The casual, exacerbating philosophy of Montaigne - A review
The way I choose my books a lot of the time is the same as I and many others choose things. If the books sound familiar, it means I heard about it or about the author and that means it’s probably good. Why else would I have heard about it in the first place? Remarkable works tend to move into the social subconscious.
This is also called “marketing” and, as they usually say, it’s a multi-bazillion (yes, bazillion ! ! !) dollar industry. If you’re unsure between two brands offering the same product, you’re likely to choose the more familiar sounding brand, safe bet. If you’ve heard of them, it’s probably because they’re good.
This has some disadvantages though, if you only read books mentioned by philosophers, you’ll end up only reading philosophy books. Hence why I try to read from as many subjects as possible. But I digress. The point is that when choosing 6 books out of 50+ books on offer on Audible, the book “The Complete Essays of Michael Montaigne” instantly jumped at me. “Why?” I asked myself, “because you’ve heard of him, a famous French philosopher, or something”, a voice in my head replied instantly.
A Google search confirmed my memory. Never read his work, didn’t know what he was about, yet I knew his name and about his essays, somehow… So I bought the book, he must be good, I thought.
Damn, he’s good. He’s… good? He’s amazing! But not really. Oh, he’s kinda racist, and doesn’t really like women. Well, that was clever. Hmmm, that’s a bit silly isn’t it?
“I can’t stand this guy”.
I went through a variation of these expressions when I read Montaigne Essays. He was a fantastic writer, putting ideas into paper beautifully, and if he doesn’t explain himself clearly enough, there’s always the ancient philosopher’s quote at hand, of which he uses hundreds upon hundreds. _However, he also wrote things such as _“the likes of poor people, vagabonds and women”, when talking about lesser types of individuals.
Sometimes Montaigne sounds extremely outdated. When reading “The Republic” by Plato, one of the most influential books in history, Plato almost sounds as if he’s a contemporary philosopher. A couple hundred years dead perhaps, instead of the two thousand plus years he’s been at his grave. Montaigne essays read as old as they are, 500+ years. You can almost hear his catholic aristocratic voice in some of the paragraphs.
But there’s a reason I heard of him, he was the inventor of the essay form of writing and his writing is great in itself. One of the remarkable things about Montaigne essays is the amount of knowledge he seems to posses, most of which comes directly from “the days of old”. He quotes and mentions a lot of the famous Roman men, such a Scipio or Cicero, as well as ancient Greeks and Latin poets or philosophers. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle are mentioned many times, among many other, less known philosophers. Montaigne makes use of well-known stories as well, such as Homer’s works.
Both the usage of these quotes and the works of others, as well as his beautiful use of words, in my opinion, harm Montaigne’s essays greatly at the end. I will discuss this further on.
Montaigne uses these great men’s quotes to help his cause, to enhance his explanation or the subject he’s talking about. By using a well-versed quote that has endured the test of time he draws power from giants before him. Sometimes these quotes are fantastic and enhance the overall reading, some others they’re simply in the way and are plainly annoying. The same could be said about Montaigne’s essays themselves though, some of them feel _almost _enlightening and some of them feel simply like dead weight on a long enough compilation.
Who cares to read about… Horses?
The whole compilation of Essays is massive. It contains 107 essays, which span more than 1300 pages. A lot of these could be removed and I personally wouldn’t miss them. This is something a lot of editors have done when creating more mass-market friendly editions of the Essays. Adding only the influential ones and the ones that have endured the test of them. Because… who cares about a 500-year-old dead French philosopher’s ideas about… Horses?
One thing I have to keep reminding myself is that Montaigne didn’t write the essays in order to enlighten, teach or improve the human condition, as many other philosophers have done. He instead wrote them in order to pour his soul into paper, to self-examine and express his very thoughts. He mentions more than once that whoever is reading them, is really reading his life, his ideas, and way of thinking. His essays are not meant to teach or enlighten anyone. If that happens by chance, great! Otherwise, he can’t be blamed for it.
That’s one of the things that made him such an influential philosopher. The charade of “I’m a wise ol’ man teaching ya’ll how to live yo lives. Yo”, was dropped and instead, a real man showed up and said instead: “Here are my thoughts, do with them as you please, for I care not, I’m as useless and smelly as you are”. This means that reading Essays is more similar to reading a philosophical autobiography than to reading Plato’s conversations, and that’s absolutely fine, as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into.
My main problem though, what really keeps me from being able to immerse myself and enjoy Essays, is the un-tested knowledge Montaigne constantly seems to give from granted. Montaigne is almost obsessed with death and the ability of men to endure it, give themselves to it and get accustomed to it. He mentions that we should all welcome it and even seek it in many cases. He uses Socrates death as an example, how virtuous he was by refusing to surrender or escape sure death and instead, drinking the poison given to him as if it was water, and as if he was simply going to take a nap, rather than leave the world forever.
