“I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in sweet freedom of nature's first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.
“Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”—Michel de Montaigne, “To the Reader,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (1958)
If you want to know whom to credit (or blame!) for the blog you are reading, look past the most obvious suspect—moi!—to a French nobleman, government official, and winegrower of the late Renaissance: Michel de Montaigne, who died on this date in 1592 at age 59. Not just every blogger, but every essayist of the last four centuries stands in his giant shadow.
George Orwell, before becoming famous as the author of Animal Farm and 1984, wrote a weekly column called “I Write As I Please.” That declarative title could also stand as the heart of Montaigne’s writing. It is, first, personal and individual: I write as I please.
But it is also the mark of Montaigne’s discursive intelligence: I write as I please, where my interests and impulses take me. Whatever strikes his fancy will be what he discusses: lying, cruelty, sleep, names, friends—whatever.
Montaigne called his particular art form essais, the French word for “attempts.” The word speaks to the limits of the knowable—and, in the history of philosophy, the writer has become a kind of forerunner, not just of the Enlightenment but also of our own age, where Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle holds sway.
At the same time, the genre that Montaigne created singlehandedly, the essay, takes on a form of solidity simply by sifting through experience and taking on the mold of the author’s sensibility. By putting down on paper one’s own thoughts, the essayist, in effect, declares a position, finds a place to stand. Suddenly, the ground no longer moves so convulsively beneath one’s feet.
But we can’t simply leave off describing the difference that Montaigne made to literature and the life of the mind at that. Nobody like him had really written these kinds of personal ruminations before—they had previously been life histories written for didactic purposes by members of the Church (the lives of the saints) and State (the autobiographies of monarchs and generals). But, instead of being a Caesar expounding on his Gallic Wars, Montaigne was armed only with his own formidable library (his pieces can, at a far different level from how they were originally intended, be read simply as a guide to the ancient Greek and Roman classics) and an incisive, questioning intelligence.
Montaigne had known the worlds of war, law and politics intimately in his first four decades, but the 107 essays he produced in his “retirement” to the family estate in his last two decades come from a private citizen. In moving personal meditations out of the realm of official figures, the nobleman inadvertently advanced the democratization of literature.
Earlier today, I bought one of the more unlikely bestsellers of recent years, a full-blown, affectionate consideration of the life and work of Montaigne called How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell. I’m looking forward to this rather unconventional biography, but I doubt, for all the value I’ve discovered even in a short perusal so far, if I’ll discover the same sense of surprised (re)discovery that I did in returning to Montaigne’s essays, nearly 35 years after I was first exposed to them in college. That voice continues to resound even now across the centuries, as if he were our contemporary.