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The Complete Essays

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Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, singlehandedly responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. This Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Essays is translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech.

In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. There he wrote his constantly expanding 'assays', inspired by the ideas he found in books contained in his library and from his own experience. He discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. But, above all, Montaigne studied himself as a way of drawing out his own inner nature and that of men and women in general. The Essays are among the most idiosyncratic and personal works in all literature and provide an engaging insight into a wise Renaissance mind, continuing to give pleasure and enlightenment to modern readers.

With its extensive introduction and notes, M.A. Screech's edition of Montaigne is widely regarded as the most distinguished of recent times.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1586) studied law and spent a number of years working as a counsellor before devoting his life to reading, writing and reflection.

If you enjoyed The Complete Essays, you might like Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, also available in Penguin Classics.

'Screech's fine version ... must surely serve as the definitive English Montaigne'
A.C. Grayling, Financial Times

'A superb edition'
Nicholas Wollaston, Observer

1344 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1580

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About the author

Michel de Montaigne

1,059 books1,294 followers
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1532-1592) was one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance. Montaigne is known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. He became famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography—and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as "Attempts") contains, to this day, some of the most widely influential essays ever written. Montaigne had a direct influence on writers the world over, from William Shakespeare to René Descartes, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stephan Zweig, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a conservative and earnest Catholic but, as a result of his anti-dogmatic cast of mind, he is considered the father, alongside his contemporary and intimate friend Étienne de La Boétie, of the "anti-conformist" tradition in French literature.

In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman then as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, "I am myself the matter of my book", was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?").

Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary nonfiction has found inspiration in Montaigne, and writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal storytelling.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 511 reviews
Profile Image for Geoff.
444 reviews · 1,188 followers
October 31, 2014
Okay I've read enough of this now, in a wide variety of settings, at miscellaneous times, within sundry atmospheres, such as late nights in bed under the lamp's pale glow, bright mornings early at certain tables or on metros, over coffees and over beers or over blended rye or such-like things, in times of happiness and times of depression, in times of relative wealth and in times of poverty, in the stark wet heat of summer and the stark dry freeze of winter, under the rapture of autumn foliage about to be released from limbs and above the emerging green and yellow shoots and sprigs of spring, to qualify it as "read"- so, over these long years sporadically spent with Montaigne, let's say I've come to think of this collection as damn near a complete picture of a human mind striving to come to terms with the phenomenal world by engaging the sensorium as we're likely to get. These pages contain a Universe, by which I mean a mind building things with language, and you, dear reader, are invited to navigate. Raise the masts! Aim the bowsprit directly into the heart of the day!
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
1 book · 8,178 followers
April 26, 2022
e'ssay. (2) A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
—From Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.

Now I finally have an answer to the famous “desert island book” question: This book. It would have to be. Not that Montaigne’s Essays is necessarily the greatest book I’ve ever read—it’s not. But here Montaigne managed to do something that has eluded the greatest of our modern science: to preserve a complete likeness of a person. Montaigne lives and breathes in these pages, just as much as he would if he'd been cryogentically frozen and brought back to life before your eyes.

Working your way through this book is a little like starting a relationship. At first, it’s new and exciting. But eventually the exhilaration wears off. You begin looking for other books, missing the thrill of first love. But what Montaigne lacks in bells and whistles, he more than compensates for with his constant companionship. You learn about the intimacies of his eating habits and bowel movements, his philosophy of sex as well as science, his opinion on doctors and horsemanship. He lets it all hang out. And after a long and stressful day, you know Montaigne will be waiting on your bedside table to tell you a funny anecdote, to have easygoing conversation, or to just pass the time.

To quote Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Montaigne’s essays are to be sipped. This book took me a grand total of six months to read. I would dip into it right before bed—just a few pages. Sometimes, I tried to spend more time on the essays, but I soon gave it up. Montaigne’s mind drifts from topic to topic like a sleepwalker. He has no attention span for longwinded arguments or extended exposition. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but almost. As a result, whenever I tried to spend an hour on his writing, I got bored.

Plus, burning your way through this book would ruin the experience of it. Another reviewer called Montaigne’s Essays the “introvert's Bible”. This is a very perceptive comment. For me, there was something quasi-religious in the ritual of reading a few pages of this book right before bed—night after night after night. For everything Montaigne lacks in intelligence, patience, diligence, and humility, he makes up for with his exquisite sanity. I can find no other word to describe it. Dipping into his writing is like dipping a bucket into a deep well of pure, blissful sanity. It almost seems like a contradiction to call someone “profoundly down-to-earth,” but that’s just it. Montaigne makes the pursuit of living a reasonable life into high art.

Indeed, I find something in Montaigne’s quest for self-knowledge strangely akin to religious thinking. In Plato’s system, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the abstract realm of ideals; and in the Upanishads, self-knowledge leads to the conception of the totality of the cosmos. For Montaigne, self-knowledge is the key to knowledge of the human condition. In his patient cataloging of his feelings and opinions, Montaigne shows that there is hardly anything like an unchanging ‘self’ at the center of our being, but we are rather an ever-changing flux of emotions, thoughts, memories, anxieties, hopes, and sensations. Montaigne is a Skeptic one moment, an Epicurean another, a Stoic still another, and finally a Christian.

And isn’t this how it always is? You may take pride in a definition of yourself—a communist, a musician, a vegan—but no simple label ever comes close to pinning down the chaotic stream that is human life. We hold certain principles near and dear one moment, and five minutes later these principles are forgotten with the smell of lunch. The most dangerous people, it seems, are those that do try to totalize themselves under one heading or one creed. How do you reason with a person like that?

I’ve read too much Montaigne—now I’m rambling. To return to this book, I’m both sorry that I’ve finished it, and excited that it’s done. Now I can move on to another bedside book. But if I ever feel myself drifting towards radicalism, extremism, or if I start to think abstract arguments are more important than the real stuff of human life, I will return to my old friend Montaigne. This is a book that could last you a lifetime.
Profile Image for Lizzy.
305 reviews · 166 followers
December 12, 2018
"I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me; I look inside myself; I have no business but with myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself."
Alas, Montaigne inspires me! The Complete Essays covers all kind of subjects and it is an almost eternal work in progress for me. It honestly deals with humanity itself. Montaigne is entertaining, compelling, and inclined to digression. I read Montaigne at indiscriminate times and places, and under disparate moods. If I am depressed, I look for something in it that might help me get back on my feet and keep going; if I am happy, I search for companionship. And I am often awed by him, how easy he seems.
"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".
I’ve been reading the Essays for some time now and probably will keep working through its page whenever I feel like contemplating about life. It is, for me, an ever ending source of inspiration and of pleasure. There are periods, it is true, that I forget about it altogether; but eventually I will go back and scan through its chapters looking for themes that grant me some moments of delight. At times I read Montaigne just for thirty minutes or one hour, but never for too long for I know I will get back to it eventually. Whether sipping my coffee at a café, in bed just before I go to sleep or sharing passages with friends when they happen to visit me, I love skipping through its pages until I find what I was expecting.

Ah, he also surprises me. I enjoyed his thoughts about women's rank in society, a puzzling mix of traditionalism and advanced-thinking, considering he lived in the 16th century:
"Women are not altogether in the wrong, when they refuse the rules of life prescribed to the World, for so much as only men have established them without their consent."
Read any chapter, randomly if you wish, or read it all if you have time and breath, I am sure you will love it.
Profile Image for Warwick.
824 reviews · 14.5k followers
February 17, 2015
Clive James says somewhere that certain people throughout history are like ambassadors from the present stationed in the past: though separated from us by centuries, to read them is to share in thoughts and feelings that we recognise intimately as our own. And this is what Montaigne has been for me since I started reading him several years ago. He is the first person in history who strikes me as modern – or at least, the first to put that modern sense of uncertainty and existential nerviness down on paper, to write something that is not didactic or improving or even purely entertaining, but animated instead by curiosity, doubt, overeducated boredom, trivial irritations.

