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Essais by Michel de Montaigne
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Essais (1580)

by Michel de Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne

Other authors: Marketta Enegren (Translator), William Carew Hazlitt (Editor), Klaus Holma (Editor), Eino E. Suolahti (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (28)  Dutch (2)  French (2)  Estonian (1)  Finnish (1)  German (1)  All languages (35)
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
[Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays translated and edited with an introduction and notes by M. A. Screech].

[How to Live, A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer] by Sarah Bakewell.

Reading the Complete essays I had to wait a long time before I came across that “How did he know that about me” moment which Sarah Bakewell claims in her book is a feature many readers experience, this was mine:

“As soon as I arrived I spelled out my character faithfully and truly, just as I know myself to be – no memory, no concentration, no experience, no drive; no hatred either, no ambition, no covetousness, no ferocity – so that they should be told, and therefore know, what to expect from my service”

(Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 1137). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)

This quote is in the essay/chapter “ on restraining your will and covers Montaigne’s two periods as Mayor of Bordeaux. It comes from book three page 1,137 out of a total page count of 1,269 pages and so as a reader you have to be pretty keen to read through the whole lot. I was helped by M. A. Screech’s excellent translation that somehow brings the 16th century text alive and readable for 21st century readers. He aids the reader by an excellent main introduction; a heading to each new chapter and over 250 pages of notes.

The essays vary wildly in length for example the first chapter of book 1 “We reach the same end by discrepant means” is four pages long whereas “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” clocks in at nearly 200 pages almost a book in itself. Montaigne was a Renaissance man and so his store of knowledge, his ideas on philosophy were mostly generated by his love for antiquity. The majority of his anecdotes come from classical literature, with many quotes in Latin and Screech translates these for us immediately following the quotation so the flow of the essays is not interrupted. Montaigne spent 20 years ruminating and adding to his work and each edition during his lifetime had amendments (usually additions to the original text) Screech incorporates these into the main body of the text with a symbol (A, A1, B, or C) to denote their origin. This all seems to work pretty smoothly.

There is no substitute to reading the essays themselves, they are a unique experience. Montaigne writes exclusively about himself, but without a hint of pride, boastfulness or grandeur, he is aiming at self knowledge with the belief that if he can get some of it down on paper then he will also be writing about most other people as well, because he believed that the similarities vastly outweighed the differences. From Montaigne we understand that the way people see and feel about issues and about themselves change with age, with new experiences, or even depending on how they felt that particular day, but there is a basic thread running throughout our lives that Montaigne wishes to expose. Perhaps that is why so many readers through the centuries have seen themselves in Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne writes about day to day events, about travel, about education about death, about work, about being in the moment, about sex, about melancholy, about anger and about a natural theology. All the time he sets down how he feels about the subject that is concerning him and links it back to the wisdom (or otherwise) of antiquity. He can be humorous, serious, thoughtful, but never didactic; his search for truth makes his honesty almost painful at times. He exposes himself so that others can see themselves and I think you need a certain amount of courage to do that.

Montaigne’s world seems equally divided between 16th century France and classical Rome and some readers might find too much classicism in the essays, but this grounds the author as a typical renaissance man. A man of his times that can communicate forward to current times. Not to be missed especially with M A Screech’s excellent translation and introductions. 5 stars.

Sarah Bakewell’s [How to Live, A life of Montaigne] is written for contemporary readers almost like an overnight sensation - wham bam thank you mame - This is Montaigne she shouts, don’t miss out - you too will find yourself in my/this book. In her first chapter she nails her colours too the mast:

“Since it is a twenty-first-century book it is inevitably pervaded by a twenty-first-century Montaigne . As one of his favourite adages had it, there is no escaping our perspective: we can walk on our own legs and sit only on our own bum.”

So Bakewell sets about picking out the bits of Montaigne that she thinks will appeal to her 21st century audience, which unsurprisingly misses some of what Montaigne was about.

