Montaigne’s Essays – Part Three

Finally, this is the last of my postings on Montaigne’s selected essays, which I started at the beginning of my WEM Project.  I’ve enjoyed his unique character and passionate zest for all his topics that I plan to try to read through all his essays at some point.  Montaigne has the ability to mesmerize you, yet I could sometimes find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him in the same sentence.  His approach is so singularly charming, a mixing of intellect with storytelling, which make (most of) his essays a joy to read. 

On Freedom of Conscience:  Quite an unusual essay.  Montaigne examines Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, so called for having abandoned Catholicism. Nevertheless, Julian had a very tolerant view of religion and allowed all religions equal status.  Montaigne appears suspicious of these motives, claiming that this permissive action can have two outcomes:

1) “to give a loose rein to the factions to hold to their opinions, is to sow and scatter division, and almost to lend a hand to increase it, there being no barrier and restraint of the laws to check and impede its course.”

2)  “to give the factions the reins to hold to their beliefs is to render them soft and lax through ease and facility, and to blunt the edge which is sharpened by rarity, novelty and difficulty.”

Again, Montaigne shows the reader his ingenuity at being able to see more than one possibility.

We Can Savour Nothing Pure:  This is a somewhat melancholy essay. Montaigne reveals that because of the “feebleness of our condition”, we can experience nothing in its natural purity and that all the pleasures or goods that we enjoy are “compounded with some evil or injury.”  Every virtue is tainted with vice, every justice with injustice.

I love his example from Socrates: when Socrates said that the gods wished to join pleasure and pain together, but when they were unsuccessful, they decided to join them by their tails.

Est quædam flere voluptas ~ There is a certain pleasure in our tears.  (Ovid)

The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness (1875-93)
Edward Burne-Jones
source Wikiart

Against Indolence:  Montaigne gives examples of kings who, even though they were in situations that might work agains them, did not allow themselves to become slaves to idleness:

“…… there is nothing that can so justly disgust a subject, and make him unwilling to expose himself to hardships and dangers in the service of his Prince, as to see him all the while lolling in idleness, or busy over paltry and frivolous things ….”

As usual, Montaigne digresses, or perhaps, his topic deconstructs, as he begins with the offense of idleness in leaders, and moves on to how a man should die valiantly and how to meet death.

“……. bravely meeting death, is to look upon her not only without dismay, but unconcernedly, freely continuing one’s wonted course of life even into her very lap.”

And, oh my goodness, the sarcasm!!  He makes me laugh:

“Those who would number Kings of Castile and Portugal among warlike and great-hearted conquerors, because at twelve hundred leagues distance from their abodes of idleness, by the skin of their agents, they made themselves masters of the East and West Indies, may seek some other than myself to agree with them; since it is doubtful whether they would even have had the courage to go in person to take possession of their conquests.”

On Virtue:  With regard to actions spurred by emotion versus actions performed because of resolution or habit, Montaigne maintains that some great deeds can be accomplished by the former, but to truly gage the measure of a man, one must look to his common behaviour.

I was somewhat following him when he gives the example of Pyhrro distrusting human instinct, and so resolutely living by his philosophy, but I was completely confused by the example of a man, winning his love and then, when unable to perform, cutting off his penis and sending it to his mistress.  Further examples of maiming, suicide and death follow; Montaigne appearing to be lauding the people’s premeditated fortitude.

I can hardly make head nor tail of this essay, but is he possibly saying that virtue needs to be cultivated?  He later makes reference to fate, of everyone’s final hour being known, therefore nothing can prolong or shorten our lives.

Anger or The Tussle (1516)
Dosso Dossi
source Wikiart

On Anger:  Montaigne is upset that many places leave the governing of wife and children to the husband, who could be stupid and evil, instead of to the state (who obviously is completely pure and omniscient — do you sense my sacrasm?). He is often seeing children beaten in the street and justice does nothing.

