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The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne
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The Complete Essays (1580)

by Michel de Montaigne

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English (21)  Dutch (2)  French (2)  German (1)  All languages (26)
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Clive James says somewhere that certain people throughout history are like ambassadors from the present stationed in the past: though separated from us by centuries, to read them is to share in thoughts and feelings that we recognise intimately as our own. And this is what Montaigne has been for me since I started reading him several years ago. He is the first person in history who strikes me as modern – or at least, the first to put that modern sense of uncertainty and existential nerviness down on paper, to write something that is not didactic or improving or even purely entertaining, but animated instead by curiosity, doubt, overeducated boredom, trivial irritations.

The scepticism in particular has become probably his most famous quality – his best-known line nowadays is the rhetorical question, Que sçay-je? ‘What do I know?’ Certainly his essays – meaning ‘efforts’, ‘attempts’ – are endearingly open about how uncertain he is when it comes to any of the big questions. He doesn't bluster his way through his lack of knowledge, but faces it head-on with disarming cheerfulness, and his arguments themselves are not carefully structured means to approach knowledge, but rather meandering and conversational in a way that is completely unlike other writers of the time. Je parle au papier comme je parle au premier que je rencontre, he says – in John Florio's 1603 translation (on which much more later), ‘I speake unto Paper, as to the first man I meete.’ Still, his lack of expertise is something that regularly bothers him:

Est-ce pas faire une muraille sans pierre, ou chose semblable, que de bastir des livres sans science et sans art? Les fantasies de la musique sont conduictes par art, les miennes par sort.

[To write bookes without learning is it not to make a wall without stone or such like thing? Conceits of musicke are directed by arte, mine by hap.]


It's unlikely to worry any of his readers. The range of topics addressed by Montaigne is gloriously all-encompassing: stick a pin in the nearest encyclopaedia and he will have something to say on whatever subject has been thus perforated. And crucially, it's not just the big subjects like war, religion, diplomacy, the Classical tradition. It's also the minor stuff, the kind of things that you worry about in the bath – how annoying it is to have to get up early, whether people should talk over dinner or just shut up and eat, what to wear in bed. Like men through history, he frets that he can't last long enough during sex and that his cock is too small – but unlike Horace or the Earl of Rochester, he doesn't write grandiose poetry on the subject, he just moans about it in humdrum, day-to-day prose. You come to realise there is no issue he won't write about. ‘Of all naturall actions, there is none wherein I am more loath to be troubled or interrupted when I am at it,’ he announces, on doing a poo.

Of course that frankness, that ruthless self-analysis, means that when he does come to the big subjects he's often totally riveting. I loved reading his thoughts on religion, which are incredibly undogmatic and open-minded given the context of sixteenth-century Europe. In Book II, chapter 12 – one of the longest essays and often printed separately – he ostensibly sets out to defend Christianity, but in his clear-sighted assessment of the arguments against religion he articulates intelligent agnosticism better than many atheists. We are Christians because we are born here and now, he perceives; if people really believed in the precepts of their faith, they would be happy to die; and if there were any real reward after death it must be in some mortal way, otherwise we would no longer be ‘us’. Following his mind through these arguments is quite a thrill.

He also comments on current events, of all kinds. After France adopts the Gregorian calendar in December 1582, he takes the time to write irritably on the missing eleven days (a circumstance which leads him, via a typically Montanian series of tangents, to end up discussing the merits of sex with the disabled). And his thoughts on the Spanish conquest of the Americas – the full details of which were still then emerging – make for a welcome reminder that not everyone at the time was gung-ho about the excesses of the colonial project.

…nous nous sommes servis de leur ignorance et inexperience à les plier plus facilement vers la trahison, luxure, avarice et vers toute sorte d'inhumanité et de cruauté, à l'exemple et patron de nos meurs. Qui mit jamais à tel pris le service de la mercadence et de la trafique? Tant de villes rasées, tant de nations exterminées, tant de millions de peuples passez au fil de l'espée, et la plus riche et belle partie du monde bouleversée pour la negotiation des perles et du poivre: mechaniques victoires. Jamais l'ambition, jamais les inimitiez publiques ne pousserent les hommes les uns contre les autres à si horribles hostilitez et calamitez si miserables.

[we have made use of their ignorance and inexperience, to drawe them more easily unto treason, fraude, luxurie, avarice and all manner of inhumanity and cruelty, by the example of our life and patterne of our customes. Who ever raised the service of marchandize and benefit of traffick to so high a rate? So many goodly citties ransacked and raged; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmelesse people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world topsiturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffick of Pearles and Pepper. Oh mechanicall victories, oh base conquest. Never did greedy revenge, publik wrongs or generall enmities, so moodily enrage and so passionately incense men against men, unto so horrible hostilities, bloody dissipation, and miserable calamities.]


