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!


12 thoughts on “Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

  1. These essays seem quite interesting. I am completely aligned on Montaigneโ€™s thoughts on On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions and even On books. However I will fight tooth and nail on the idea of conscience convicting people โ€“ much as I hate to say it Conscience only works as deterrent on only the most sensitive and at times not even on those! If conscience was the best gatekeeper of manโ€™s action, there would be no war, no violence or crime.

  2. Based on his thoughts on conscience, there must have been a great number of "good" people in Montaigne's society. I can't see it. However, Montaigne can say one thing in one essay and then the opposite in another — believe me, it is part of his charm. Have you read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity? He begins his argument that we all appeal to a standard of behaviour, or the Rule About Right and Wrong, yet none of us keep it consistently and are anxious to make excuses, etc. His thoughts are quite fascinating. I think he would argue conscience is common to everyone, yet we have the choice to follow it or not, and we often choose not to. Therein, we approach the topic of free will, which is a topic for another post, I think …… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Just dug up C.S. Lewis's essay – will read it and come back for more discussion; I agree with you on free will and the choice. We always have a choice. The whole of East of Eden was based on that very kernel 'Timshel' – thou mayest – you have a choice to overcome bad. I mean seems like God gave that choice to even Cane….but yes, let's talk about it in another blog!! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Ah, East of Eden! Another book I simply must read. There are so many rabbit trails off all these books. You're going in one direction and then zip! in another until you're dizzy, but somehow it all makes sense eventually.

    I think I like Montaigne so much is that in one way he reminds me of Lewis ….. it's like you're having a conversation with him and you don't have to agree, you just have to explore. I love it!

  5. Cleo, do you have East of Eden on any of your gazillions of challenges this year? I'm planning to read it FINALLY and can read it at any time this year. Let me know if you are planning to read it.

    Also, I finally had the opportunity to read this post on Montaigne, and I was just going to add: ya, know, he really is full of common sense. Just that.

  6. I'd love to read East of Eden with you! At least then I would have read one book Marianne has recommended to me (I'm still working on Gone With the Wind). It looks like either May or August would work for this. Perhaps I should set up a thread in our WEM Goodreads group for a reminder.

    I love Montaigne. He takes himself so seriously, and so he should because he is a wonderful writer, but I find him funny as well. I'm not sure if he'd like that, but there you go! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I imagine him as one of those dry humor sense of guys; but full of wisdom, nonetheless.

    And let me know if you make a commitment to East of Eden. I have it set for late in the year, but I'm flexible. And I may be able to read Gone With the Wind again, too. But definitely East of Eden. If you do either, do a Goodreads read-along, and maybe you'll get a group. Or I can it. Don't mind.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!