As much as I disagree with the first part of Montaigne’s essay, the next part has some wonderful quotes:

“There is no passion that so disturbs the clearness of our judgement as anger.”

“Faults, when seen through passion, appear greater to us, like bodies seen through a mist.”

Children, servants, etc. should be punished thoughtfully and by using discretion, and thus, the punishment will be taken more to heart and have more effect.

Withheld anger, simmering under the surface is dangerous too, and it is better to have an outburst than have it fester and grow within.  Otherwise, make sure that your anger is controlled, short, and to the point, with no undisciplined passions, resulting in tirades or violence.

On the Useful and the Honourable:  Political office is often filled with lies, betrayal and violence.  Montaigne, however, has always conducted himself with an ingratiating and mildness of manner, and the utmost candour and disinterestedness.  He is not swayed by political passions nor private interest. He could play both sides, but he refuses.

I quite liked this quote:

“When one’s country is disturbed and the people are divided I think it neither handsome nor honourable to be a wobbler and a hybrid, to be unmoved in one’s affections and to incline to neither side.”

Montaigne dislikes war and prefers to be of use to both parties, but his methods of negotiating have not been appreciated, and therefore he prefers working in a private, as opposed to public, manner.

Leadership can require treachery and dishonourable action, but while the person may think that they’ll profit by this behaviour, the end may prove otherwise.

Repentance (1917)
Nicholas Roerich
source Wikiart

Of Repentance:  This essay was extremely difficult but I’ll give it a shot.  Montaigne announces that he very seldom repents. If you show vice, you will be troubled by it, if you show virtue, you will receive the award of its goodness.  To base your actions on other people’s opinions is to build an unsteady foundation. You alone know yourself.  There are base actions ingrained by habit in our will that we cannot fully escape, and are part of our nature, so what is the use of repenting them?

An evil person can be inspired to do good, just as a virtuous person can be inspired to act evilly.  To truly judge a man, one must see him at work at home, or at least in a state of repose.  Montaigne says that to act out a sin, the sin must have lived in the heart of a man and he must consciously will it, therefore, I wonder if he is implying that to repent is almost an insincere act? The disease itself needs to be thrown off.  God must work in our hearts and the conscious must be truly amended.  Wishing to be different is not true repentance.

Montaigne claims to take very little advice, but he gives even less.  He knows of nothing that his advice has benefitted and people do not often act on it, in any case.  Drawing upon a Stoic mindset, the universe unfolds as it may, and Montaigne is happy to be self-contained away from others and any responsibility concerning them.

My favourite quotes:

“Many a man has been a wonder in the eyes of the world in whom neither his wife nor his valet have ever detected anything even remarkable.  Few men have been admired by their own household.”

“To enter a breach, conduct an embassy, rule a people, are conspicuous actions.  To chide, laugh, sell, pay, love, hate, to live in communion with one’s people and oneself, pleasantly and correctly, not to give way to passion, not to contradict oneself; that is more rarely seen, more difficult and less remarked.”

On Experience:  Man has a great natural desire for knowledge but when reason fails, he looks to his experience.  Experience is not the greatest way to knowledge but in the noble search for truth, one may use any option at his means.  Montaigne uses examples from law, science, philosophy and religion to explain that as soon as you attempt to define truth through numerous different perspectives, truth itself is lost.  By spreading it out, we dilute it.

“Men do not realize the natural infirmity of their mind; it does nothing but ferret and hunt around, incessantly like a silkworm, and there suffocating.”

Death and Life (1908-16)
Gustav Klimt
source Wikiart

He has more wise words concerning life and death:

“But you do not die because you are ill; you die because you are alive.  Death will kill you right enough without the help of sickness.  And maladies have kept death away from some who have lived the longer for thinking they were dying. Besides, there are maladies, as there are wounds, that are medicinal and health-bringing.