The scepticism in particular has become probably his most famous quality – his best-known line nowadays is the rhetorical question, Que sçay-je? ‘What do I know?’ Certainly his essays – meaning ‘efforts’, ‘attempts’ – are endearingly open about how uncertain he is when it comes to any of the big questions. He doesn't bluster his way through his lack of knowledge, but faces it head-on with disarming cheerfulness, and his arguments themselves are not carefully structured means to approach knowledge, but rather meandering and conversational in a way that is completely unlike other writers of the time. Je parle au papier comme je parle au premier que je rencontre, he says – in John Florio's 1603 translation (on which much more later), ‘I speake unto Paper, as to the first man I meete.’ Still, his lack of expertise is something that regularly bothers him:

Est-ce pas faire une muraille sans pierre, ou chose semblable, que de bastir des livres sans science et sans art? Les fantasies de la musique sont conduictes par art, les miennes par sort.

To write bookes without learning is it not to make a wall without stone or such like thing? Conceits of musicke are directed by arte, mine by hap.

It's unlikely to worry any of his readers. The range of topics addressed by Montaigne is gloriously all-encompassing: stick a pin in the nearest encyclopaedia and he will have something to say on whatever subject has been thus perforated. And crucially, it's not just the big subjects like war, religion, diplomacy, the Classical tradition. It's also the minor stuff, the kind of things that you worry about in the bath – how annoying it is to have to get up early, whether people should talk over dinner or just shut up and eat, what to wear in bed. Like men through history, he frets that he can't last long enough during sex and that his cock is too small – but unlike Horace or the Earl of Rochester, he doesn't write grandiose poetry on the subject, he just moans about it in humdrum, day-to-day prose. You come to realise there is no issue he won't write about. ‘Of all naturall actions, there is none wherein I am more loath to be troubled or interrupted when I am at it,’ he announces, on doing a poo.

Of course that frankness, that ruthless self-analysis, means that when he does come to the big subjects he's often totally riveting. I loved reading his thoughts on religion, which are incredibly undogmatic and open-minded given the context of sixteenth-century Europe. In Book II, chapter 12 – one of the longest essays and often printed separately – he ostensibly sets out to defend Christianity, but in his clear-sighted assessment of the arguments against religion he articulates intelligent agnosticism better than many atheists. We are Christians because we are born here and now, he perceives; if people really believed in the precepts of their faith, they would be happy to die; and if there were any real reward after death it must be in some mortal way, otherwise we would no longer be ‘us’. Following his mind through these arguments is quite a thrill.

He also comments on current events, of all kinds. After France adopts the Gregorian calendar in December 1582, he takes the time to write irritably on the missing eleven days (a circumstance which leads him, via a typically Montanian series of tangents, to end up discussing the merits of sex with the disabled). And his thoughts on the Spanish conquest of the Americas – the full details of which were still then emerging – make for a welcome reminder that not everyone at the time was gung-ho about the excesses of the colonial project.

…nous nous sommes servis de leur ignorance et inexperience à les plier plus facilement vers la trahison, luxure, avarice et vers toute sorte d'inhumanité et de cruauté, à l'exemple et patron de nos meurs. Qui mit jamais à tel pris le service de la mercadence et de la trafique? Tant de villes rasées, tant de nations exterminées, tant de millions de peuples passez au fil de l'espée, et la plus riche et belle partie du monde bouleversée pour la negotiation des perles et du poivre: mechaniques victoires. Jamais l'ambition, jamais les inimitiez publiques ne pousserent les hommes les uns contre les autres à si horribles hostilitez et calamitez si miserables.

we have made use of their ignorance and inexperience, to drawe them more easily unto treason, fraude, luxurie, avarice and all manner of inhumanity and cruelty, by the example of our life and patterne of our customes. Who ever raised the service of marchandize and benefit of traffick to so high a rate? So many goodly citties ransacked and raged; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmelesse people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world topsiturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffick of Pearles and Pepper. Oh mechanicall victories, oh base conquest. Never did greedy revenge, publik wrongs or generall enmities, so moodily enrage and so passionately incense men against men, unto so horrible hostilities, bloody dissipation, and miserable calamities.

On gender relations he offers an intriguing mix of traditionalism and forward-thinking. He makes frequent off-hand remarks about the place of women which seem to suggest that he is pretty representative of his time – commenting, for instance, that if women want to read they should confine themselves to theology and a little poetry – but then at other times he can be amazingly progressive. A long essay ‘On some verses of Virgil’ (III.5) includes a fantastic investigation of sexual politics where he is unexpectedly thoughtful about the expectations placed on women by male society, and he rails against the hypocrisy of what we'd now call slut-shaming. His sympathy for those who do not fit patriarchal expectations shows that he grasps the fundamental point:

Les femmes n'ont pas tort du tout quand elles refusent les reigles de vie qui sont introduites au monde, d'autant que ce sont les hommes qui les ont faictes sans elles.

Women are not altogether in the wrong, when they refuse the rules of life prescribed to the World, forsomuch as onely men have established them without their consent.

In the end, although he can't stop himself feeling instinctively that a woman's role is different from a man's, he recognises that much of this is down to social pressures, and his simple conclusion is in some ways centuries ahead of its time: les masles et femelles sont jettez en mesme moule: sauf l'institution et l'usage, la difference n'y est pas grande. ‘Male and female are cast in one same moulde; instruction and custome excepted, there is no great difference betweene them.’

Those of you who read French may be noticing here that Montaigne is often easier to understand than Florio. At first this was a surprise to me as I flicked between them, but it's a good illustration of the fact that English has changed a lot more in four hundred years than French has. Many were the times that I turned to the Middle French to illuminate what seemed an obscure passage in my native language. A Florio phrase like ‘it is enough to dip our pens in inke, too much, to die them in blood’ seems to have two or three possible interpretations. It's only when you read the original – c'est assez de tramper nos plumes en ancre, sans les tramper en sang – that you realise Florio's first comma is the fulcrum on which two perfectly-balanced halves of the sentence pivot.

Take another look at the very end of that quote on the conquest of Mexico, above. Montaigne's elegant chiasmus (horribles hostilitez…calamitez si miserables) has been abandoned; meanwhile, to the horrible hostilities and miserable calamities has been added a dose of ‘bloody dissipation’, on Florio's own initiative. Similar cases abound (he also translates bouleversée there as ‘topsiturvied’!), and to me they say something deeply significant about the two languages, at least as they existed then. One final example will make my point: here, Montaigne is discussing how strange it is that sex is something hidden and shameful, while death is a public glory:

Chacun fuit à le voir naistre, chacun suit à le voir mourir. Pour le destruire, on cerche un champ spacieux en pleine lumiere; pour le construire, on se musse dans un creux tenebreux et contraint. C'est le devoir de se cacher et rougir pour le faire; et c'est gloire, et naissent plusieurs vertus de le sçavoir deffaire.

Each one avoideth to see a man borne, but all runne hastily to see him dye. To destroy him we seeke a spacious field and a full light, but to construct him we hide our selves in some darke corner and worke as close as we may. It is our dutie to conceale our selves in making him; it is our glory, and the originall of many vertues to destroy him being framed.

