Michel De Montaigne


Times past it used to be that I’d open a post or include in the post some sort of disclaimer. Like “These are but my humble recollections and recordings of fleeting thoughts, no doubt themselves mere memories of other great men and women, past and present. Any hint of genius detected should therefore be attributed more to them than I, and, if I am owed any commendation, it is only in my ability to express their thoughts in a plain enough way for part of them to be understood.”

But fuck that, I thought to myself. No-one reads this rubbish anyway. Who cares?

Since then, I’ve been developing my relationship with the wonderful 16/17th Century French philosopher Michel De Montaigne and his “Essays” or “attempts”. He makes me very happy, just by the sheer accessibility and ease of his writing. Sure, he doesn’t use modern English perfectly. He was a Frenchman who preferred speaking Latin since French (or Aquitainian or whatever dialect) had always been the language of the peasants. And he was brought up on Latin, like those babies you only give soy milk. I’m reading him in translation, and the translation comes off well. The ease though, isn’t so much in the words as in the way he deals with his subject. Sometimes bumbling, sometimes anecdotal, sometimes serious and philosopher-like. The style just seems to bend in a way that suits it being read. And I would dearly love to write as effectively as that. For the blog anyway. I think, if they had blogs back then, he’d be respected by a not insignificant sub-community as one of the greats.

Montaigne uses apologies. Like the one I gave as a sample. He apologises to you regularly, and in advance of his more controversial suggestions, which makes it so much harder to have a problem with him. Seeing this – seeing someone use apology or self-effacement like this for the first time in ages – has brought back it’s appeal to me. At least for certain essays. Ones targeted at a broader readership, or people I know will be offended. He also has a brilliant way of blaming his applications of great philosophers on those philosophers. And admits how effective that can be.

Admittedly Montaigne does it partly because he has to. Probably. I mean, he writes some stuff that could be construed as heretical. He has a very good and loyal attitude to the Church in his writings, but at the same time their unorthodoxy could’ve pissed quite a few people off. Instead of risking that and starting to go all Martin Luther Jnr on 17th century Europe, he keeps telling us, and then reminding us, that he is humble, uneducated in the ways of God, and merely documenting his personal adventures and trials in ethics and reason. He pretty much says “serious readers should consult the Church, not me. This is just for my mates and casual perusal. To show how my mind works rather than how things are.” I’m not yet sure how far this is true. I like to think he’s rebelling in a small and very clever way, but he might not be. Just because he comes across as a very rational and capable fella doesn’t mean he has to be the leader of the New Revolution. In fact, he spent years on this book – his essays. Years and years. The project seems more like a diary of philosophical development and speculation, though it reads to me a bit more like an odd sort of treatise. But years. I think it was genuinely for his own enjoyment, clarification, exploration. It’s not like he had a huge community of open-minded liberals to draw upon back then, to submit his work to. Or, if he did, they wouldn’t be the open-minded liberals of today. They’d be more like the sort of “God is great, but we probably don’t have to burn the witches, you know. God is also merciful. We could just cut their heads off” liberal. You know? The We Only Have To Execute Them brigade? Wonderful bunch.

But hey, different times.

Montaigne remains a very interesting chap. I’d recommend a cursory glance at his work to anyone interested in European history, philosophy, Church history, literature and probably Latin. Tis good stuff. Maybe I’ll mention him again as I read on. (“Read on MacDuff!” …No? No. Sorry.)

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