…… Nature has given it (life) into our hands, trimmed with so many and such happy surrounding, that we have only ourselves to blame if we feel it a burden, and if we waste it unprofitably ….. And yet I am resigned to lose it without regret; but as a thing that is by its nature losable, not as if it were a troublesome burden …. Not to hate the idea of death is properly becoming only in those who enjoy life ……. It needs good management to enjoy life.  I enjoy it doubly as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends upon the more or less attention we give to it …… The shorter my possession of life the fuller and deeper must I live it …… Rather should we study, relish and ruminate it, in order to give adequate thanks to him who bestows it upon us.”

This last essay of Montaigne’s marries ideas contained in his former essays, showing through his life experience, as he uses various culinary, emotional, and especially physical examples, how life can be best approached and enjoyed.  It’s a fitting end to my reading of his selected essays!

Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

Oh, Montaigne!  The more of his essays that I read, the more I like him.  He’s inquisitive, does not let anything get in the way of giving his opinion on absolutely any subject, has a clever but disordered mind, and because of the last point, really makes you engage your brain as you read.  I would have loved to meet him in real life, but, I get the impression that we’d probably have occasionally annoyed each other.  

Some of the readings for this section were:

On The Vanity of Words:  After reading Montaigne’s essay On Education, I suppose this attack on rhetoricians can’t come as much of a surprise.  To be eloquent is to foster a type of deception, and Montaigne is scathing in his condemnation of it.

Cicero & the magistrates disovering the
tomb of Archimedes
Benjamin West
source Wikiart

On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions:  This one is very interesting. Montaigne laments the inconsistency of men, stating that instead of following a path to wisdom throughout their lives, they are ruled solely by their appetites, living for the here-and-now and are merely motivated by opportunity, very much like animals. They blow with the winds.  He gives various examples on inconstancy, leading us to believe that consistency as Montaigne defines it, is virtually impossible.  One must plan one’s life to the utmost and follow the course, not being swayed by emotions or outside forces to be consistent and, as Cicero says, “For nothing can be consistent that has not reason for its foundation.”  Therefore, in Montaigne’s eyes, everyone is lacking true reason.  This is one of the few essays that I’ve read so far where Montaigne actually managed to keep on track with his subject.  Bravo!  This is certainly one of my favourites.

On Conscience:  Even if one finds pleasure in their vices, their conscience will always convict them, says Montaigne.  With one of his usual unexpected leaps of thought, he discusses the futility of torture, labelling it a means of testing endurance rather than a means to ferret out truth.  He uses some fun examples in this one, my favourite being Scipio tearing up his account books before the court when accused of dishonesty with regard to the money entrusted to him.  According to Montaigne, his actions declared him an honest man because his big heart could not bear to be accused of such a vulgar crime. Perhaps one should be grateful that Montaigne did not choose to be a judge as his profession.

Portrait d’un homme portant un exemplaire des
Essais de Montaigne
Johann Anton de Peters
source Wikiart

On Rewards for Honour:  Basically I understood that Montaigne feels that rewards should not be given out too liberally or their value is decreased. He’d rather not give out rewards at all, than have too many people get them.  Not a very modern viewpoint, Montaigne, when we presently strive to give everyone a reward for anything.  I tend to side here with Montaigne.

On Books:  Montaigne employs a coyness in this essay, stating that he reads books for pleasure only and has little desire to truly exercise his brain.  His goals in reading are to learn to know himself, and to learn to live and die well. His self-deprecation is quite startling as he confesses to having little knowledge and once again admits to having a poor memory.  Elaborating on his poor memory, he ends by giving a number of examples of literary criticism (not his title for it) that he has written at the ends of books, so if he picks them up again, he is able to ascertain why he liked them or not, and if he would read them again.

On Presumption:  It is not good to think too highly of ourselves, nor is it beneficial to think of ourselves worse than we are.  Montaigne advocates for balance and a practical self-knowledge.  Yet Man has such a variety of differing opinions, there is a “maze of obscurity” which makes the school of Wisdom uncertain, and this gets on Montaigne’s nerves.  He then meanders through a lovely forest of subjects, from self-deprecating statements to mediocre poetry to appearances of famous men, etc., finally ending with his disdain for modern education, in that it teaches learning instead of wisdom and goodness.

