Nietzsche expressed it in one of his books. And the way he frequently denigrates his work and the resources of his mind brings back to me something that Melville wrote: that the greatest thinkers are the ones who often doubt their work the most. Think of Virgil trying to condemn his masterpiece to flames.

I remember Montaigne saying that it might be a good idea to read his book in small doses as it takes a strong soul to endure long exposure to some of his thoughts. (I don’t remember the section.) But he frequently dwells on death and the ephemeral nature of life. But this is what philosophy teaches: How to die. And real freedom is to lose our fear of death.

One passage that stands out for me is the section where he compares life to a dream: “Those who have compared our life to a dream were perhaps more right than they thought.” --)From “Apology to Raymond Sebond.”) This idea is most beautifully expressed in the preface to Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.”

Another one of his striking thoughts is in the section on animals where he explores the idea that they not only use reason, but may be much smarter than we think they are. Consider recent scientific discoveries that some parrots are as smart as dolphins. Just a short time ago, animal intelligence was equated with brain size, or the proximity of the animal to humans on the evolutionary scale. Nietzsche also wrote something similar, if I remember correctly, when he said that every living thing feels like the center of all existence, even the fly. Consider also, that Schopenhauer’s “Will” is the same in everything: immortal and undivided.

But I am not using these allusions to propose that these ideas were passed down from Montaigne to other great artists. Like Montaigne, they learned to read themselves.

“The world always looks straight ahead; as for me I turn my gaze inward,...” --(From “Of Presumption.”)

“No man tries to descend into himself.” --Persius, as quoted by Montaigne.