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On friendship by Michel de Montaigne
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On friendship (edition 2005)

by Michel de Montaigne

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Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are. Michel de Montaigne was the originator of the modern essay form; in these diverse pieces he expresses his views on relationships, contemplates the idea that man is no different from any animal, argues that all cultures should be respected, and attempts, by an exploration of himself, to understand the nature of humanity. %%%Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are. Michel de Montaigne was the originator of the modern essay form; in these diverse pieces he expresses his views on relationships, contemplates the idea that man is no different from any animal, argues that all cultures should be respected, and attempts, by an exploration of himself, to understand the nature of humanity.… (more)
Member:jxn
Title:On friendship
Authors:Michel de Montaigne
Info:New York : Penguin Books, 2005.
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On Friendship by Michel de Montaigne

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Philosopher of the French Renaissance and father of the essay, Michel de Montaigne's work provides an interesting self-analysis that reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes, less the tongue-in-cheek wittiness. Montaigne draws on Ancient Greek and Roman classics repeatedly, which indicates the mood of the Renaissance. Some suggest that his topics parallel the Stoics, especially the final essay on dying well. Montaigne's ready dismissal of women as other than rational beings reflects the attitude of the times, but in this one senses a form of earlier institutional sexism that is far from rational. However, Montaigne's nonsense might be overlooked given the work was written in the 16th century. His essays on friendship and conversation provide many lessons that are applicable today, as is the discussion of idleness, and the importance of having purpose in one's life. I could not help but think of Woody Allen in Montaigne's discussion of the love of a father for his children, and the ideas of Freud and other modern psychologists expand on these very themes (of course, the Oedipus complex stems from the Ancients). Of particular note is Montaigne's public self-analysis. Not in the bare-all sense, but certainly in how he discusses one's foibles and braggartry, and how one might self-assess the worth of one's own work. I suspect Screech's translation gives the work such a modern voice, and I can only wonder (on this first reading of any of Montaigne's work) how much is lost in translation. ( )
  madepercy | Dec 28, 2017 |
It's fitting that the folks at Penguin chose the theme of friendship for their mini-collection of Montaigne essays (the fifth in their Great Ideas series), because at this point, after spending an academic year writing about the French essayist in a tight-knit group of collegiate buddies, and revisiting him with my blogging pals as part of my Essay Mondays project last year, I do indeed feel as if the man were an old friend of mine—warm and witty, occasionally exasperating but always a fascinating companion for a bit of conversation. Even if these particular selections aren't (in my opinion) the best of his oeuvre or the most representative of his unique intellectual contributions to the Western canon, I always enjoy watching his mind pursue its curious labyrinth, doubling back on itself exuberantly in the process of self-discovery.

As Montaigne's recent biographer Sarah Bakewell notes, he philosophizes more or less "by accident," as a by-product of writing about himself and his own experience. As such, his philosophy tends to be about as far from the abstract Platonic notion of timeless capital-T-Truth, as one could hope to get: highly idiosyncratic and often contradictory from one essay to the next—sometimes even within a single essay. He himself is totally frank about this, and about the very likely possibility that he will find himself to have been mistaken:

So contradictory judgments neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected; we ought to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. [...] My thought so often contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, seeing that I give to his refutation only such authority as I please.

Personally, this is what I love about Montaigne: the combination within him of warm opinions, passionate curiosity to discuss them with others and interrogate them himself, and complete acceptance of the human contradictions and imperfections that will unavoidably ensue. He believes it is important to mull over and draw conclusions from his own experience,

It is not enough to relate our experiences; we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport

and he believes in the importance of this activity even though he fully expects that many of his conclusions along the way will be incomplete or downright wrong. Therefore, even when his personal and literary sources mean his arguments are completely illogical or in direct opposition to my own, I still find him inspirational. His complete openness to investigating his own mind, body, and experience means that he follows many odd paths; the point for me is not that they are "wrong" or "right," but that the process itself is intrinsically worthwhile, not to mention fascinating to watch.