Having read the essays myself I asked myself the following questions before picking up Sarah Bakewell’s book:

1) Does the book add anything to the reading of the essays.

2) Does it supply any additional information.

3) Is it a substitute for reading Montaigne

4) How accurate is it with reference to the text?

Well lets start with the positives: Bakewell’s book is subtitled A Life of Montaigne and she does fill in some background information. She has good chapters on the religious wars that for most of his life threatened to engulf Montaigne, she tells us about Montaigne's family and private life and how he worked, she tells us about the printing history of the book; its reception at the time and then through the subsequent centuries and so in this respect it answers questions 1) and 2). I found Bakewell’s writing lively and interesting; of course she cannot help but add her own thoughts on Montaigne’s situation but I found nothing too jarring here. She even attempts to provide her readers with a bit of grounding in Hellenistic philosophy and although I found this chapter a little glib it was better than nothing.

So far so good, but then doubts started to creep in, surely she was going to say something more about Montaigne’s classical references, especially after she had told us that Montaigne was made to converse in Latin from his first attempts at speech until he was sent away to school. Surely she was going to “home in” on the near 200 page essay where Montaigne expounds his ideas on a natural theology. It was important enough for him to write such a long chapter, so there should be some commentary from Bakewell. Montaigne had a deep respect for nature in which he saw Gods handiwork, this is an underlying theme throughout the essays and is nailed down in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond. Bakewell rightly highlights Montaigne’s preoccupation with death and his own approach to death, but picks out the chapter where he describes his own near death experience after a hunting accident and makes this a sort of watershed for all subsequent thoughts. Then there is her claim that Montaigne had never been a soldier ………………..

So does Bakewell see her book as a sort of substitute for reading Montaigne’s essays, she never says it is, but I can imagine that many readers will read this book and think that they have read Montaigne. They would be wrong, because reading Bakewells comments on Montaigne would be like reading a commentary on Moby-Dick which claimed the main theme of that book was a mans obsession with killing a white whale. So I cannot recommend this book as a critique of Montaigne and it falls short in being A Life, however it is an entertaining read and if it leads people to dip into the real thing then it cannot be all bad 3.5 stars. ( )
3 vote baswood | Jul 13, 2018 |
“Montaigne was persuaded that everything had already been thought and said, and was anxious to show that man is always and everywhere one and the same.” - Introduction to the Essays by Andre Gide (From The Heritage Press, 3 Volume Edition, 1946)

_____________
(N.B. I have inserted a lot of quotes from Montaigne because he is the most qualified to talk about Montaigne, and he is speaking much more adeptly than what I could ever hope to say; they also give you a flavour of the Essays)

_____________
I remember when I read the first essay I thought to myself, “So he’s going to touch upon a wide range of topics, but not go very in-depth.” This is true for the shorter essays. But, like I have found of most things, the longer ones are the best.

They are not just a series of essays about various topics, philosophical or otherwise. They are not just the best endorsement for one to read the ancient Greek & Roman authors. They paint a tender, and detailed portrait of this Renaissance Humanist & Skeptic.

Montaigne writes in a discursive manner, which I personally loved. It reads as very down-to-earth, very conversational. He is very good at adding a human touch to matters great and small.

I think you will get the most out of the essays if you have a certain amount of kinship with Montaigne, if you share some of his views; he puts so many forth that you will no doubt find some that you share in common. That was one of his aims in writing these essays in fact; to find a friend, a kindred spirit. As I read, I realised that we shared many similarities. A love for the ancient Greeks & Romans (esp. the latter; see the extract in my profile) being but one.

I remember the essay where he really grabbed my attention and I thought that there is more to this man than has been displayed through the previous essays: Book I, Essay XXVI: Of the Education of Children.