The French is precisely assembled, and Florio ignores the precision entirely. Montaigne's exact, rhyming counterpoints (chacun fuitchacun suit, fairedeffaire) are dropped in favour of a profusion of circumlocution (‘each one avoideth…all runne’, ‘making him…to destroy him being framed’). Where Montaigne is a Rolls-Royce engine, Florio is a cartoon jetpack. And yet! Where Florio fails to capture his source is precisely where he best represents the allusive, poly-synonymous essence of his own native tradition. While Montaigne convinces you that the genius of French lies in its clarity (Ce qui n'est pas clair n'est pas français, as Antoine de Rivarol would say two hundred years later), Florio suggests that the genius of English lies by contrast in its ambiguity, and the best English writers of the time – which is to say the best English writers of all time, Shakespeare, Browne et al. – were precisely those who mastered its allusive and multivocabular messiness.

Well, I won't push that any further, and Montaigne himself would doubtless have disagreed. (‘Our speech hath his infirmities and defects, as all things else have,’ he says; and elsewhere, in a passage that warmed my anti-prescriptivist heart, ‘According to the continuall variation that hitherto hath followed our French tongue, who may hope that its present forme shall be in use fifty yeares hence?…We say it is now come to a full perfection. There is no age but saith as much of hirs.’) At any rate, reading these two writers together throws up all kinds of fascinating suggestions and contemplations, and it meant that I ended up reading basically all the essays twice (and two or three of them I read for a third time in MA Screech's modern English translation). For those curious about Florio, the NYRB has published a selection of his versions of the Essays under the intensely irritating title of Shakespeare's Montaigne, though neither Montaigne nor Florio need Shakespeare's coat-tails to ride on – and anyway, apart from one famous bit in The Tempest, the evidence for Shakespeare's having read Florio is not very exciting.

In the end though, whatever language you read Montaigne in, his humaneness and his sympathy will stay with you. By the time he writes the final volume he is at the end of his life, and his tone has not become bitter or regretful in the least. Everywhere he shows a desire to find a middle way between the intellectual and the physical, the elevated and the practical, which I find extremely cheering. The last chapter, ‘On Experience’, sums up the feelings about how life should be lived that he has been investigating throughout the essays, and as always his concern is not to criticise but instead to forgive, to understand, to encourage. He invented an entire genre, but no one has achieved greater effects with it than he did himself.

Il a passé sa vie en oisiveté, disons nous; je n'ay rien faict d'aujourd'huy.--Quoy, avez vous pas vescu? C'est non seulement la fondamentale mais la plus illustre de vos occupations…. Avez vous sceu mediter et manier vostre vie? vous avez faict la plus grande besoigne de toutes. Pour se montrer et exploicter nature n'a que faire de fortune: elle se montre egallement en tous estages et derriere, comme sans rideau. Composer nos meurs est nostre office, non pas composer des livres, et gaigner, non pas des batailles et provinces, mais l'ordre et tranquillité à nostre conduite.

Hee hath passed his life in idleness, say we; alas! I have done nothing this day. What, have you not lived? It is not only the fundamentall, but the noblest of your occupation. […] Have you knowen how to meditate and mannage your life? you have accomplished the greatest worke of all. For a man to shew and exploit himselfe nature hath no neede of fortune; she equally shewes herselfe upon all grounds, in all sutes, before and behinde, as it were without curteines, welt, or gard. Have you knowne how to compose your manners? you have done more than he who hath composed bookes. Have you knowne how to take rest? you have done more than be who hath taken Empires and Citties.
Profile Image for Alan.
6 books · 296 followers
July 13, 2020
Inventer--and perfecter--of the "trial composition," essayer. None better, after four centuries, though we have improved lying through essays. We call it "news": global warming? What global warming. NSA Spying? What spying--all legal.
Montaigne can be read a page or two daily, like Gilbert White's "Natural History of Selbourne," Thoreau's Journals, Emily Dickinsons' poems, or the Bible. Two centuries before Natural History of Selbourne, Montaigne doubts "Natural Laws," says no-one agrees on the four said to exist, nor in specific national laws, "which the mere crossing of a river turns into a crime"(II.26). No, the only laws are divine, though there, too, some in France made legal what was previously a capital offense--the footnote says, "M was probably thinking of the Protestant faith." (Montaigne's own mother's family was Protestant, converting from Judaism--Antoinette Louppe; his father, Pierre Eyquem, a Catholic businessman who became mayor of Bordeaux, and bought the Montaigne estate. xx)
"Of the elephants it may be said they share with us a kind of religion; for they may be seen, after several ablutions and purifications, to raise thier trunks, as we do our arms, of their own accord to stand with their eyes fixed in the direction of the rising sun, in a long meditation and contemplation"(II.460).
Montaigne's favorite Latin poem was Vergil's Georgics, though he quotes Horace a lot; he prefers Terence to Plautus, from whom Shakespeare gleaned whole plays. I prefer Plautus, largely for his colloqial Latin and his wit. Montaigne also undervalues Ovid, Shakespeare's other great source of stories and of wit--Donne literally steals one of Ovid's Amores or Ars Amatoria (see my review).
Michel himself warns of the "Danger of too much reading," but that is pious reading, withdrawing from the world, even not eating and thereby endangering one's health. Lively, witty reading does not endanger; "For my part, I love such books as are either easy and entertaining, and that tickle my fancy, or give me comfort" (I. 244).
On the "Custom of Wearing Clothes," "How many men, especially in Turkey, go naked as a matter of religion!..." One man in sable asked a cheerful beggar in the street how he could bear the cold, "And you sir, you have your face uncovered; now, I am all face"(I.225).
Renaissance sumptuary laws prevented the middle class from wearing aristocrat's clothes, which in England they could only wear on stage. The laws prevented wearing of velvet and gold braid, also silks. But in the mourning for Henry II so many wore black silk that it positively went out of fashion. Montaigne salutes Zaleucus of the Locrians, ruling that "A woman of free condition may not be followed by more than one maid, unless she be drunk...That, excepting keepers of brothels, no man shall wear a ring of gold upon his finger"(I.264).

Read in the Oxford Standard Authors, 1927 hardback.
Profile Image for Julia.
19 reviews · 6 followers
September 3, 2009
I kind of half jokingly refer to this book as "the introverts bible". Certainly a must read, especially for those of us who live a more contemplative life. The Essays are moving and funny, edifying, and at times very sad. Montaigne's observations range from the very specific and particular to the huge and universal. I don't always agree with what he says, but I am engaged nonetheless. I feel as I read this book that I'm always in conversation with him.

I know I will be reading and re-reading The Essays throughout the course of my whole life. I know that my understanding for them will deepen and change. Montaigne himself continued to edit the essays until his death. This sort of journey is much of what the book is about... all culminating in the most moving essay of them all: "On Experience."

I recommend this edition especially for its fantastic translator. It is wholly accessible while at the same time maintaining the humor and beauty of Montaigne's words.
Profile Image for Daisy.
191 reviews · 69 followers
January 17, 2023
5 years after starting this, I finally finished it. At one point I was asked if it was normal to have a crush on a man who died 450 years ago, I do not pretend to know the answer to that but in many ways the 5 years I spent with him did feel like a strange marriage. At times I couldn’t get enough of him, reading his musings on everything from cannibals to how to raise children at every available opportunity and at others, needing a break, I left him unattended.

What draws me to him is his curiosity about the world and his ability to consider a multitude of views and opinions. Each page is littered with quotes from Latin or Greek writers which he uses, not to support his views but as a starting point to explore what he thinks of things. He does not judge and looks at everything as a unique consideration, so unlike today where opinions can only be polarised and there is scant interest in hearing an opposing view let alone giving it any ground. He judges no one, his famous assertion that that, ‘nothing human is alien to me’ seems to be one that he lived by as well as espoused. Remarkably frank, he is very aware of his own failings both professionally, personally and physically and shares them with us in a spirit of openness rather than seeking sympathy. Over the 5 years I read this book I watched Montaigne grow old, his health start to fail, he suffered from kidney stones which must have been agony at that time with no cure or pain relief, and his opinions change – the final section has him revisiting some topics he had previously written on and taking a different stance.

