When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind.
He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.
Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic, hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars, and his grief at the loss of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie through dysentery.
Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favorites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles.
Cato stabbed himself to death after having meditated upon Socrates’ example, in order not to cede to Julius Caesar’s To achieve such “philosophic” constancy, Montaigne saw, requires a good deal more than book learning.
Indeed, everything about our passions and, above all, our imagination, speaks against achieving that perfect tranquillity the classical thinkers saw as the highest philosophical goal.Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare.He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot.We discharge our hopes and fears, very often, on the wrong objects, Montaigne notes, in an observation that anticipates the thinking of Freud and modern psychology.Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change.Voltaire celebrated Montaigne – a man educated only by his own reading, his father and his childhood tutors – as “the least methodical of all philosophers, but the wisest and most amiable”.Nietzsche claimed that the very existence of Montaigne’s Essays added to the joy of living in this world.Nearly everything our author says in one place is qualified, if not overturned, elsewhere.Without pretending to untangle all of the knots of this “book with a wild and desultory plan”, let me tug here on a couple of Montaigne’s threads to invite and assist new readers to find their own way.Montaigne’s earlier essay “To philosophise is to learn how to die” is perhaps the clearest exemplar of his indebtedness to this ancient idea of philosophy.Yet there is a strong sense in which all of the Essays are a form of what one 20th century author has dubbed “self-writing”: an ethical exercise to “strengthen and enlighten” Montaigne’s own judgement, as much as that of we readers: And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? I have no more made my book than my book has made me: it is a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life…As for the seeming disorder of the product, and Montaigne’s frequent claims that he is playing the fool, this is arguably one more feature of the Essays that reflects his Socratic irony.