_____________
“Those who, as our custom is, undertake to direct several minds of such diverse measure and structure with the same lessons and similar rules of conduct - it is no wonder if, among a whole multitude of children, they find only two or three who produce any sound fruit from their teaching.” - Bk. I., Ess. XXVI

“Let him make him sift every thing, and lodge nothing in his brain on authority merely and on trust; let not Aristotle's principles be his principles, any more than those of the Stoics or Epicureans; let this diversity of opinions be put before him: he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. None but a fool is sure and determined.” - Bk. I., Ess. XXVI


_____________
Education is something very dear to my heart, and it’s by random events of fortune that I have become aware of the classic pieces of literature, ancient and modern. We both share the opinion that the (mass) educational systems are not very good. I thoroughly believe that people’s lives can be changed, truly changed, by education, and it’s one of the great misfortunes that most people, even though they may have the potential, aptitude, affinity, or interest, will never pursue or learn deeply about subjects that interest them throughout the course of their life.

_____________
“He who has not directed his life in general to a certain end, for him it is impossible to adjust the separate acts; for him it is impossible to arrange the pieces, who has not a figure of the whole in his head.” - Bk. II., Ess. I

“I care little for new books because the old ones seem to me fuller and stronger.” - Bk. II., Ess. X

“Not having been able to do what they desire, they have made a show of desiring what they were able to do.” - Bk. II., Ess. XIX

“They who study without books are all in the same plight.” - Bk. III., Ess. III

“Books have many agreeable qualities for those who know how to choose them.” - Bk. III., Ess. III

“Let us set aside the common people,- ‘Who snore, though awake . . . for whom, living and seeing, life is almost death.’ (Lucretius III, 1048, 1046) who are not conscious of themselves, who do not judge themselves, who let most of their natural faculties lie idle.” - Bk. II., Ess. XII


_____________
The central theme throughout many of the Essays is the study of himself. And that is what I think Montaigne would have liked the reader to do, to study themselves. Engage in meta-cognition. Think about what you are doing. Be aware of your faults. Reform them. Aspire to be the best version of yourself as you can. Live according to Nature. Ignore how you appear to other people’s eyes; care only about how you look in your own:

_____________
“In every thing and everywhere my eyes are enough to keep me straight; there are no others which watch me so closely or which I more respect.” - Bk. I., Ess. XXIII

“Let him be able to do everything, but enjoy doing only the best things” - Bk. I., Ess. XXVI

“It is many years that I have had only myself for the target of my thoughts, that I have observed and studied myself alone; truly, if I do study any thing else, it is only to fit it immediately upon myself, or, to say better, within myself.” - Bk. II., Ess. VI

“By diligence, by study, and by art, and have raised it to the highest point of wisdom that it can attain.” - Bk. II., Ess. XII

“...others do not at all see you, they guess about you by uncertain conjectures; they see not your natural disposition so much as your artificial one” - Bk. III., Ess. II

“I listen graciously and beseemingly to all their reasonings; but so far as I remember, I have never to this hour trusted any but my own. For me, these others are but flitting trifles that buzz about my will.” - Bk. III., Ess. II

“They who do not know themselves may feed upon underserved approbation; not I, who see myself and scrutinise myself even to my bowels, and who know well what appertains to me.” - Bk. III., Ess. V

“...to wrestle with the defects of my nature and to overcome them by myself.” - Bk. III., Ess. VI

“...but I proposed to myself unattainable standards.” - Bk. III., Ess. VII

“We defraud ourselves of what is useful to ourselves in creating appearances in accordance with common opinion. We are not so much concerned as to what our existence is in ourselves and in fact, as we are to what is in the public observation.” - Bk. III., Ess. IX

“Reform only yourself, for there you have full power.” - Bk., III., Ess. IX

“The most honourable indication of sincerity in such necessity is freely to acknowledge one's own fault and that of others; to resist and retard with all one's might the tendency towards evil; to follow this propension only against one's will; to have better hope and better desire.” - Bk. III., Ess. IX

“Every one turns elsewhere and to the future, inasmuch as no one turns to himself.” - Bk. III., Ess. XII

“I study every thing - what I should avoid, what I should imitate.” - Bk. III., Ess. XIII