This is a remarkable insight into a man’s mind, his opinions and how he came to them. It is the whole world explored in a domestic home. It is strange to find yourself relating in so many ways to someone separated by centuries from you, but he is proof that human nature is unchanging. So much is witty and wise and quotable that my phone is full of screenshots of snippets that made me laugh or struck me as very true.

If you undertake to take Montaigne into your life, congratulations you won’t regret it. Your life will be enriched by getting to know the man. Just be aware that the headings of the essays are not always indicative of what will follow as his writings are like a pleasant walk where you meander off the path to follow interesting diversions. It is also worth reading them in order as you can then see him mature and refer back to his earlier writings.

“To conclude: there is no permanent existence either in our being or in that of objects. We ourselves, our faculty of judgment and all mortal things are flowing and rolling ceaselessly; nothing certain can be established about one from the other, since both judged and judging are ever shifting and changing.”
Profile Image for Florencia.
649 reviews · 1,912 followers
Want to read
September 10, 2016
A Montaigne essay a day keeps the doctor away.

1. We reach the same end by discrepant means ★★★★
2. On sadness ★★★★
The force of extreme sadness inevitably stuns the whole of our soul, impeding her freedom of action.

Chi puo dir com'egli arde e in picciol fuoco
[He who can describe how his heart is ablaze is burning on a small pyre]
Petrarch, Sonnet 137.

3. Our emotions get carried away beyond us
4. How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects when lacking real ones
5. Whether the governor of a besieged fortress should go out and parley
6. The hour of parleying is dangerous
7. That our deeds are judged by the intention
8. On idleness ★★★★★
When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost; for, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere.

Variam semper dant otia mentis
[Idleness always produces fickle changes of mind]
Lucan, Pharsalia, IV, 704.

9. On liars ★★★★★
10. On a ready or hesitant delivery ★★★★
We can see that in the case of the gift of speaking well: some have such a prompt facility and (as we say) such ease in ‘getting it out’, that they are always ready anywhere: others, more hesitant, never speak without thinking and working it all out beforehand.

11. On prognostications
12. On constancy
13. Ceremonial at the meeting of kings
14. That the taste of good and evil things depends in large part on the opinion we have of them
15. One is punished for stubbornly defending a fort without a good reason
16. On punishing cowardice
17. The doings of certain ambassadors
18. On fear
19. That we should not be deemed happy till after our death
20. To philosophize is to learn how to die
21. On the power of the imagination
22. One man’s profit is another man’s loss
23. On habit: and on never easily changing a traditional law
24. Same design: differing outcomes
25. On schoolmasters’ learning
26. On educating children
27. That it is madness to judge the true and the false from our own capacities
28. On affectionate relationships
29. Nine-and-twenty sonnets of Estienne de La Boëtie
30. On moderation
31. On the Cannibals
32. Judgements on God’s ordinances must be embarked upon with prudence
33. On fleeing from pleasures at the cost of one’s life
34. Fortune is often found in Reason’s train
35. Something lacking in our civil administrations
36. On the custom of wearing clothing
37. On Cato the Younger
38. How we weep and laugh at the same thing
39. On solitude ★★★★
That is to say, let the rest be ours, but not so glued and joined to us that it cannot be pulled off without tearing away a piece of ourselves, skin and all.

* Review here.

40. Reflections upon Cicero
41. On not sharing one’s fame
42. On the inequality there is between us
43. On sumptuary laws
44. On sleep ★★★
Reason directs that we should always go the same way, but not always at the same pace.

45. On the Battle of Dreux
46. On names
47. On the uncertainty of our judgement
48. On war-horses
49. On ancient customs
50. On Democritus and Heraclitus
51. On the vanity of words
52. On the frugality of the Ancients
53. On one of Caesar’s sayings
54. On vain cunning devices
55. On smells
56. On prayer
57. On the length of life

1. On the inconstancy of our actions
2. On drunkenness
3. A custom of the Isle of Cea
4. ‘Work can wait till tomorrow’
5. On conscience
6. On practice
7. On rewards for honour
8. On the affection of fathers for their children
9. On the armour of the Parthians
10. On books
11. On cruelty
12. An apology for Raymond Sebond
13. On judging someone else’s death
14. How our mind tangles itself up
15. That difficulty increases desire
16. On glory
17. On presumption
18. On giving the lie
19. On freedom of conscience
20. We can savour nothing pure
21. Against indolence
22. On riding ‘in post’
23. On bad means to a good end
24. On the greatness of Rome
25. On not pretending to be ill
26. On thumbs
27. On cowardice, the mother of cruelty
28. There is a season for everything
29. On virtue
30. On a monster-child
31. On anger
32. In defence of Seneca and Plutarch
33. The tale of Spurina
34. Observations on Julius Caesar’s methods of waging war
35. On three good wives
36. On the most excellent of men
37. On the resemblance of children to their fathers

1. On the useful and the honourable
2. On repenting
3. On three kinds of social intercourse
4. On diversion
5. On some lines of Virgil
6. On coaches
7. On high rank as a disadvantage
8. On the art of conversation
9. On vanity
10. On restraining your will
11. On the lame
12. On physiognomy
13. On experience
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews · 1,226 followers
February 15, 2011
Montaigne is one of my all-time favorite dudes - truly a bridge between eras and endowed with enough sagacity and wisdom to guide a nation. Wonderful and warm humanity and sparklingly sere humor, but he can chuck 'em, too: a handful of quiet paragraphs from his essays on Liars and Cowards scorches the flesh from deceitful bones and craven limbs.

Thanks to a screw-up by the company I ordered Screech's translation from I received two copies - one for my desk at the office, one for the table beside my bed at home. At work or at rest, Montaigne leads you true.

BTW - if the entire collection of essays seems too daunting a challenge, or too heavy to comfortably hold, there's an abridgement with an outstandingly smooth and literary translation by J. M. Cohen - perhaps more elegant than Screech's, more suave, but with all the edges sanded and hence less true to le Gros Guyennoise.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,067 reviews · 1,086 followers
July 10, 2021
A very colourful collection of thoughts/essays, written in a time when it was not a habit yet to expose oneself. I admire Montaigne's honesty and straightforwardness. He observes daily live and especially his own behavior. The extensive use of latin citations (as was common by humanists of that time) was irritating at first, but I got used to it. From a historical point of view his longer essay "Apology for Raymond Sebond" was very interesting; in it Montaigne pointedly acknowledges the limitations of reason.
My only issue with this book is that Montaigne kind of propagates mediocraty a bit too much. For him that was in line with the very popular stoicism of his time.
Profile Image for Janet.
22 books · 87.7k followers
February 21, 2012
My favorite philosopher, he's anecdotal rather than dialectical/dialogue or logical/mathematical/linguistical. He was the first writer, certainly the first philosopher, who talked about personal experience of living in the body, with a great generosity of spirit towards the flaws of the human being. He's companionable, he makes you feel that being human is a noble and worthwhile thing, even if you're sick or grumpy or overwhelmed with your own failures. People should throw out all their self-help books and stick with Montaigne.
Profile Image for David Sarkies.
1,785 reviews · 306 followers
March 25, 2015
A French aristocrat shares his personal opinions
6 January 2013

Normally I would wait until I have finished a book to write a commentary, however this book is a lot different in that is contains a large collection of essays on a multiple of subjects. Secondly, I have not been reading this book continually, but rather picking it up, reading a few essays, and then putting it down again. I originally read a selection of these essays but when I finished it I decided to get my hands on a complete version, preferably hardcover, and it has been sitting next to my bed for the last two years (and I am only up to the second book of essays as of this writing – in fact I have only written comments on essays from two of the books).

