Our Contemporary, Montaigne: He Pioneered the Personal Essay and Made Candor Literary

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave one of the most important speeches in American history, an address at Harvard University in which he urged students to fulfill the country’s political independence by being intellectually and culturally independent, too.
Through his “American Scholar” speech, Emerson suggested that his fellow citizens should test the ideas of the Old World against experience, and not simply embrace them through habit. “It is a mischievous notion that we are come late into nature; that the world was finished a long time ago,” said Emerson. “As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.”
Emerson found the courage to question accepted wisdom in many places, but an important model for his critical thinking came, oddly enough, from Michel de Montaigne, an icon of the European literary tradition Emerson regarded so skeptically. In the early days of his career, as Emerson was seeking the best way to think and write, he looked to Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, as an inspiration. Later, Emerson wrote an essay about his hero, “Montaigne; or the Skeptic.”
Montaigne and Emerson are an unlikely literary pair. Emerson, an often earnest New Englander with a Brahmin’s sense of propriety, once took Walt Whitman on a walk and advised the poet to tone down the “sex element” in Leaves of Grass. Montaigne, by contrast, could be unabashedly frank, mentioning his track record with various enemas (“farted endlessly”) and treating sex with matter-of-fact candor.
That sensibility sometimes left Emerson breathless. “Montaigne is the frankest and honestest of all writers. His French freedom runs into grossness,” Emerson observes, with quite possibly a sigh, “but he has anticipated all censure by the bounty of his own confessions.” Montaigne’s occasional explicitness, although not to Emerson’s taste, seemed to express his willingness to see things clearly.
Emerson first encountered the French writer as a young man. He had inherited a volume of Montaigne’s essays from his late father’s library, but he had neglected it for years, only opening the book one day not long after he graduated from college. Reading Montaigne was a revelation.
“It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience,” Emerson declared. “I know not anywhere a book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets.”
Emerson’s feeling of finding himself in Montaigne’s essays has been a common one for Montaigne fans. Shakespeare appears to have read Montaigne’s essays and worked their insights into his plays, so that to watch the Bard is to see Montaigne just beyond the stage lamps, winking with approval. Virginia Woolf compared reading Montaigne to looking at a portrait and seeing your own image. “For thirty years,” Gore Vidal told readers a few years before his death, “I have kept Donald M. Frame’s translation of The Complete Works of Montaigne at, if not bedside, hand. There are numerous interlocking Olympic circles on the maroon binding where glasses were set after I had written some no longer decipherable commentary in the margin or, simply, ‘How true!’”
The late Lewis Thomas, one of America’s celebrated modern essayists, was another admirer. “For the weekend times when there is nothing new in the house to read,” said Lewis, “and nothing much to think about or write about, and the afternoon stretches ahead all bleak and empty, there is nothing like Montaigne to make things better.”
This is all tall praise, indeed, for a writer who seemed to do exactly the opposite of what was required to achieve literary fame. Born in 1533, Montaigne came from a wealthy family and held important government positions, including work as an adviser to three French kings. He studied law and served as a magistrate and mayor of Bordeaux. Even after ostensibly retiring, he continued to keep a hand in public life, mediating France’s religious strife and serving once again as Bordeaux’s mayor.
When Montaigne retreated to his country estate at age thirty-eight, instead of writing about his life at the center of power, he wrote mostly about what he saw from his tower library. The fruits of that period of relative seclusion secured his place in posterity. As the New Yorker’s Jane Kramer has pointed out, every French schoolchild learns the date of Montaigne’s “retirement”—February 28, 1571—because of its significance to the literature of France and, indeed, the world. “He had his books for company,” writes Kramer, “his Muses for inspiration, his past for seasoning, and, to support it all, the income from a large estate, not to mention a fortune built on the salt-herring and wine trades, which, in the last century, had turned his family into a landed gentry.”
At first glance, the musings from a man of leisure didn’t seem the most promising material for a best-seller. Instead of penning an epic poem, a historical narrative, or an imposing treatise on government, a project for which he was eminently qualified, Montaigne decided to simply follow his thoughts wherever they led. The complete edition of his Essays is about thirteen hundred pages, but there’s no obvious plot or design. Topics include everything from sadness to sleep, lying to Cicero, and drunkenness to the pleasure of books. Montaigne even includes a lengthy essay on thumbs, of all things. Like many educated men of the Renaissance, Montaigne looked to Greek and Latin classics for inspiration. “His first tutor spoke only Latin to him, and Montaigne himself spoke no French until he was five years old,” notes scholar Kia Penso. In his writings, Montaigne quotes the Greek commentator Plutarch so often that the ancient historian and moralist presides over the essays like a favored uncle at the dinner table. But while Montaigne, ever the lawyer, leans on precedent when useful in making his case, he also embraces the Renaissance enthusiasm for close personal observation as an avenue to truth. He’s one of the world’s great noticers, his essays suffused with the texture of everyday sensation.
A quick look through the essays turns up one gem after another. “I have never had any trouble except in the management of my own affairs. Epicurus says that to be rich is not the end, but only a change, of worries,” he laments at one point. “Nature seems to have inclined mankind to social intercourse above all else. And its supreme point of perfection, I find, is friendship,” he observes in another passage. Another turn of the page reveals this thought: “I can dine without a tablecloth, but hardly without clean napkins, as the Germans do; for I soil them more than they or the Italians, since I make little use of a spoon or fork. I regret that the royal custom of changing napkins, together with the plates, after every course, is not more widespread.” And then one dips in and finds Montaigne bridging the ageless subjects of sex and death with cutting concision: “Everyone, certainly, flees from seeing a man born, and everyone rushes to see him die. To destroy a man we use a large field in open daylight. But to make a man we sneak into as dark and secluded a corner as we can.”
The quotidian quality of Montaigne’s essays, in fact, is their biggest appeal. They seem so drawn from life that they look effortless. Penso recalls that philosopher Eric Hoffman once tried to share Montaigne’s essays with some acquaintances, to no avail: “One man flipped through the book for a while and handed it back, observing that it was nothing special—anybody could have written it. Montaigne would have liked that.”
When Montaigne changed his mind about a subject, instead of revising his views seamlessly, he’d often just tack an addendum on his previous statement, leaving the original one intact. One can easily imagine a contemporary literary agent surveying this merry mess, then pitching it into the trash can.
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