From The Conversation: Guide to the Classics–Michel De Montaigne’s Essays

Montaigne is perhaps the most widely celebrated essayist in the Western Canon. And it is his essays that have also elevated him to classic status not only in literature but also philosophy. The two are often thought to go together harmoniously, yet literature shows a tact which philosophy often brusques aside for concatenation. Montaigne is rare in his ability to reflect on the mundane without attempting to subsume it within a grand imperial theory. Matthew Sharpe at The Conversation writes that in doing so Montaigne could be said to have inspired our modern age, yet speculates also the various ways in which Montaigne himself might have been inspired to write what he supposedly invented. One possibility might not have been so much an inspiration as a recourse. Sharpe writes:

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533  1592)

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533 1592)

Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic, hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars, and his grief at the loss of his best friend Etienne de La Botie through dysentery.

Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favourites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles. It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called a way of life.

Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it.

He writes:

Either our reason mocks us or it ought to have no other aim but our contentment.


We are great fools. He has passed over his life in idleness, we say: I have done nothing today. What? have you not lived? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious of all your occupations.

A great irony is in Montaigne’s urging the reader to go out and live while he himself remained cloistered in the library. But living in his time might have meant either witnessing or partaking in the horrors of the French Civil War. Isn’t there also the notion that life can be lived more beautifully within the mind, a reason that must also have compelledMontaigne to seclude himself? These kinds of ironies and paradoxes crop up again and again not only with Montaigne, but also with others that would be less welcoming of having them illuminated. Montaigne would embrace them.

Read his full post at The Conversation

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