This, as I mentioned, is a complete collection, however it is an older translation by John Florio, a contemporary of Montainge, which means that the English is quite archaic, though still quite readable. The only thing that stands out is the spelling (and since there was no real standardised spelling back then, this is understandable). Florio was also a contemporary of Shakespeare, so marking Florio down because of his spelling is sort of like doing the same with Shakespeare (and English has evolved a lot since then).

Anyway, this post is actually quite long, in fact longer than what Goodreads allows me to post, so instead of spilling over into the comments, I have instead decided to post the commentary in my blog (which also allows for better presentation that Goodreads, though not by much since it is Blogger – I hope to go over to Wordpress sometime soon, but due to time commitments I am not able to at this stage).
Profile Image for Warren Fournier.
585 reviews · 62 followers
January 2, 2021
Montaigne strikes me as one of those writers that I would love to have living in our current day. I think we could be friends. He can be self-deprecating and humble, never stubborn because he knows the absolute truth is beyond human comprehension, but hopeful in a greater purpose behind our existence, and he is always curious about anything and everything, which for him can house clues to a greater mystery and a better way for society to engage with this life. And in general, he seems like a very funny guy, one you'd love hanging out at your dinner table sharing a glass of eau de vie.

His "Essays" are a look into the mind and soul of this great thinker. They are a diary of his thoughts about things he has observed or read, things which puzzle him and things which annoy him. He often writes in a stream of consciousness which is tangential and circumstantial, feeling more like a stand-up comedy routine: "And what's up with people doing such and such? Why is this a thing? Who does that!" Montaigne probably had ADD, and he even admits to this fact as best he can, as he lived centuries before any DSM, complaining about how he can't remember jack, and has a hard time focusing. So he rambles on about things that often have no relationship to his supposed subject, and he uncovers more than he discovers, leaving us with a sense of comfort that we are not alone in our fears, wonders, and confusion. In reading Montaigne, we grow to accept and even embrace these mysteries with a healthier approach to life.

In keeping with the comic tradition, Montaigne is truly funny, and sometimes even vulgar. When his wit isn't being sharpened with scepticism and the deconstruction of human customs and behavior, he is wondering why the Romans wiped their asses with a coarse sponge on a stick, quips about cuckholds and impotence, and quotes fart jokes of the ancients.

As an example, he comments on how so many nations have religions that have in common the recommended abstinence from sex and cultural mores that restrict women to behaviors that deny their own sexual needs. He states how these attitudes toward sex causes a lot of neurotic behavior and degrades rather than elevates women and all of society, though he admits that perhaps our sex organs do look a bit silly and perhaps we have good reason to be ashamed, his own "parts" having lately become "shameful and pitiful" as he reaches middle age.

I particularly enjoyed his words regarding our own mortality. He is open and honest about his fear of death, but encourages us all to accept death gracefully as necessary and perhaps even part of the beautiful machine to which we all belong. "All the time you live you steal from life, living at life's expense... No one ever dies before their time. The time you leave behind was no more yours than that which passed before your birth, and concerns you no more."

Now, the "Essays" is one massive book, and I would recommend anyone wishing to experience this masterwork to do one of the following:

1) Read Donald Frame's "Twenty-nine Essays," which selects the best and most representative of these writings. You will truly get a good feel for the work as a whole from this classic collection.

2) Read just a few of the entire "Essays" a day. Do not attempt to speed-read in order to get through all of them. Savor them. Think about them. It might take you all year. You might want to go back and revisit your favorites for the rest of your life. Make notes and highlights on what struck a chord with you and why. Montaigne himself says that he can't remember what he read unless he marks up a book with his own notes and writes his own review about it. I suspect he would have been very active on Goodreads! So follow his example and then compare your notes with how you feel and think several years from now. In that way, this book not only serve as a portal into Montaigne's soul, but a reflection of your own. It's that kind of work.
Profile Image for Sidharth Vardhan.
23 books · 685 followers
November 28, 2019
This time I am not gonna share quotes as there are hundreds of them and many are from authors' quoted by Montaigne. These essays are the kind of stuff I wish I had read when I was younger. It is probably the best kind of eloquence for a non-fiction author - not too heavy on verbosity, matter-of-factly and yet retaining a certain grace.

By 'Grace', I mean a way of holding oneself, I mean a quality which attracts natural respect. Montaigne writes with such grace that even if where his opinions are very opposite of yours, the difference of opinion becomes irrelevant. It is like listening to some old wise man - somewhat like the protagonist of 'Memoirs of Hadrin'. And you kind of know Montaigne won't mind you disagreeing to himself - he says he prefers those whose opinions are contrary to his. He speaks of his own opinions with quiet confidence but with no inclination of forcing his views on others.

He perceives the plight of women in his own times and seems to be capable of understanding them but is not moved to ask for equality for them. He also perceives that the cultures termed as 'barbarous' have as much reason to perceive other cultures as barbarous. While he sees also that laws of his time show great injustice to others, he shows great resistance to changes and revolutions.

The essays tend to grow larger as we move ahead and more personal. From general topics to talk about his opinions on different things including philosophical ones (Voltaire thinks him to be a philosopher of the best quality) to his own temperaments. This last gives you very deep insight into his nature - something better than a biography. We sort of know him (or quality of the material of which he is made) as much as we know Harold Bloom (from James Joyce's Ulysses) - in fact, we do learn quite a bit about Montaigne's toilet habits too.

Talking about oneself with honesty is probably one of the most difficult things to do. When we do see people talking about themselves at any length - we receive real or imagined complexes these people have. Perhaps this is why we are too self-conscious when talking about ourselves. Montaigne seems to be free of these complexes (perhaps because like Hadrian he was more or less waiting for death when he wrote) - he talks of weaknesses without trying anything to defend himself or showing low self-worth based on them and strengths as if they were gifts by someone else (God, nature, etc).

Not only Montaigne knows 'how' to talk about oneself, he also knows 'what' to talk about when talking about oneself. If only everyone talked about himself or herself like that!

He sometimes explains that essays were meant to show his temperaments and so this excuses his talking so much about himself. But it is really some of the essays where he is talking of his own temperaments that are my favorite parts.

When talking about philosophical subjects, he talks such as death, aging, etc; he sticks to an observational attitude he adopts while talking of customs, his favorite heroes, etc. This keeps him from getting too lost in his philosophical systems. Perhaps that is why he is not counted among philosophers despite influencing so many of them. Unlike most philosophers, Montaigne understands that he doesn't know it all. Probably ahead of his times in his ideas (church considered the book 'dangerous') - he is still open-minded enough often admitting there might be good reasons to have opinions different than his own.

The essays, especially bigger ones, are really like a stream-of-consciousness thing as they move freely between his thoughts sometimes spending several pages on a thought or idea which has nothing to do with the heading. Montaigne didn't edit his essays much which were mostly written each in a single sitting.
Profile Image for Benny.
551 reviews · 92 followers
December 30, 2022
“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready, be ready to get confused
There's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
They're terribly, terribly, terribly moody
Then all of a sudden turn happy
There is no map
And a compass wouldn't help at all
But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions
Is ever so, ever so satisfying”

- Björk (1993)
“De mens is een verbazend ijdel, complex en veranderlijk wezen. Je kunt er haast geen staat op maken of er algemene uitspraken over doen.”

- Michel de Montaigne (1580)

De beroemde essays van Montaigne beginnen met een hilarische waarschuwing:
“Dit boek, lezer, is er een te goeder trouw. Het waarschuwt u meteen al dat ik er slechts persoonlijke en privé-doeleinden mee heb nagestreefd. […] Ik wil dat men mij ziet in mijn eenvoud, gewoon zoals ik ben, ongedwongen en zonder opsmuk. […] Dus, lezer, ik ben zelf de stof van mijn boek; u zou wel gek zijn uw tijd te verdoen met een zo frivool en ijdel onderwerp. Vaarwel dus.” (Montainge, 1 maart 1580)
Maar het is zoals met de appel. Als je er niet mag in bijten, dan bijt je zeker. Dus zette ik geheid door. Ruim een half jaar lang lag dit boek op mijn nachttafeltje en vaak voor het slapen gaan las ik erin, soms een volledig essay, soms twee, soms slechts een flard. Niet elk essay is even geslaagd en sommige zijn gewoon te lang, maar daar gaat dit niet over.

Honderd en zeven keer laat Montaigne zijn gedachten gaan. Daarbij komen de meest diverse onderwerpen aan bod. Hij schrijft essays over de opvoeding (I.26), de vriendschap (I.28) en gewetensvrijheid (II.19), maar evengoed over postpaarden (II.22), duimen (II.26) of kannibalen (I.31).

De oudste essays werden geschreven tussen 1571 en 1580 en in 1580 gepubliceerd in twee afzonderlijke boeken. Acht jaar later voegde hij daar nog een derde boekdeel aan toe. Vanaf 1588 tot aan zijn dood in 1592 bleef Montaigne er aantekeningen, toevoegingen en opmerkingen in de marge aan toevoegen. Zo ontstond tegen het einde van de 18de eeuw de ‘exemplaire de Bordeaux’ die als referentie-uitgave geldt. De verwijzingen bij de essays verwijzen naar de boeken waarin ze oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd werden, maar – omdat Montaigne nooit echt gestopt is met sleutelen en prutsen aan zijn schrijven – heb je dus telkens ook minstens drie tekstlagen.

Ik vind dat geestig. Montaigne geeft zijn gedachten de vrije loop. De onderwerpen of titels vormen daarbij slechts een aanleiding. “Ik heb van nature een badinerende, familiaire, persoonlijke manier van spreken.” (I.40, gedachten over Cicero). “Samenhang en eenduidigheid zul je niet aantreffen in zo’n banale, gewone geest als de mijne.” (III.13, over de ervaring), want “stelligheid en stijfhoofdigheid zijn onmiskenbare tekenen van dwaasheid.” (ibid.) Ook dit is een waarschuwing: lezers die van orde en netheid houden, gelieve zich te onthouden!

Als zelfs de titel de lading niet dekt, waar gaat het dan wel over? Over Montaigne zelf natuurlijk! Zijn verzamelde essays vormen “een uit stukjes opgebouwd zelfportret” (III.9, over de ijdelheid). In 107 probeersels probeert hij zichzelf – en met hem de mensheid – te doorgronden.

Dat levert een bijzonder rijk boek op. Montaigne schrijft er vrijelijk op los (soms wat té). Hij spiegelt zich uitvoerig aan de klassiekers, strooit (soms wat te) gul met citaten van Plato, Cicero, Tacitus, Vergilius e.a. In zijn enthousiasme dist hij tal van anekdotes en verhaaltjes op. Niets menselijks is hem vreemd. Hij springt ongegeneerd van hoog naar laag. Hersenspinsels en gedachtenkronkels komen even goed aan bod als seks, lichamelijkheid en al onze dierbare lichaamssappen.

Dat werkt geestig en relativerend.
“Zelfs op de hoogste troon ter wereld zit je nog altijd op je eigen gat.” (III.13, over de ervaring)
"Zelfs koningen en wijsgeren kakken, en dames ook.” (ibid.)
Ook meer dan 400 jaar na publicatie blijven Montaignes essays een genoegen. Binnen zijn context (wat haat ik die uitdrukking!) blijkt de man behoorlijk woke, al kan je een zestiende-eeuwer bezwaarlijk meten aan de hand van criteria van nu natuurlijk. Maar toch. Ook al zijn er wel enkele uitschuivers te vinden, Montaignes wijsheid staat m.i. ook na al die eeuwen nog buiten kijf.
“Wij moeten respectvoller over de oneindige macht van de natuur oordelen en met meer inzicht in onze eigen zwakheid en onwetendheid” (I.27, wie zich inbeeldt dat hij kan uitmaken wat waar is en wat niet, is een dwaas)
De essays van Montaigne las ik met potlood in handbereik, klaar om passages of fraseringen te markeren. Bestaat er een citatenversie van de essays? Het zou een zegen zijn voor de gehaaste 21ste-eeuwer. Anderzijds vormt net de traagheid en het gewicht van dit boek zo’n aanstekelijk antiserum voor de soms zo ondraaglijke lichtheid van onze tijd. Montainge lezen is mindfulness.

De levenswijsheid van Montaigne, die matigheid zoekt in alles (ook in de matigheid) en zo vol menselijk is, is tijdloos.

Soms doet dit relativisme me denken aan oosterse wijsheden.
“Als ik dans, dans ik, als ik slaap, slaap ik.” (III.13, over de ervaring)
Maar ook:
“Ik ben niet erg dol op sla of vruchten, behalve op meloenen.” (ibid.)
Daarbij valt er flink wat te lachen. Het essay over kannibalen (I.31) eindigt met:
“Dat is allemaal zo slecht nog niet; maar ja, ze hebben geen broek aan."
Ook zichzelf neemt Montaigne graag op de korrel, want “misschien is er wel niets ijdeler dan het ijdel geschrijf over dit onderwerp.” (III.9, over de ijdelheid)

Tenslotte ga ik – vergeef me ook deze ijdelheid – graag nog even dieper in op Goodreads en mijn eigen probeersels hier. In essay II.10 (over boeken) verwoordt Montaigne immers perfect waarom ik ooit lid ben geworden van deze club:
“Mijn geheugen is zo abominabel slecht dat ik meer dan eens een boek als nieuw en mij onbekend ter hand heb genomen dat ik een paar jaar eerder aandachtig gelezen en met aantekeningen bekrabbeld had."
Wat ooit begon als geheugensteun, is uitgegroeid tot een kralenkrans aan boekbesprekingen. Dit is nummer 521, als ik de teller mag geloven. Noem ook dit gerust een soort zelfportret in stukjes. Maar dat is niet zo belangrijk.

Met de essays kan het eenvoudig. Ze blijven gewoon liggen op dat nachttafeltje. Allicht neem ik ze nog wel eens vast, want wie kan ooit beweren dat hij een boek – laat staan dit boek – ooit echt ‘uit’ heeft? Een recensie hoef je echter niet meer te verwachten, want:
“Wanneer spreken wij nu eens met elkaar af: dit boek heeft zo wel genoeg commentaar gehad, vanaf nu valt er niets meer over te zeggen?” (III.13, over de ervaring)
Wat uiteindelijk telt:
“Een zinvol leven leiden, dat is een meesterwerk.” (III.13, over de ervaring)
Profile Image for Jack.
457 reviews · 48 followers
September 25, 2018
I think of Shakespeare, his fame and endurance, and although I am not one to suggest his work doesn't deserve the centrality in the English canon where it sits, I wonder precisely what qualities afford him a seemingly guaranteed immortality. I don't want to think about his poetic skill or his mastery of characterization. Instead, I find it intriguing that the authorship question still has such ground for conversation, if not quite academic relevancy. We don't know Shakespeare the man as much as we'd like; our debt in our English phraseology resides in a distant paternal figure. The mystery frustrates and compels us - no author today will have the luxury of being so important and yet so unknown. If we knew even a fraction of Shakespeare's aesthetic theory or personal philosophy it would do more harm to his legacy than anything else. We appreciate his art as something timeless because the artist beholden to his own time doesn't truly exist.