The title essay of this collection, "On friendship," is an interesting example of the beauty and oddity of Montaigne's project. Friendship is a subject particularly relevant to Montaigne's life and the existence of the Essays themselves: he began writing them after the death of his very dear friend Étienne de la Boétie, and some critics have suggested that the essays were an attempt to fill the void left by the frank conversations the two friends shared. As such, "Of friendship" is doubly freighted, since it deals with the subject of the lost friend, in the medium adopted to replace him. Those who associate the word "friends" with the adjectives "just" and "only" will need to revise their assumptions: Montaigne is describing the passion of his life.


In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that the efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: 'Because it was him: because it was me.' [...] This friendship has had no ideal to follow other than itself; no comparison but with itself. There is no one particular consideration—nor two nor three nor four nor a thousand of them—but rather some inexplicable quintessence of them all mixed up together which, having captured my will, brought it to plunge into his and lose itself, and which, having captured his will, brought it to plunge and lose itself in mine with an equal hunger and emulation.

This kind of language sounds very freighted to a modern ear, and indeed the Essays bring up some interesting questions about the best and/or most realistic ways to divide up one's needs and passions among the different figures in one's life. Drawing on his own experiences in a passionate, deeply meaningful same-sex friendship and a less-than-satisfactory arranged marriage, Montaigne becomes an advocate for the separation of sexual satisfaction from deep intellectual bonds, so that the memory of his friendship with Boétie seems much more important to him than his marriage. At the same time, he expresses his "abhorrence" of the ancient Greek model of sexual relationship between an older male teacher and younger male disciple. Based on his own divided experiences and the ingrained misogyny of his time, he writes bittersweetly that


[W]omen are in truth not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship, nor do their souls seem firm enough to withstand the clasp of a knot so lasting and so tightly drawn. And indeed if it were not for that, if it were possible to fashion such a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved—it is certain that the loving-friendship would be more full and more abundant. But there is no example yet of woman attaining to it and by the common agreement of the Ancient schools of philosophy she is excluded from it.

This passage always tears at my heart because it is simultaneously such an eloquent expression of a relational ideal ("a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved") and a harsh dismissal of that ideal's very possibility. Whether Montaigne was a misogynist extrapolating from his lackluster wife onto the souls of all women, or a man repressing his sexual desire for his male friend, or simply a human who longed to combine sexual and intellectual passion into a single relationship and found it impossible (as surely many modern people have as well), my heart goes out to him even as part of me recoils from his blunt dismissals of my soul's attainments.

Here, though, as in so much of his work, the intriguing (il)logic at play and the very human motivations behind the writing speak more eloquently, to me, than those points with which I disagree. Not least because reading the products of this flexible and curious mind makes me ever more aware that I myself am full of the same kinds of blind spots and contradictions that Montaigne uncovers in himself—and he reminds me that, despite this, examining and expressing my own mind is an endlessly rewarding activity.
1 vote emily_morine | Jan 18, 2011 |
See Friendship at From Word to Word
  jeremylukehill | May 4, 2009 |
I do enjoy the newly released Penguins Classics selections that include, not the magnum opus of the author, but more their justification for writing.

Michel de Montaigne is known for his 'what do I know attitude' towards the reader, but reading this book makes me think that is a French technique implemented to distract the reader of how intelligent the author is so they can join his side more however, I have no desire to join Michel de Montaigne's side as I may let's say, Albert Camus' character in 'The Stranger'. Clearly though, Michel de Montaigne's techniques and style of writing have influenced western literary forms in a massive way. ( )
  TakeItOrLeaveIt | Jan 28, 2009 |
The Father of the modern essay (Montaigne) has a lot to say about the nature of true friendship. In this book he explores the meaning of friendship, and what it relies upon, namely devotion. I disagree with his conclusions about what is necessary for the perfect friendship, but then again I don't have many friends. ( )
  alexgalindo | Dec 8, 2008 |
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