Every year, I try and tackle at least one big beast. Last year was Ulysses, before that was Don Quixote and this year I went for The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne.
I started reading in late February, reading a few essays interspersed with the short novels in Popular Fiction by Women 1660 - 1730 but as coronavirus took over the world and lockdown was enforced, I (like many others) found it harder to concentrate. Reading both the essays and the old novels together was too dense and difficult to read, so I took up children’s books and shorter fiction.
However, by August, things were returning to something like normality and I took myself off to my parents’ house out of London, I got back down to Montaigne and read the rest. I probably would not normally have mentioned this factor in my reading of Montaigne were the conditions not exceptional and if it wasn’t something Montaigne would probably have mentioned himself if he were in a similar position.
Montaigne said that to read his essays was very much like meeting him, that there was very little difference in personality between the two and if he was accurate about this, I would very much like to have met him. The essays are drawn from two major areas, his life experiences and his reading, though he probably would have said that his reading was a life experience. There’s also a progression through the essays, with early ones being shorter and more based on his reading, whereas later ones were longer and drew more from his life.
Typically an essay starts with a reference to something Montaigne has recently read and then follows the thought process that he takes from that. He pulls in all sorts of other texts, life experience and increasingly peculiar little anecdotes. We learn about a man who killed himself by deep-throating a sponge on a stick to wipe arses with, about the man who had his arm grilled as a torture but who looked on calmly, of the children who convinced their whole village that a ghost was haunting it.
In some ways the book reminded of one of my first challenge reads, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. There is the same fondness for peculiar stories, the same overstuffing of detail, the same tendency to take a detour or rant. Samuel Johnson (in a quote I kind find right now) said that Burton was best when he lets his own voice take over, and so is Montaigne.
We find out a lot about Montaigne in The Essays, that he was raised to speak Latin and still regards it as his first language. That he was a flashy dresser and a bit of a lady’s man in his youth, that he once slept with a lame prostitute because he was told they were the best kind- though he’s unsure if that lies in his imagination, his (poor) memory or because it is actually true. He even uses this folk belief to show how rational argument can lead a good user anywhere, making several plausible(ish) arguments for why this might be the case.
We learn a great deal about his body parts and his health. Previously, when I had just dipped into The Essays, I was struck by how often he mentioned his penis so on this read through I kept a tally. If my tally is correct, he mentioned it 56 times throughout the course of the book. He also mentions the scabs on his arse, the pain of kidney stones, the time he was knocked out in a riding accident and how the pain of his ingrowing toenails made him see the world less positively than when he didn’t have them.
We learn about him socially; that he’s not very good with small talk, that he refuses to lie, even the truth may hurt someone else’s feelings - even a time when telling the truth risked his life. There are numerous mentions of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, the relationship he valued most in his life and the cause of the most wonderful sentences about friendship;
“If someone were to ask me why I loved him, I feel that it could not be expressed, except by answering ‘Because it was him; because it was me.’”
Another important figure in Montaigne’s life was his father, whom he obviously respected and admired a great deal. I get the sense that Montaigne was someone who laboured under great expectations to which he didn’t live up. He regards himself as essentially lazy and not particularly clever, “Nobody forecast that I would turn out bad, only useless.”
The turning point in the book, between the shorter, more literary based essays and the longer, personal ones seems to be The Apology for Raymond Sebond, an essay that is, in itself, over 150 pages long. In defending a book about man being able to learn about God by looking at nature, it severely questions man’s ability to learn at all. Turning to Pyrrhonic scepticism, the call is constantly, “What do I know?” I’m glad I’d read book about ancient scepticism before (Ancient Scepticism by Harald Thorsrud), as it helped me unpack what is a very dense essay. I was not surprised to find it influenced the writing of Descartes, though he uses scepticism as a tool more than a point itself. (Very rare my philosophy degree ever comes in handy).
Montaigne constantly wrote and rewrote the essays until shortly before his death. As such, the book as I have it, seems almost patchwork at times, with frequent interpolations of texts A, B and C, not including modern footnotes. The translation by MA Screech balances a sense of the age of the text (started 1572) and a sense of a frank and colloquial language which allows the text to be readable without seeming too modern or hip.
I would encourage any reader to give themselves the experience of reading the whole text through if possible. As Montaigne said, “Every abridgement of a good book is a daft one.” Not only that, it’s only by reading it through that the ebb and flow of the book can be properly appreciated. Montaigne is not the same man at the end of it as he is at the beginning and even though he rewrote earlier sections, there is something fascinating about watching a man change as the pages turn.
While An Apology for Raymond Sebond is the essay that Penguin choose for their mini black spine classics and although On Conversation is the essay most included in compilations, if you are to read only one essay, I recommend the last, On Experience.
For a start, On Experience sums up what it’s like to read the essays as a whole. It includes all his main ideas; the fallibility of human knowledge, his wonder and warmth for humanity he finds through examining himself, his fondness for quote and anecdote and his shifting focus from philosophy as a means of learning how to die well to his acceptance on what a wonderful thing it can be to live well. The essay ends with a triumphant fanfare to, not only a life well lived but a life lived at all. “Life is it’s own objective.”
“What great fools we are! ‘He has spent his life in idleness,’ we say. ‘I haven’t done much today.’ - ‘Why! Have you not lived? That is not only the basic of your employments, it is the most glorious.’”
And on that glorious note the essay, the book, Montaigne’s life work ends (except for a little arse joke of course.)