Jan-Maat's Reviews > Essays

Essays by Michel de Montaigne
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Sep 29, 2011

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 like 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. For example 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 (view spoiler). 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. The impression is 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.
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Reading Progress

09/29/2011 page 174
43.0%
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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Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by Caroline (last edited Sep 19, 2015 06:12AM) (new)

Caroline What a wonderful review, and Montaigne sounds marvellously wise, and very nice too. I especially like the first few paragraphs - what Montaigne has to say, and what you have to say.


message 2: by Erika (new)

Erika What a great review! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Montaigne.


message 3: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Caroline wrote: "What a wonderful review, and Montaigne sounds marvellously wise, and very nice too. I especially like the first few paragraphs - what Montaigne has to say, and what you have to say."

he does come across as a nice person - which is always interesting given that he lived in very unnice times. One of the stories he tells is about being in the middle of the civil wars that were ongoing during his life time in France. He is captured by a partisan of one side - but is let go basically because Montaigne has sch a friendly and trusting manner (at least that is the story he tells!)


message 4: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Erika wrote: "What a great review! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Montaigne."

thank you, you're welcome


message 5: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· That's amazing. I mean I know that Latin was a kind of academic European lingua franca, but even so. It was, nevertheless, also a dead language, wasn't it?.

Weird, what some parents will do to their kids.

It reminds me of a family we knew for a while: the parents were both Austrian, but had both spent a lot of time in France, so they decided to bring their kids up with the two languages, read all the material on bilingual families, and did it correctly: Mum spoke (Austrian) German, Dad spoke French with the kids. It all went fine. The older boy was about four when we met them, and was perfectly bilingual. That summer, friends from France came to visit them. That four year old didn't open his mouth to those French friends for about five days. Not a word. It had not escaped him that his father had never spoken French to anyone else, not even his own mother, and I am convinced that he had decided that this thing called 'French' was a private language between him and his father. He was in shock when he met other people who shared their idiolect, I reckon.


message 6: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat ·Karen· wrote: "That's amazing. I mean I know that Latin was a kind of academic European lingua franca, but even so. It was, nevertheless, also a dead language, wasn't it?.

Weird, what some parents will do to th..."


It was deadish - it would have been used in Church by the priests so I imagine he would not have had the shock that the boy in your story did. iirc Montaigne's father wanted to have Montaigne taught Greek through the same system but could not find anyone fluent enough.

It is very weird because it must have been quite isolating - except for this bizarre side-effect of everybody around him having to learn some Latin to communicate with the seigneur's son. Still it would have given him a headstart in his education


message 7: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I like your thoughts about the importance of understanding our own ridiculousness - I grapple with that a lot, torn between undervaluing and overvaluing my own ridiculous side - I may need Montaigne to fix my funny bone - so that it works all of the time ;-)


message 8: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "I like your thoughts about the importance of understanding our own ridiculousness - I grapple with that a lot, torn between undervaluing and overvaluing my own ridiculous side - I may need Montaign..."

My thoughts? Do I have any thoughts or have I learnt them all from books?

What thoughts I had, or thought I had that were good were confirmed by Montaigne - I think.

He manages to combine a degree of seriousness with a sense of the ridiculous - as in the business of his friend's fear on his wedding night. He comes up with a ridiculous solution to a ridiculous fear and so avoids a serious problem.

One of the other things I like is his announcement in one of his essays that women are capable of friendship - this on the basis of his friendship with a younger woman who had read one of his books of essays. This seems quite silly, but in the context of an age that also features John Knox's "first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women" also quite a profound achievement.


message 9: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "One of the other things I like is his announcement in one of his essays that women are capable of friendship - this on the basis of his friendship with a younger woman who had read one of his books of essays. This seems quite silly, but in the context of an age that also features John Knox's "first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women" also quite a profound achievement. ."

The more I hear about him, the better I like him. I read some of Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer some years ago but decided I'd prefer to read Montaigne himself than read about someone else's attempts at explaining him. Time to follow up on that resolution...


message 10: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "Jan-Maat wrote: "One of the other things I like is his announcement in one of his essays that women are capable of friendship - this on the basis of his friendship with a younger woman who had read..."

Ah, then we're in the opposite position as I'd still like to read Bakewell's book (view spoiler)


message 11: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "Ah, then we're in the opposite position as I'd still like to read Bakewell's book [ a great surname if nomen est omen! ..."

Glad I don't have that surname because I'd be a very ominous omen for the nomen - baking used to either explode or run down the sides of the oven trays so I hung up my oven gloves definitively. (Thank the Bakewell Gods I live in a country of world class pattissiers so my family have never missed out - but incidentally they are all very slim :-)
I've a feeling Montaigne would have a few bon mots to say about the matter - possibly in Latin...


message 12: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "Jan-Maat wrote: "Ah, then we're in the opposite position as I'd still like to read Bakewell's book [ a great surname if nomen est omen! ..."

Glad I don't have that surname because I'd be a very om..."


But isn't nomen est omen true in your case what with the fair shoulders and all? ;)

Explosive baking does sound like a whole class of fun on its own though!


message 13: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "But isn't nomen est omen true in your case what with the fair shoulders and all? ;)..."

And Montaigne is almost the same as montagne which means an elevation. I'd say he was definitely elevated;-)


message 14: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "Jan-Maat wrote: "But isn't nomen est omen true in your case what with the fair shoulders and all? ;)..."

And Montaigne is almost the same as montagne which means an elevation. I'd say he was defin..."


but was he craggy and covered in goats?


message 15: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Maybe just a few neat vineyards on his lower slopes...


message 16: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Fionnuala wrote: "Maybe just a few neat vineyards on his lower slopes..."

Montagne du vin?


message 17: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jan-Maat wrote: "Fionnuala wrote: "Maybe just a few neat vineyards on his lower slopes..."

Montagne du vin?"


Montaigne divin! Perfect.


message 18: by Florencia (new)

Florencia ...a foreigner in his own country. Perfect portrayal. And the comic effect is indeed unexpected.
I see I have many great things ahead of me! This review is the perfect introduction to this collection; I feel a little reassured now. Thanks for this enlightening review.


message 19: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Florencia wrote: "...a foreigner in his own country. Perfect portrayal. And the comic effect is indeed unexpected.
I see I have many great things ahead of me! This review is the perfect introduction to this collecti..."


thank you, I feel it is one of the great works of its time, along side Cervantes and Shakespeare


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