Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne

The Complete Essays (1580)

by Michel de Montaigne

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,764291,384 (4.32)1 / 34

Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

English (24)  Dutch (2)  French (2)  German (1)  All (29)
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
The best translation of Montaigne out there although more than 50 years old--a must-read classic. ( )
  JayLivernois | Dec 26, 2016 |
This is a difficult book to review, not because it is difficult to read or comprehend but rather because it is so exceptionally comprehensive in its topics and thoughts and ideas. In one sense it began in 1571 when Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write what we know now as his Essays. At the age of thirty-eight he could look out his windows to see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about 60 maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him.

In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and he wrote in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof-beam carvings of his "solarium" convey his general frame of mind and include sayings like these: "The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge. I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine. Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head. Not more this than that -- why this and not that? Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool. Man, a vase of clay. I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me."

The essays that he wrote defined the form of his thought while providing a window into both his mind and his life. Through his essays he has influenced writers and thinkers in every place and century since. One of my favorite examples of those he influenced is the self-taught working-man's philosopher Eric Hoffer who commented on the influence of Montaigne in his life. When on a gold-digging trip to the Sierras he took along a copy of Montaigne's essays. "We were snowed in and I read it straight through three times. I quoted it all the time. I'll bet there are still a dozen hobos in the San Joaquin Valley who can quote Montaigne." Montaigne's collected essays are worth returning to again and again to spur one's own thoughts about living and dying. I have read and enjoyed these essays over most of my adult life. With them I would also recommend those of Francis Bacon, Emerson, and Orwell, among others. ( )
2 vote jwhenderson | Nov 1, 2015 |
[From Books and You, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, pp. 49-51:]

I do not want to speak of French literature just yet, because it is so rich, and contains so many books which I should like at least to name, that I am afraid if I once start upon it I shall leave myself no space to deal with certain books in other languages that I am sure it would be a real loss never to have read. But I should like here to mention one, since it, too, offers the portrait of a man, a man of very different sort from Don Quixote, who insinuates himself into your affections in such a way that when you have once made his acquaintance he becomes your treasured friend. This is Montaigne, who in the course of his essays painted so complete a picture of himself, with his tastes, his oddities, his frailties, that you come to know him more intimately than you are likely ever to know any of your own friends. And in getting to know him you discover not a little about yourself, for in his patient and humorous examination of his own nature he threw a searching light on human nature in general. Much has been said of Montaigne’s scepticism, and if to see that there are two sides to a question, and that when certainty is impossible it is sensible to keep an open mind, is scepticism, I suppose he was a sceptic. But his scepticism taught him tolerance – a virtue our own day more than ever needs – and his interest in human beings, his enjoyment of life, led him to an indulgence that, could we but possess it, would help us not only to be happy ourselves but to make others happy also.

Montaigne was magnificently translated by Florio, but perhaps the later translation of Cotton, edited by William Carew Hazlitt, will be found more readable by those who do not much care for the flamboyance of Elizabethan English. You can choose any of the essays at random and be sure of entertainment, but to get Montaigne at his best you would do better to read the third book as a whole. The essays it contains are longer, and so give greater scope for the charming discursiveness which is characteristic of him; they are more serious, though not less amusing; and in them, master as he was by then of his medium and confident in his readers’ interest, he gives you the quintessence of his vagabond spirit. Do not think from the title that an essay will not interest you, for his titles have generally very little to do with the contents. In the essay titled On Some Verses of Virgil, for instance, you will find a disquisition on the French language which is one of the most enchanting things he ever wrote, and also a variety of remarks enough to bring a blush even to a cheek that is not prudish.
  WSMaugham | Jun 10, 2015 |
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.]
( )
3 vote 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. ( )
2 vote roblong | Jun 19, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)

» Add other authors (96 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Montaigne, Michel deprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Černý, VáclavTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cotton, CharlesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Florio, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hazlitt, William CarewEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Screech, M. A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stilett, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Trechmann, E. J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
van Pinxteren, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
First words
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.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This work is the complete Essays, do not include selected essays, abstracts, or individual volumes from multi-volume editions.
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
Haiku summary

No descriptions found.

This work features a selection of Michel de Montaigne's highly original essays on a variety of subjects - from coaches to cannibals.

» see all 2 descriptions

Legacy Library: Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne has a Legacy Library. Legacy libraries are the personal libraries of famous readers, entered by LibraryThing members from the Legacy Libraries group.

See Michel de Montaigne's legacy profile.

See Michel de Montaigne's author page.

Quick Links

Swap Ebooks Audio
4 avail.
103 wanted
4 free
67 pay

Popular covers


Average: (4.32)
1 1
2 12
2.5 3
3 38
3.5 11
4 91
4.5 18
5 180

Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140446044, 014017897X


You are using the new servers! | About | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 115,318,486 books! | Top bar: Always visible