” It seems to me that the nursing mother of the most erroneous ideas, both of men in general and of the individual, is the exaggerated opinion man has of himself.”

On Giving the Lie:  Montaigne indulges in more modesty (false-modesty?) and finally gets to the title of the essay, lamenting that lying has been turned into a virtue by modern society.  He strongly condemns it:

“Lying is an ugly vice, which is painted in its most shameful colours by an ancient writer (Lysander) when he says that ‘to lie is evidence that we despise God and at the same time fear men.'”

To be honest, I feel that Montaigne could have benefited highly from the type of education that he despised, however, then he wouldn’t have been Montaigne and only another highly intellectual rhetorician with the same habits as all other rhetoricians.  And our Montaigne is unique, that is certain!  Not always simple to follow, but unique!

Montaigne’s Essays – Part One

Oh, Montaigne!  What a character!  I’m reading a series of recommended essays, and my plan is to split them into three posts.  So far my introduction to Montaigne has been pleasurable, but taxing to the brain.  His language and progression of ideas, examples and testimonies are not for the faint of heart.  In hindsight, it was wise to take him in measured doses.

On Sadness:  I felt that Montaigne was saying that the deepest sorrows often could not be expressed with outward emotions.  But then he ended by saying that he is little bothered by such violent passions;  I then wonder what gives him the authority to speak on sorrow if he knows nothing of it.  Hmmmm ……..

Our Fortune Must Not Be Judged Until After Death:  Well, this was not an uplifting little essay.  Montaigne believes, drawing from the tale of Croseus and Solon in the stories of Herodotus, that a man cannot be judged as fortunate until his death, because various calamities and suffering can plague him until the end.  Your final day tells all.  Nice.  Fortunately he appears to have amended his views on this subject later in life.

The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikipedia

To Think As A Philosopher Is To Learn To Die: Yikes!  Another death essay.  Montaigne emphasizes the need to learn to lose the fear of death.  Death is inescapable and it is a piteous error to try to avoid it by any means, as the hour is determined for everyone.  He tosses in Socrates rather wise and pithy remark:  to the man who said “The thirty tyrants have sentence you to death,” Socrates replied, “And Nature to them.”

Of The Powers of Imagination:  I’m somewhat perplexed as to where to begin with this one.  This essay is supposed to (I believe) explore the relationship of imagination to the mind and body, but Montaigne rather vividly gets into a discussion of the “male member” and “passing wind”.  I was laughing so hard I was crying at the end of the “passing wind” section.  I don’t think hilarity was intended by the author.  😉  Apparently though, people in Montaigne’s time wouldn’t have blinked an eye at these references, showing that they were much more mature and less sensitive than modern people. And since I was very surprised by his frankness given the era, it also demonstrates that our preconceived ideas can be less than accurate.

On Educating Children:  I have an interest in education, so this essay was perhaps the most interesting for me, if not the most amusing (see above).  Montaigne felt that an instructor of good moral character and sound understanding was much more valuable than one with founts of knowledge.  He emphasized the value of knowledge for its own sake, and was repelled by the thought that learning should be used to earn profit. The ancient Greeks would understand his dismay; only slaves were schooled to work, not free men.  Montaigne proceeds to say that he does not wish for an educational system that makes children parrot back what they have learned but rather that they are taught to make ideas their own.  He then expands his argument to suggest tossing out the classical education model in place of simply teaching children to philosophize.  He seems to forget that the classical model contains the building blocks that give the student the tools to be able to discuss topics philosophically, not to mention that young minds have to mature to be able to understand the abstract concepts which are required in philosophy.  He supports, as well, exercise and entertainment, but suggests training peculiarities and eccentricities out of people, as they are “a foe to intercourse and companionship of others”. Well, okay …….  I do understand Montaigne’s main point though.  He is advocating for the teaching of a virtuous character over that of intellectual learning.  In fact, this should be the goal of every teacher, however I believe that there should be a balance between the two, whereas Montaigne seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
source Wikiart