I know little about Shakespeare the man, and now, so much about Montaigne, part of me can't help but believe their characters were likely quite similar. Montaigne's essays are allMontaigne, all the time. He insists upon himself, and he cannot escape himself. If you've ever engaged in personal writing in any form you have something in common with Montaigne.

I write these reviews, and keep a diary, and occasionally try to write fiction - that order is the order of the difficulty in composition. I have my subject in these reviews - the book - and have no further obligations beyond composing my brief impression of the text. When I write for myself, on myself, I find the words come naturally but the desire to probe further strained and painful. I break into self-pitying asides - look at that sentence! Surely I could've written something better than that! Surely I have a firm enough grasp of language at this stage my vocabulary can adequately express the reality of my emotion at this very moment? Why is there no poetry to my honesty? Are my thoughts - the atoms of my being - as ugly as my words make them appear? With writing honestly about myself proving such a burden, it follows that exploring myself and lifting fiction from the depths of experience is harder still.

Montaigne writes in a fluid, articulate and sometimes frustratingly casual way about those very concerns. When the subject of one's writing is themselves, the difficulty is not in where to start but where to finish - what conclusions to make of oneself. Perhaps it is a mental illness not to eventually abandon introspective writing in a fit of shame and embarrassment. Contemporary society in all its propagation of technology is certainly gifted in its ability to provide pain relief for the ego. In the early Church, despair was among the deadly sins we know so well. Just because the word 'sin' no longer collocates with despair doesn't mean it is any less destructive than the others. On the contrary...

Montaigne is the definition of a 'constant companion'. His writing is friendly, appropriately scattering through trivial and fundamental topics of conversation, and he never seems to change. His attitudes to life and death are not really much altered from Book I to Book III - he considers everything and doesn't change his mind. He can be as maddening as he is agreeable - his intense usage of quotes from antiquity never lets up, and it can get a little tiresome engaging with someone who seems to justify everything with Aristotle or Plutarch, even if he's contradicting himself in a previous essay. I also think he's a better read in short bursts than in sustained dialogue. Book III wearied me as he tended to trade quantity for fewer long-form essays, without altering his extremely digressive mode of thinking. The subjects of his essays do occasionally clash with their content. I think Montaigne is an essential read for anyone, but not his entire oeuvre. What you see is what you get. Dip into this book like you would read scattered articles that catch your eye in a newspaper.

Montaigne's humanity is the core of his prose. Befriend him, visit him occasionally, cease contact if he grows annoying, then come back when you recall the good memories you shared. I give him four stars now, but our relations will undoubtedly improve. Don't read all of Montaigne in a year, and then never again. He's a constant companion. Read every-so-often for all time.
Profile Image for Caroline.
768 reviews · 220 followers
April 15, 2022
Endlessly rewarding. I turned to it often when I tired of listening to more modern authors. What fine company! Self-deprecating, but ready to state the things he does find good in himself. Trying to find balance and peace of mind in the endless religious wars. As adept at finding interest, and as eloquent in holding forth, in minor matters of table and dress as in serious moral issues.

I could take a quote from any page, but after all his 858 pages of reflections, he settles on this approach to life:

It is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the use of our own, and go outside of ourselves because we do not know what it is like inside...

The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern, with order, but without miracle and without eccentricity.Now old age needs to be treated a little more tenderly. Let us commend it to that god who is the protector of health and wisdom, but gay and sociable wisdom:

Grant me but health, Latona's son,
And to enjoy the wealth I've won,
And honored age, with mind entire
And not unsolaced by the lyre
Profile Image for Jim Coughenour.
4 books · 178 followers
August 16, 2008
I've been skipping my way around Montaigne's superb Essays this summer. This is possibly the best bedside book ever – or if you're a morning person, an excellent companion for a leisurely cup of coffee.

Written almost 500 years ago, these essays are as fresh as tomorrow. Montaigne is always ahead of us. His genuinely compassionate, restless and skeptical mind never flags in its humanistic curiosity – and his quiet observations and tentative conclusions will shock even the most jaded reader with a sense of discovery and delight.

I grew up with Donald Frame translation, but I much prefer this unsanitized version by M A Screech (which comes in a handsome if hefty Penguin edition), as Montaigne could get right to the point when required: Les Roys et les philosophes fientent, et les dames aussie. Kings and philosophers shit; and so do ladies.

Wisdom rarely comes so unadorned.

Profile Image for Amy.
514 reviews · 38 followers
May 15, 2022
This snotty aristocrat thought he was just SO smart and had just SO much to write down, including tons of boring misogynistic views and dozens of subjects he really didn’t know what he was talking about and certainly didn’t prove throughout. He also wrote dozens of quirky and interesting essays about subjects that surprised me because they seemed so out of place. Until the 5th or 6th that struck me as bizarre, then I realized this is his thing. Politics, mundane topics, religion, friendship, jealousy, you name it, he covered it. I didn’t read all of the essays but I got through 50% or so and it was enough for me. The writing is dense and often I needed to plough through to get over dry humps. He coined the essay with his writing style and overall it’s interesting to see his massive tomb of ideas covering such a range of subjects but it’s a bit snoozefest.
Profile Image for Yann.
1,407 reviews · 334 followers
March 26, 2023
Le très aimable Montaigne. Sa langue est un peu difficile mais ne manque pas de saveur (le chien qui achemine sa vengeance avec grande âpreté de courroux). Sa simplicité fait qu on l adopte d emblée. Son érudition est une invitation supplémentaire a se tourner vers ces excellents auteurs de l antiquité.
Profile Image for Dan.
118 reviews · 3 followers
June 23, 2017
Montaigne has been an excellent companion during my yard work and gardening chores this spring. The Audible book is based on the Frame translation - some people complain about it because Frame does not use Montaigne's original quotations (just the English translation) while Screech provides the original quotation, plus the English translation. For listening, Frame is great, and both editions are pretty similar to me, as I know no French, Greek, and just a few altar boy Latin words. (The Screech book is almost 400 pages longer due to these original and translated "borrowings").

Montaigne quotes a lot - he is a Renaissance man well versed in Greek and Roman writers, and lived (just) before Shakespeare, and most science or "enlightenment."

Famous for asking "What do I Know?" his vast reading, position in society (he advised French Kings) and his experience led him to conclude that he knew very little. The question he is really asking is "What do I know for certain?, what is really true. He concludes that he - and other men - know very little. (No matter who he quotes, he often quotes an equal contradictory view.) All he can know, if he works hard enough, and is disciplined, is to know himself. He is the world's foremost expert on Montaigne.

Listening to all these essays, usually in 2 or three hour blocks, was a great experience, and the yard looks pretty good. Plenty of rain this year.
Profile Image for Michael Canoeist.
132 reviews · 5 followers
June 16, 2013
If you've secretly believed that no person could consider himself educated until he had read Montaigne, among many others -- I am here to set you free. It's not that the inventor of the essay is that terrible; he's OK (though no Aldous Huxley -- those are essays worth reading). He covers a lot of ground, he skips about fearlessly even in one essay, and he has a great way of putting in quotes from his own reading, Juvenal, Ovid, Horace, Catullus, Virgil and Propertius. But he is not a first-class intellect. So his points, his musings, his associations -- they are OK, sometimes more interesting, sometimes less. I have only been able to skip around in this large supply of his writings. It has its moments, you'll pick up interesting points of history at times, and one man's outlook on life -- but it probably won't change the way you look at anything in your own life. It's just not something that grabs you -- except perhaps for details like how one of his workers buried himself alive with his own hands because he had, or thought he had, the Plague.
Profile Image for Asim Bakhshi.
8 books · 258 followers
March 6, 2014
I doubt anyone would be able to understand his own self in as much depth and reveal the insights with as little prejudice as Montaigne did in these essays. These superbly crafted 'trials' gave way to this brilliant literary genre. A must read for all enthusiasts of classical literature.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,500 reviews · 39 followers
December 27, 2021
It took me a year - reading about 110 pages a month - but I finished reading Montaigne's essays. I DID IT! After having it on my to-read list for many years, I finally bit the bullet and decided to buy the very very very thick book and attempt to read and understand it. I bought a blank journal just for these essays, so I could take notes - set down vocabulary I looked , copy quotes from the book that spoke to me and write the various thoughts I had about my reading. I filled the entire journal. This is not the sort of essay collection that you blow through, reading quickly. It's more something to savor and nibble on.