I find my innermost self-rebelling against this. Death! Death is the end of all things. This guttural rebellion is what he perseveres in putting down. Softening our intense grip on life, he argues, allows us to be prepared for what eventually is coming to us all.
Following the same idea, why not simply kill yourself once you’re done with life? Feel too sick to go on? A headache that’s really giving you a bad time? Are you going to live in shame due to some stupid action? The solution is right there with you, slice your throat or hang yourself and all problems will be gone, for what is life but this weird thing we’re all forced to go through? A knife and some solitude will fix all problems.
This is a surprising thing coming from a religious person. He confirms being heavily influenced by ancient philosophers on their embrace for death. He mentions many a time when whole peoples committed suicide in order to rebel or escape their destiny.
He uses quotes and stories to prove the virtuosity that humans should strive for. How Akiles’ strength was superb. How Joe’s and Pep’s wit was without measure. “I heard from a trusted sailor” that people in the island of Chinchilla cut their eyes out and can see better than our French princes and “of course we all know” of the marvelous lady that did not need any sleep and was more energetic than any small kid is.
I exaggerate, of course, but you find many sections in Essays making reference to amazing stories and quotes that Montaigne tries to use to either prove how amazing Humans are, or to despise his fellow men with how weak we can become.
My problem lays in how accurate are all these accounts and stories he relies so heavily upon? I feel like he based a lot of his arguments as if taken from granted. Just because some people in ancient Rome committed mass suicide, or some Ancient Greek philosopher didn’t flinch at the sight of an ever-sleeping cup of poison, we should all be as brave and chilled as Socrates himself.
Montaigne can’t be blamed for relying on sources that might not have been accurate. That’s the case with anything in the 16th century as well as the 21st. However there’s a stark contrast when reading other philosophers writings, as they don’t rely as heavily on stories to give weight to their logic or opinions, they instead use well-crafted arguments to convince and show the reality of their ideas.
It’s definitely easier to relate and understand ideas and opinions when they’re connected to stories, humans are natural story-tellers, but that doesn’t make the idea more valuable or true. I could easily say that the earth is flat and find some influential ancient philosopher who believed so, a couple famous actors and a pop start too. Aha! How can you deny my worthy knowledge, when I’m riding on the shoulders of such great men? This approach unavoidably creates holes in the boat that is your idea, as refuting it it’s as easy as finding out if the story mentioned is true or not. With many holes, a boat easily sinks. You don’t have to argue against Montaigne but against his stories and quotes in order to defeat many of his assumptions. These make his arguments and ideas feel hollow to me.
Show me reason! Show me logic! Show me your innermost train of thought and I’ll follow it to a precipice. But don’t ask me to jump into the unknown, just because many other men before us did so.
Plato argues in The Republic, that children and young people should not be allowed to question the government’s laws. That lying to the people is right if the lying is done in order to improve their lives. He argued for many things I strongly oppose, but I never doubted the worth of his ideas, opinions or wisdom. Plato explained every single proposition with lengthy discussions, arguing against himself about the possible downsides and bringing down a counter-argument.
Arguing with logic and reason doesn’t automatically make someone right, but it’s surely better than quoting Cicero or who knows which philosopher to show you’re on the right path to suicide.
Montaigne at the end was a great philosopher, not exactly my type of philosophy but I can’t deny it’s value. It’s a philosophy that feels strongly attached to his time, however, rooted in 16th century France with little hope of ever escaping. His essays give a glimpse into a unique mind and his relentless pursuit for self-understanding, but at the end, Montaigne feels much more like a regular man rather than, what I think he always aspired to be, a wise Ancient Man.
I wrote the above 3 weeks or so ago. Since then I read one of the most famous of Montaigne essays: An Apology for Raymond Sebond. I’m rather unimpressed. The more I read his essays the less I enjoy them it seems. I’m less amazed or interested in his ideas and more annoyed by what I feel is naivete and sometimes stupidity. I can’t shake the feeling that he was way too influenced by his time. He believed what seemed like nonsensical arguments too easily just because they were told as anecdotes of famous men, and even more so, presented such anecdotes as the holy grail of wisdom and a guiding light for proper human behavior (or should I say, manly behavior, since he seemed to disregard women’s worth?).
I have learned from him though. It’s hard not to learn after listening to a smart person’s essays for 20+ hours. But I’d be hard-pressed to list 3 specific things I’ve learned, maybe it’s self denial.
Fast-forward 2 more weeks and I’ve given up on the book. I’ve read (listened) half the book (25 hours). I always struggle to leave a book behind, but why should I spend another 25 hours listening to a book that I don’t truly enjoy and that is not teaching me great things or making me enjoy myself?
Instead, I switched to Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, by T.E Lawrence, a book that is 25h long in Audible format, halfway through it and it’s been a joy!
Farewell Montaigne, I might come back to you in the future, or I might not.
Fast-forward yet another week and I finally finished this post, when trying to find a featured imagine I stumbled upon this majestic creature, and it all makes sense now! Montaigne was a hipster before it was cool!