On gender relations he offers an intriguing mix of traditionalism and forward-thinking. He makes frequent off-hand remarks about the place of women which seem to suggest that he is pretty representative of his time – commenting, for instance, that if women want to read they should confine themselves to theology and a little poetry – but then at other times he can be amazingly progressive. A long essay ‘On some verses of Virgil’ (III.5) includes a fantastic investigation of sexual politics where he is unexpectedly thoughtful about the expectations placed on women by male society, and he rails against the hypocrisy of what we'd now call slut-shaming. His sympathy for those who do not fit patriarchal expectations shows that he grasps the fundamental point:

Les femmes n'ont pas tort du tout quand elles refusent les reigles de vie qui sont introduites au monde, d'autant que ce sont les hommes qui les ont faictes sans elles.

[Women are not altogether in the wrong, when they refuse the rules of life prescribed to the World, forsomuch as onely men have established them without their consent.]


In the end, although he can't stop himself feeling instinctively that a woman's role is different from a man's, he recognises that much of this is down to social pressures, and his simple conclusion is in some ways centuries ahead of its time: les masles et femelles sont jettez en mesme moule: sauf l'institution et l'usage, la difference n'y est pas grande. ‘Male and female are cast in one same moulde; instruction and custome excepted, there is no great difference betweene them.’

Those of you who read French may be noticing here that Montaigne is often easier to understand than Florio. At first this was a surprise to me as I flicked between them, but it's a good illustration of the fact that English has changed a lot more in four hundred years than French has. Many were the times that I turned to the Middle French to illuminate what seemed an obscure passage in my native language. A Florio phrase like ‘it is enough to dip our pens in inke, too much, to die them in blood’ seems to have two or three possible interpretations. It's only when you read the original – c'est assez de tramper nos plumes en ancre, sans les tramper en sang – that you realise Florio's first comma is the fulcrum on which two perfectly-balanced halves of the sentence pivot.

Take another look at the very end of that quote on the conquest of Mexico, above. Montaigne's elegant chiasmus (horribles hostilitez…calamitez si miserables) has been abandoned; meanwhile, to the horrible hostilities and miserable calamities has been added a dose of ‘bloody dissipation’, on Florio's own initiative. Similar cases abound (he also translates bouleversée there as ‘topsiturvied’!), and to me they say something deeply significant about the two languages, at least as they existed then. One final example will make my point: here, Montaigne is discussing how strange it is that sex is something hidden and shameful, while death is a public glory:

Chacun fuit à le voir naistre, chacun suit à le voir mourir. Pour le destruire, on cerche un champ spacieux en pleine lumiere; pour le construire, on se musse dans un creux tenebreux et contraint. C'est le devoir de se cacher et rougir pour le faire; et c'est gloire, et naissent plusieurs vertus de le sçavoir deffaire.

[Each one avoideth to see a man borne, but all runne hastily to see him dye. To destroy him we seeke a spacious field and a full light, but to construct him we hide our selves in some darke corner and worke as close as we may. It is our dutie to conceale our selves in making him; it is our glory, and the originall of many vertues to destroy him being framed.]


The French is precisely assembled, and Florio ignores the precision entirely. Montaigne's exact, rhyming counterpoints (chacun fuitchacun suit, fairedeffaire) are dropped in favour of a profusion of circumlocution (‘each one avoideth…all runne’, ‘making him…to destroy him being framed’). Where Montaigne is a Rolls-Royce engine, Florio is a cartoon jetpack. And yet! Where Florio fails to capture his source is precisely where he best represents the allusive, poly-synonymous essence of his own native tradition. While Montaigne convinces you that the genius of French lies in its clarity (Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français, as Antoine de Rivarol would say two hundred years later), Florio suggests that the genius of English lies by contrast in its ambiguity, and the best English writers of the time – which is to say the best English writers of all time, Shakespeare, Browne et al. – were precisely those who mastered its allusive and multivocabular messiness.

Well, I won't push that any further, and Montaigne himself would doubtless have disagreed. (‘Our speech hath his infirmities and defects, as all things else have,’ he says; and elsewhere, in a passage that warmed my anti-prescriptivist heart, ‘According to the continuall variation that hitherto hath followed our French tongue, who may hope that its present forme shall be in use fifty yeares hence?…We say it is now come to a full perfection. There is no age but saith as much of hirs.’) At any rate, reading these two writers together throws up all kinds of fascinating suggestions and contemplations, and it meant that I ended up reading basically all the essays twice (and two or three of them I read for a third time in MA Screech's modern English translation). For those curious about Florio, the NYRB has published a selection of his versions of the Essays under the intensely irritating title of Shakespeare's Montaigne, though neither Montaigne nor Florio need Shakespeare's coat-tails to ride on – and anyway, apart from one famous bit in The Tempest, the evidence for Shakespeare's having read Florio is not very exciting.