On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children:  In this case, Montaigne means male children but he does share some good advice. A man should not marry too early and responsible thought should be given to the purpose of having children, realizing that they will owe you much more than they can ever pay back.  Instead of forcing the son to be dependent on him when he comes of age, the father should share his wealth and guide him in the use of it, teaching the son to run the estate.  Now Montaigne claims if this is not done, the sons have no other recourse than to become thieves, a habit that will be nearly impossible to break.  I’m not sure I follow his rationale in this case, and cannot agree with it as an excuse, but hey, it’s Montaigne, right?  It just doesn’t feel normal if he doesn’t hit you with some sort of idiosyncratic reasoning.

In spite of some peculiarities, Montaigne has a charm that cannot be denied.  Perhaps Madame de Sévigné characterizes best what his readers experience:  “I have found entertainment in a volume of Montaigne that I did not think I had brought with me.  Ah, the charming man!  What good company he is!  He is an old friend of mine, but by dint of being old, he is new to me. …….. Mon Dieu!  how full this book is of good sense!”

The Essays of Montaigne – Introduction

My third book of my Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project is Essays by Michel de Montaigne.  He wrote these essays over the period of 1570 – 1592.  Why?  Well, the man himself tells us:  “I have dedicated this book to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen, so that, having lost me (as they must do soon) they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours.”  His writing is honest and unpretentious, as he only sought to dissect his mind for a greater understanding of human nature.

Born on the last day of February 1533 at the Chateau de Montaigne, his families’ wealth did not breed arrogance or vanity; for the first three years of his life Montaigne was sent to live with a peasant family, in order to, as his father said, “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help.”  While his father ensured that he associated with people of lower social status, he also provided him a rigorous education for the purpose of cultivating his mind.  He studied all the classic languages and at fourteen, was destined for law school.  In 1554 he was appointed councillor in the Parliament of Bourdeaux and later married.  Yet in his thirty-eighth year, tired of court life he retired, intending to spend the remainder of his life in tranquil seclusion.  Sequestering himself in a tower on the grounds of Chateau de Montaigne, he began to write his Essays.

La tour de Montaigne
source Wikipedia

Interesting tidbits:

Upon his retirement he commissioned a medal that read, “Que scay-je?”, which means “What do I know?”, echoing Pliny’s reminder that “In these matters, the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

The profundity of his thoughts introduces his readers to ideas, presented in a way that is unique and innovative. “He who had never actually seen a river, the first time he did, so took it for the ocean, since we think that the biggest things that we know represent the limits of what Nature can reproduce in that species.”

His humility, charm, and uncomplicated spirit echoes through much of his writing:  “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?”

Notable Quotes:

  • “I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.”
  • “I am afraid that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and that we have more curiosity than understanding. We grasp at everything, but catch nothing except wind.”
  • “When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.”
  • “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”
  • “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”
  • “To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death… We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.” 
  • “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

With regard to translations of this work, I came across this quote by William Hazlitt:

“The besetting sin of both Montaigne’s translators seems to have been a propensity for reducing his language and phraseology to the language and phraseology of the age and country to which they belonged, and, moreover, inserting paragraphs and words, not her and there only, but constantly and habitually, from an evident desire and view to elucidate or strengthen their author’s meaning.  The result has generally been unfortunate; and I have, in case of all these interpolations on Cotton’s part, felt bound, where I did not cancel them, to throw them down into the notes, not thinking it right that Montaigne should be allowed any longer to stand sponsor for what he never wrote; and reluctant, on the other hand, to suppress the intruding matter entirely, where it appeared to possess a value of its own.”

In any case, forward on to The Essays of Montaigne!

Further reading: