Notes On Montaignes Essays

A survey of one of the giants of Renaissance thought, The Essays: A Selection collects some of Michel de Montaigne’s most startling and original works, translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech in Penguin Classics. To overcome a crisis of melancholy after the death of his father, Montaigne withdrew to his country estates and began to write, and in the highly original essays that resulted he discussed themes such as fathers and children, conscience and cowardice, coaches and cannibals, and, above all, himself. On Some Lines of Virgil opens out into a frank discussion of sexuality and makes a revolutionary case for the equality of the sexes. In On Experience he superbly propounds his thoughts on the right way to live, while other essays touch on issues of an age struggling with religious and intellectual strife, with France torn apart by civil war. These diverse subjects are united by Montaigne’s distinctive voice – that of a tolerant man, sceptical, humane, often humorous and utterly honest in his pursuit of the truth. M.A. Screech’s distinguished translation fully retains the light-hearted and inquiring nature of the essays. In his introduction, he examines Montaigne’s life and times, and the remarkable self-portrait that emerges from his works. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1586) studied law and spent a number of years working as a counsellor before devoting his life to reading, writing and reflection. If you enjoyed The Essays: A Selection, you might like Francis Bacon’s The Essays, also available in Penguin Classics.

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,...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

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