At times I would forget the essays were written over 450 years ago, Montaigne's voice seemed so alive and fresh. Other times, especially when he was discussing women, he certainly seemed like he was from the 1500s. Yikes, we have come a long way, fellow women! Men used to think of us on the level of an animal, not a human equal. I had to step back and remember the era he lived in and not get upset about his sentiments towards women.

Honestly, I don't even know how to begin reviewing something like this. Montaigne touched upon such a wide range of topics - many of his essays he titled "On ____". A small selection of titles being - on virtue, on sleep, on cruelty, on patience, on experience - you get the picture. In total, there are 107 essays, ranging from just one or two pages long up to nearly a hundred pages long.

I'm going to miss Montaigne's voice in my head, after spending a whole year with him. I'm thinking of reading a biography of him, in order to get an even deeper understanding of him. This is a serious commitment, choosing to read all of his essays, but it is worth it in the end.

I can find no quality so easy to counterfeit as devotion; it's essence is hidden and secret, it's external appearances are easy and ostentatious.

Anyone who wishes to be cured of ignorance must first admit to it.

I was much more terrified of illness when I was well than when I felt ill. Being healthy leads me to get the other state quite out of proportion, so that I mentally increase all its discomforts and imagine them heavier than they prove to be when I have to bear them.

Anyone who holds his life cheap is always master of the life of another man.

By punishing children for depravity before they are depraved, you make them so.

Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to.

Each man comes down heavily on his neighbor's sins and lessens the weight of his own.

When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?
Profile Image for Josh Friedlander.
720 reviews · 103 followers
November 26, 2021
Listened to this (quite long) book at regular speed! and it took much of this year. In retrospect, I think I'd have been better off just reading one of the pop-summaries like How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question - not because it wasn't worth it but because reading it through, in one pass, is the wrong approach. The essays are a guide to life, something to keep around and reference regularly, not read once and put aside.

Montaigne invented the term "essay", but not the form. He seems to have been influenced by Plutarch's , an eclectic collection of writing on both historical and philosophical subjects. Montaigne frequently brings examples from the classical world, and his style is light and discursive, mixing rational arguments with anecdotes, and equally happy to discuss scatology or eschatology.

The translation I read, by Donald Frame (a famous Montaigne scholar), contains some helpful notes, and also translates the Latin poems Montaigne cites into rhyming English, which I always consider a neat trick (although Nabokov would not approve). The style of his essays is basically to begin with a commonplace belief and then claim that it is incorrect, both with rational arguments and anecdotes. (So pretty similar to how essays work today, although we tend to reach for shoddy, irreproducible social science papers for support instead of mythology or legends about Languedoc princes.)

There are some striking points of view, such as his rejection of Machiavellian pragmatism on the grounds that it is ineffective, rather than unethical, and his excoriation of the Spanish invasion of the Americas (III, 6). But mostly what stays with the reader is not Montaigne as a Catholic or a Pyrrhonic sceptic (though he clearly is both), but as the exemplary humanist, open to every new idea, always searching for truth, and always hungry for the simple pleasures of existence.
We are great fools. "He has passed his life in idleness," say we: "I have done nothing to-day." What? have you not lived? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations.
Profile Image for Matt.
439 reviews
January 2, 2012
Few things are more humbling that watching exceptional men humble themselves. In his collection of essays, nearly 900 pages long, Montaigne reflects on all things from the greatness of Rome to smells. With unpretentious ease, he references the western classical historians and philosophers who provide the foundations for his discussions with himself. And, with similar unpretentious ease, he agrees or disagrees with them or, more commonly, uses them to show they contradict each other. Repeatedly, he concedes that all this learning does not provide any real knowledge. We are neither happier nor wiser because of study. It’s all just a diversion. An exercise for a test that will never occur.

Writing with a sincerity I cannot even make analogy to, Montaigne’s Essays overflows with genuine sentiment. He refuses to hide behind obscurity and strikes a style that is so clear and accessible that you hear him rather than read him.

Montaigne is not the first to denigrate the ultimate value in study and clearly has not been the last. However, he is a well-educated man denouncing education. He writes without agenda. He is religious but does not advocate religion. He is a nationalist but does not advocate nationalism. His writings are about himself in the hope that incessant self-evaluation will reveal something about himself and others. He’s curious but, more importantly, honest about how little enlightenment a lifetime of study can really provide.

Normally, I plow through books this length just trying to get through them. I try to parse out whatever premise or process the writer is relying upon. But not with Montaigne. I found myself lingering over these essays. Listening to the conversation he was having with himself and hearing myself. Or at least what I want to sound like.

Montaigne is a great find and a welcome companion to anyone trying to obtain a classical liberal arts education.
Profile Image for James Hartley.
10 books · 127 followers
May 3, 2020
What a jewel this book is - a real friend.
It's taken me almost a year to read the bugger - reading more or less an essay every day, or every few days, with some missed weeks here and there. It's not a simple read, at least at first, but there are enough bright spots as you go to keep you going and, whether because of his style or your becoming accustomed to Montaigne and his world and manner, it becomes gradually easier and easier to plod through.
The subject, of course, is Montaigne himself and everything that interests him. This means essays which meander through various subjects, peppered with quotes from his extensive classical library (mainly Plato, Plutarch, Cicero etc) and some French and European poets. Some essays are very much of their time, some stodgy (to me anyway), some dense, some sparkling and a great many so chatty and clear that they are a conversation. It says something that the book could be shelved as literature, history, psychology, self-help or even humour as well as biography.
By the end, the last essay summing up of "On Experience", you have read a man in full, a human in full, and Montaigne is a friend of yours. You're no longer trying to make sense of him or argue with him in your mind but instead you're listening, nodding, sad to know you'll soon be apart but glad you know where he is if you ever need him again.
Truly, after 1269 pages, I wanted to turn back and start again.
A great book.
235 reviews
September 28, 2020
Montaigne is not as much a hard read but a long read. Therefore, I must warn you of that, right from the beginning. The best mindset is to consider this collection of essays as Montaigne's own blog.

In the beginning one cannot say that it is very much a philosophy work. So if one wants to get to the wisdom, probably reading them in order is not the best way to go. So I believe that the best way to read this is to read his longest essay first. It is "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" and it can be found in volume two, chapter 12. This particular section is gold. It contains a very pertinent critic of the limits of human reasoning power. One needs to wonder how the Western world would have developed if someone like Montaigne would have been the leading mind behind its development and not someone like Descartes, as it happened.

Montaigne is a conservative, but he, unlike most conservative is somewhat modest in spite of his self professed egotism. I wouldn't call him wise, but his life was to my mind lived with wisdom. And that, in an age where it was generally very difficult to do.

His essays do not contain unheard of insight but rather pure common sense. And I esteem him most as an excellent guide to the ancient history.

Give it a try, but don't be too eager to finish it.
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