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"I said this when I was young and they scoffed at me for my youth. I repeat it now that my grey hairs give me authority: we call the queasiness of our tastes and our dislike for current things by the name of Wisdom. -from 'On Repentance', 250, III, ii.
     Montaigne called his later collection of writings "Essais," the archaic mot for 'trials' or 'attempts', which was to be the purpose of the essay form, a brief (by the extended literary standards of the time) reflection which arranged the author's knowledge and opinion on any particular subject. This venue tended to favor logical thought by free association, a form we now take wholly for granted, so that the essay has become (in the words of Aldous Huxley) 'a literary device for saying almost everything about anything'. One hint of this, surely, is that M.’s titles for his essays only rarely reflect their actual content, so that ‘On Liars’ becomes a treatise on recollection and literary fame, while ‘On Presumption’ turns into an intricate discussion on the relativity of all ideas.
"There is more trouble in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting the things themselves, and there are more books on books than on any other subject. We do nothing but write comments on one another. The whole world is swarmed with commentaries; of authors there is a great dearth." -from 'On Experience', 349, III, xiii.
     Regarding the frequency of allusions, quotations and classical references in the Essays - Montaigne was carefully educated by his father and Catholic tutors. Montaigne was to be fluent in Latin before the boy learned any French. His father hired a German tutor, who spoke no French, and Montaigne was six (and well versed in the classics) before he heard a syllable of the Gallic tongue. This accounts for his attachment to Cicero, Seneca, Ovid and Horace (the stoic pragmatism of Seneca was, in the end, the ethos M. seemed to favor most). He tended to keep copious notes on the books he read, to aid a poor memory which he endlessly lamented. Actually publishing compilations of notes was quite common in the medieval period; these books of quotes, or florilegia, were endlessly sought after as primers or handbooks for students . Soon though he’d move quite beyond note-taking, and experience and the human condition became pivotal topics of the Essays.
"Our duty is to compose our character, not books, to win not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. All other things- to reign, to lay up treasure, to build- are at best but little aids and additions." -from 'On Experience', 397, III, xiii.
      He began work of Essais in 1572 and continued writing and revisiting up until his death. Montaigne's first book of collected essays was published when he was 47. From 1571 to 1580, in retirement and ostensibly aloof from the political and religious quarrels of France, he wrote the first two books of his Essais (1st ed. 1580). The third book of Essais and extensive revisions and additions to the first two was published in 1588 and again, with more revisions, in 1595. In each subsequent edition or publication, more allusions, references, quotes, notes or digressions would be worked into the material. M. wrote that this intellectualizing was against his first intensions, but his publishers seemed to impress upon him the popularity or his literary asides and name-dropping. His Essais were widely read and debated in France, but also in England (where French was en vogue), quoted even by Shakespeare and imitated by Francis Bacon. Shortly after Montaigne’s death, the complete and amended “Essays” were translated into English by John Florio (1603), in a lucid style so rich that many still read Essais in the version which Shakespeare knew.

Some Quotes:

On Opinions: I shall see to it, if I can, that my death makes no statement that my life has not made already. 26, I, vii.

On Legacy: I leave the fruits of my studies for death to taste. We shall see then whether my speeches came from my head or my heart. 35, I, ixx, ‘That No Man Should be Called Happy Until after His Death’.

On Learning: Some part of my reading does stick to this paper, but to myself little or nothing holds. 50, I, xxii, ‘That One Man’s Profit is Another’s Loss’

On the Presumption of Persuasion: I have no authority to exact belief, nor do I desire it. I do not feel myself to be well enough instructed to instruct others. 52, I, xxii.

On Ownership of Ideas: Truth and Reason are common to all, and no more belong to the man who first uttered them to him that repeated them afterwards. 5, I, xxii.

On Pessimism: I do not think we can ever be despised as much as we deserve…there is, in my opinion, not so much misery in us as emptiness, not so much malice as folly. We are not so much full of evil as inanity, nor so wretched was we are base. 133, I, ‘On Democritus and Heraclitus’.

On Vanity: The nurse and mother of the falsest opinions, both public and private, is the excessive opinion man has of himself. 193, II, xvii, ‘On Presumption’

On the Constructive Stoicism of Catholicism: Since I have not the steadfastness to bear the annoyance of those unfortunate accidents to which we are all subject, and cannot endure the strain of regulating and managing my affairs, I leave myself entirely in fortune’s hands, encouraging myself, to the best of my ability, to the idea that everything will be for the worst, and resolving to bear that burden with meekness and patience. For this alone do I strive; it is the aim to which I direct all my thoughts…when in danger, I do not consider so much how I will escape as how little it matters whether I escape or not…not being able to control events, I control myself, and adapt myself to them. 204, II, xvii.

On Reputation: Misfortune has its uses. It is good to be born in depraved times, for, compared with others, you gain a reputation for virtue at trifling cost. 206, II, xvii.

On Genius: If a man’s talk is commonplace and his writing distinguished, it means that his talent lies in the place from which he borrows, and not in himself. 236, III, ii, ‘On Repentance’.

On Self-worth: None but you know whether you are cruel or cowardly, or loyal and dutiful. Others have no vision of you, but judge of you by uncertain conjectures; they see not so much your nature as your artifices. Do not rely on their opinion, therefore; rely on your own. 239, III, ii.

On Paranoia: Nothing is so likely to throw us into danger as a frantic eagerness to avoid it. 266, III, vi, 'On Vechicles'.

On Dying: If you are afraid you don't know how to die, nevermind. Nature shall give you full and expert instruction on the spot. She will do this for you neatly; no need to worry yourself. 329, III, xii, 'On Physiognomy'.


All citations given from Michel de Montaigne, Essays (NY: Penguin, 1958). For further reading: Les Sources et l'évolution des Essais de Montaigne by Pierre Villey (1933, 2 vols.); Michel de Montaigne: A Concise Bibliography by Samuel A. Tannenbaum (1942); Le Style de Montaigne by Floyd Gray (1958); Montaigne by Albert Thibaudet (1963); Montaigne: A Biography by Donald M. Frame (1965); Montaigne and Melancholy by M.A. Screech (1983); A Descriptive Bibliography of Montaigne's Essais, 1580-1700 by Richard A. Sayce (1983); Montaigne by Hugo Friedrich (1991, original German edition 1949); E. Benson’s Money and Magic in Montaigne. The Historicity of the Essais; Craig B. Brush, From the Perspective of the Self: Montaigne's Self-Portrait (Fordham, 1994) ; Montaigne's Message and Method, ed. by Dikka Berven (Garland, 1995) ; and Marcel Tetel, Montaigne (Twayne, 1990).

On the Web: http://jhcourse.jhu.edu/~windows3/image/library.html - this site has some amazing images of Montaigne’s tower library, where he worked on his writing for the later part of his life.

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