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To essay is to “test” or “try,” and Montaigne, thinking of his works as trials of his own judgment and capacities, succeeded in inventing the essay with a personal slant. While often personal, his essays are not confessional or confidential but achieve the universal quality of the greatest literature.
He investigates such topics as happiness, names, the education of children, solitude, repentance, and more than a hundred more. In length the essays range from one or two pages to one of more than a hundred pages.
Living in sixteenth century France, Montaigne had many opportunities to observe the disorder and cruelty that arose from intense religious conviction, and although he respected religion, he loathed religious excesses as begetters of vice. He cultivated a contrastingly skeptical approach, illustrated by his motto: “What do I know?” Even more than Socrates, he believed that the awareness of one’s own ignorance is the basis of wisdom. Instead of insisting on the correctness of his ideas, he attempts to see his subjects from other points of view, including those of Mohammedans, cannibals, and even of cats.
His twin sources of ideas are books and experience. An extremely well-read man, he peppers his essays with quotations, but his style is relaxed, informal, and good-humored. At the end of his essay “Of Experience,” Montaigne writes: “The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern.
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Michel Eyquem de Montaigne began his essays as a stoical humanist, continued them as a skeptic, and concluded them as someone concerned with the condition of human beings. This evolution, one substantially agreed upon by Montaigne scholars, is apparent in The Essays. The three volumes include writings such as “To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die,” in which Montaigne considers how human beings should face pain and die; writings such as the famous “Apology for Raimond Sebond,” in which the skeptical attack on dogmatism in philosophy and religion is most evident; and writings such as “The Education of Children,” in which Montaigne makes a constructive effort to encourage humans to know themselves and to act naturally for the good of all.
Montaigne retired to his property when he was thirty-eight. Public life had not satisfied him, and he was wealthy enough to live withdrawn from active life and give himself to contemplation and the writing of essays. He did spend some time in travel a few years later, and he was made mayor of Bordeaux, but most of his effort went into the writing and revision of his writings, the attempt to essay, or test, his ideas.
An important essay in the first volume, “That the Taste for Good and Evil Depends in Good Part upon the Opinion We Have of Them,” begins with a paraphrase of a quotation from Epictetus to the effect that humans are bothered more by opinions than by things. The belief that all human judgment is, after all, more a function of the person than of the things judged suggested to Montaigne that by a change of attitude human beings could alter the values of things. Even death can be valued, provided those who are about to die are of the proper disposition. Poverty and pain can also be good, provided a person of courageous temperament develops a taste for that. Montaigne concludes that “things are not so painful and difficult of themselves, but our weakness or cowardice makes them so. To judge of great and high matters requires a suitable soul.”
This stoical relativity is further endorsed in the essay “To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die.” Montaigne’s preoccupation with the problem of facing pain and death was caused by the death of his best friend, Étienne de La Boétie, who died in 1563 at the age of thirty-three, and by the deaths of his father, his brother, and several of his children. Montaigne was also deeply disturbed by the Saint Bartholomew Day massacres. As a humanist, he was well educated in the literature and philosophy of the ancients, and from them he drew support of the stoical philosophy suggested to him by the courageous death of his friend La Boétie.
The title of the essay is a paraphrase of Cicero’s remark “that to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die.” For some reason, perhaps because it did not suit his philosophic temperament at the time, perhaps because he had forgotten it, Montaigne does not allude to a similar expression attributed by Plato to Socrates, the point there being that the philosopher is interested in the eternal, the unchanging, and that life is a preoccupation with the temporal and the variable. For Montaigne, however, the remark means either that the soul in contemplation removes itself from the body, or that philosophy is concerned to teach individuals how to face death. It is the second interpretation that interests him.
Asserting that all human beings strive for pleasure, even in virtue, Montaigne argues that the thought of death is naturally disturbing. He refers to the death of his brother, Captain St. Martin, who was killed when he was twenty-three by being struck behind the ear by a tennis ball. Other instances enforce his claim that death often comes unexpectedly to the young, for which reason the problem is.
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