“Have you been able to meditate on your life and arrange it? then you have done the greatest of all works... Have you learned to compose your character? you have done more than he who has composed books. Have you learned to lay hold of repose? you have done more than he who has laid hold of empires and cities. Mans great and glorious master-work is to live befittingly; all other things --to reign, to lay up treasure, to build--are at best mere accessories and aids.. It is for small souls, buried under the weight of affairs not to know how to free themselves therefrom entirely; not to know how to leave them and return to them.” - Bk. III., Ess. XIII


_____________
With the Essays, Montaigne takes you on a journey: into the very heart of his soul, and outward to all manner of subjects, different times, and different people. Maybe you heard that he quotes a lot from the Ancient Greeks & Romans:

“I do not quote others, save the more fully to express myself” - Bk. I., Ess. XXVI

I don't know if there exist, people who did not enjoy these quotations (of course I can understand if this is because they were not translated; you should absolutely get a copy where this is the case) but if they do, that quote (along with many demonstrations of his own defects concerning knowledge) justifies his use of them. The ancients have much to teach us and reading these essays, if you are not already familiar with the authors who he quotes, are a great way to see that.

(He quotes most often from Plutarch and Seneca. I have read Seneca, and can see how much he was influenced by him. I will be reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives soon, but his essays contain a great many quotations from Plutarch’s lesser-known (what an injustice!) work, the Moralia, or Morals. It’s a shame that I cannot find a complete, physical copy of these on amazon etc., and I hope that the Morals gain wider recognition. I have not yet read these philosophical essays yet myself, but I will absolutely put up with an electronic edition because the quality seems very evident to me. He has also greatly increased my desire to read Lucretius.)

I really can't say much more other than Montaigne grew on me the more I read, and I greatly enjoyed getting to know him. Hopefully you do too.

_____________
Concerning Translations:
I read the Ives translation which was un-fig-leafed in a 3 volume edition (including a Handbook to the Essays which incorporated the notes by the translator, and a series of comments upon the Essays by Grace Norton) published by the Heritage Press. I can heartily recommend this edition; the handbook contains sources for every quotation as well as presenting them in their original language, and the comments by Miss. Norton are very incisive and entertaining.

I am a romantic, and with this translation I really felt like Montaigne himself was talking to me. As the edition I was reading shows, this Ives translation is much better than the others that existed at the time: Florio’s (1603: look this up, it’s definitely not the first translation you should read in my opinion), Cotton-Hazlitt’s (1670-1892), Trechmanns (1927) & Zeitlin’s (1934). I cannot comment on Screech’s.

_____________
My favourite essays:

Book I
XXVI - Of the Education of Children

Book II
X - Of Books
XII - Apology for Raimond Sebond

Book III
III - Of Three Sorts of Intercourse
V - On Certain Verses of Virgil
IX - Of Vanity
XIII - Of Experience ( )
1 vote EroticsOfThought | Feb 28, 2018 |
Expert of oneself becomes expert of life. ( )
1 vote jasoncomely | Dec 28, 2017 |
Reading this essay collection has been "a domestic and a private" goal....Montaigne is the originator of the modern essay; he is as foundational to nonfiction as Shakespeare is to drama. ( )
  LaurelPoe | Dec 25, 2017 |
The best translation of Montaigne out there although more than 50 years old--a must-read classic. ( )
  JayLivernois | Dec 26, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)

» Add other authors (106 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Montaigne, Michel deprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Montaigne, Michel demain authorall editionsconfirmed
Enegren, MarkettaTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hazlitt, William CarewEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Holma, KlausEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Suolahti, Eino E.Introductionsecondary 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
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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—ans 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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Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. There he wrote his constantly expanding 'assays', inspired by the ideas he found in books contained in his library and from his own experience. He discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. But, above all, Montaigne studied himself as a way of drawing out his own inner nature and that of men and women in general.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140446044, 014017897X

 

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