Jan-Maat's Reviews > Essays

Essays by Michel de Montaigne
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Oct 15, 11

bookshelves: 16th-century, autobiography-memoir, france, read-in-translation
Read from September 29 to October 12, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

"To learn that one has said or done a foolish thing, that is nothing; one must learn that one is nothing but a fool, a much more comprehensive and important lesson".

There is sheer joy for me in that sentence.

It opens up a new starting point in life, not one of humility but of humour. There is basic honesty about one's own ridiculousness, but also an honesty about the validity and value of one's own experience and life, as clumsy and awkward as this may be.

The honesty and directness about his own life can make reading Montaigne little settling down and listening to an old friend talk, about how he started off preferring white wine, grew over the years to prefer red and then some time later drifted back to white again, or about how he managed to trick a friend on his wedding night so he could overcome his fear of being unable to perform and consummate the marriage or how as he has grown older he has taken to wearing thicker and heavier hats to keep his head warm. It allows a for a remarkably intimate connection with somebody from a very different time.

The material is varied, the subject of the essay, like many a students' first attempts, simply a jumping off point for a long ramble interrupted by quotations. Over the years as he continues to write the essays become more confident and frequently longer, but they are bound together by his way of thinking about himself and his society. A way of thinking that often turns back to thinking about thinking in the broadest sense as in "when I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me".

This can give the sense that he is looking in on his society as a stranger. This can be seen in his contrast between the crowds of people eager to see the savage cannibals brought over from Brazil with savagery of the ongoing wars of religion in his native France. Possibly this is not so surprising as we learn in another essay that his Father had him brought up by a German teacher of Latin with the intention that Latin should be his first language. If his wet-nurse was not involved in this Gascon may have been the first langauge he was actually exposed to. But the result of Montaigne's Father's decision was that his family, their retainers and tenants all had to themselves to learn at least some Latin in order to talk to the young Montaigne as a child. This leaves me with the impression that he grew up as a foreigner in his own country.

This of course could come across as tragic but the effect is comic. Montaigne notes the peasants in his area are still using Latin names for tools, it is as though Montaigne's father involved them all in a great game, on the basis of a singular educational notion, that are all still playing years later. Something of this playfulness matures in the son into an openness that allows him to see the peculiarity of his own point of view and to appreciate how far it is shaped by where he happens to stand.

A book to read and return to.
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Reading Progress

09/29/2011 page 174
10/01/2011 page 235
58.0% ""Not being able to control events, I control myself, and adapt myself myself to them if they do not adapt themselves to me""
10/04/2011 page 285
70.0% ""There is nothing single and rare from nature's point of view, but only from the point of view of our knowledge""
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