In the end though, whatever language you read Montaigne in, his humaneness and his sympathy will stay with you. By the time he writes the final volume he is at the end of his life, and his tone has not become bitter or regretful in the least. Everywhere he shows a desire to find a middle way between the intellectual and the physical, the elevated and the practical, which I find extremely cheering. The last chapter, ‘On Experience’, sums up the feelings about how life should be lived that he has been investigating throughout the essays, and as always his concern is not to criticise but instead to forgive, to understand, to encourage. He invented an entire genre, but no one has achieved greater effects with it than he did himself.

Il a passé sa vie en oisiveté, disons nous; je n'ay rien faict d'aujourd'huy.--Quoy, avez vous pas vescu? C'est non seulement la fondamentale mais la plus illustre de vos occupations…. Avez vous sceu mediter et manier vostre vie? vous avez faict la plus grande besoigne de toutes. Pour se montrer et exploicter nature n'a que faire de fortune: elle se montre egallement en tous estages et derriere, comme sans rideau. Composer nos meurs est nostre office, non pas composer des livres, et gaigner, non pas des batailles et provinces, mais l'ordre et tranquillité à nostre conduite.

[Hee hath passed his life in idleness, say we; alas! I have done nothing this day. What, have you not lived? It is not only the fundamentall, but the noblest of your occupation. […] Have you knowen how to meditate and mannage your life? you have accomplished the greatest worke of all. For a man to shew and exploit himselfe nature hath no neede of fortune; she equally shewes herselfe upon all grounds, in all sutes, before and behinde, as it were without curteines, welt, or gard. Have you knowne how to compose your manners? you have done more than he who hath composed bookes. Have you knowne how to take rest? you have done more than be who hath taken Empires and Citties.]
( )
  Widsith | Mar 24, 2015 |
16th Century French noble retires to his home in later life to wax lyrical on cannibals, the limits of human knowledge, experience, and whatever else occurs to him. Can't really sum up 1300 pages of that, but I'd recommend reading him, perhaps in a selection rather than as a whole, although it was a good tome to take away on a holiday with a bit of travelling. His style is conversational, so it feels like time spent in good company rather than hard work. You can sense the cusp of a new era in his scepticism, but he's also strongly attached to the Catholic church and the existing order - he was writing during the French wars of religion, so that was not a small matter. He was a man of his time and also a decent and interesting guy, and I found plenty of appeal in both. ( )
1 vote roblong | Jun 19, 2014 |
In essence a late 16th diary of an aristocrat in a France torn by religious wars. It was mostly focused on his thoughts and his opinions in th elater years of his life as he observed his own aging. There were only hints at the chaos around his estates. Incredibly well read on the Roman and Greek Classics which served as his philosophical fodder as he thought about his life and his times in France. No one today could be so intimate with these Classic writing. It is what an educated individual was weaned on. After reading all 1269 pages I understand how his thinking eventually became part of the Enlightenment. ( )
  JBreedlove | Apr 21, 2014 |
THis volume is the continuation of book I and beginning of book II.
  asclibrary | Jan 8, 2014 |
Montaigne is known as the father of the essay for good reason--he coined the very word for them. An essai is french for attempt--which gives you a sense of Montaigne's style and intent. They're very conversational, as if he's thinking out loud. A little rambling, yes, in the way the conversation with a friend can be, jumping from subject to subject. Some reviewers complained he's vain--well, he is a bit of a know-it-all, including a great deal of quotes from classical sources: Homer, Aesop, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Caesar, Lucretius, Tacitus, Plutarch... For me that was part of his charm. I'm with the Librarything reviewer who said that "this is a liberal education in a book." There seems to be no aspect of life he doesn't cover in his hundred plus essays.

Montaigne actually struck me as both humane and strikingly modern in quite a few respects--in his concern for native Americans being colonized by the Europeans, his opposition to torture, his concern for animals, among other instances. I found Montaigne lively, often funny, readable, quotable. More so than his imitator Francis Bacon and far, far more so than Emerson. All three, interestingly, have essays on friendship. Montaigne's is the wisest and most moving of the three. ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Jun 4, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (174 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Michel de Montaigneprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Černý, VáclavTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
RaphaelCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Screech, M. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stilett, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This, reader, is an honest book. It warns you at the outset that my sole purpose in writing it has been a private and domestic one.
The most usual way to soften the hearts of those we have offended, when having vengeance in their hand, they hold us at their mercy, is to move them by submission to commiseration and pity;  defiance, courage, and resolution--means altogether different--have sometimes served the same purpose.
Reader, thou hast here an honest book; it doth at the outset forewarn thee that, in contriving the same, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end: I have had no consideration at all either to thy service or to my glory.
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This work is the complete Essays, do not include selected essays, abstracts, or individual volumes from multi-volume editions.
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This work features a selection of Michel de Montaigne's highly original essays on a variety of subjects - from coaches to cannibals.

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