From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Essays is the title of a book written by Michel de Montaigne that was first published in 1580. Montaigne essentially invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, of which the book contains a large number. Essai is French for "trial" or "attempt". Notable chapters include "Upon some verses of Virgil".
Montaigne wrote in a kind of crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style which gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotes from classical Greek and Roman texts.
Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness, for example including large sections on bodily functions. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. A typical quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disgust for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for death.
Montaigne is disgusted with the violent and, in his opinion, barbaric conflicts between Catholics and Protestants of his time, and his writings show a pessimism and skepticism quite uncharacteristic for the Renaissance.
He exhibited a quite modern cultural relativism, recognizing that laws, morals and religions of the various cultures, while often quite different, may all be equally valid. He opposed the conquest of the New World, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.
Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty, and he rejects general and absolute statements and all dogma. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to (the first known use of this argument against torture). In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond ostensibly defended Christianity. However, Montaigne eloquently employed so many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomist Lucretius, that it can be read as an argument to disregard all and any religious dogma.
Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."
In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that is expected to be accepted uncritically.
The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.
Montaigne heavily edited Essays at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:
- A: passages written 1571-1580, published 1580
- B: passages written 1580-1588, published 1588
- C: passages written 1588-1592, published 1595 (posthumously)
Analysis of the differences and additions between editions shows how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Not unremarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.
The Essays of Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne
Translated by Charles Cotton
First published in 1686.
TOC from the edition published in 1877 by William Carew Hazilitt:
- Book I
- The Author to the Reader
- Chapter I. That men by various ways arrive at the same end.
- Chapter II. Of Sorrow.
- Chapter III. That our affections carry themselves beyond us.
- Chapter IV. That the soul discharges her passions upon false objects, where the true are wanting.
- Chapter V. Whether the governor of a place besieged ought himself to go out to parley.
- Chapter VI. That the hour of parley is dangerous.
- Chapter VII. That the intention is judge of our actions.
- Chapter VIII. Of idleness.
- Chapter IX. Of liars.
- Chapter X. Of quick or slow speech.
- Chapter XI. Of prognostications.
- Chapter XII. Of constancy.
- Chapter XIII. The ceremony of the interview of princes.
- Chapter XIV. That men are justly punished for being obstinate in the defence of a fort that is not in reason to be defended.
- Chapter XV. Of the punishment of cowardice.
- Chapter XVI. A proceeding of some ambassadors.
- Chapter XVII. Of fear.
- Chapter XVIII. That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death.
- That to study philosophy is to learn to die.
- Of the force of imagination.
- Chapter XXI. That the profit of one man is the damage of another.
- Chapter XXII. Of custom, and that we should not easily change a law received.
- Chapter XXIII. Various events from the same counsel.
- Chapter XXIV. Of pedantry.
- Chapter XXV. Of the education of children.
- Chapter XXVI. That it is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity.
- Chapter XXVII. Of friendship.
- Chapter XXVIII. Nine-and-twenty sonnets of Estienne de la Boetie.
- Chapter XXIX. Of moderation.
- Chapter XXX. Of cannibals.
- Chapter XXXI. That a man is soberly to judge of the divine ordinances.
- Chapter XXXII. That we are to avoid pleasures, even at the expense of life.
- Chapter XXXIII. That fortune is oftentimes observed to act by the rule of reason.
- Chapter XXXIV. Of one defect in our government.
- Chapter XXXV. Of the custom of wearing clothes.
- Chapter XXXVI. Of Cato the Younger.
- Chapter XXXVII. That we laugh and cry for the same thing.
- Chapter XXXVIII. Of solitude.
- Chapter XXXIX. A consideration upon Cicero.
- Chapter XL. That the relish of good and evil depends in a great measure upon the opinion we have of them.
- Chapter XLI. Not to communicate a man's honour.
- Chapter XLII. Of the inequality amongst us.
- Chapter XLIII. Of sumptuary laws.
- Chapter XLIV. Of sleep.
- Chapter XLV. Of the battle of Dreux.
- Chapter XLVI. Of names.
- Chapter XLVII. Of the uncertainty of our judgment.
- Chapter XLVIII. Of war-horses, or destriers.
- Chapter XLIX. Of ancient customs.
- Chapter L. Of Democritus and Heraclitus.
- Chapter LI. Of the vanity of words.
- Chapter LII. Of the parsimony of the Ancients.
- Chapter LIII. Of a saying of Caesar.
- Chapter LIV. Of vain subtleties.
- Chapter LV. Of smells.
- Chapter LVI. Of prayers.
- Chapter LVII. Of age.
- Book II
- Chapter I. Of the inconstancy of our actions.
- Chapter II. Of drunkenness.
- Chapter III. A custom of the Isle of Cea.
- Chapter IV. To-morrow's a new day.
- Chapter V. Of conscience.
- Chapter VI. Use makes perfect.
- Chapter VII. Of recompenses of honour.
- Chapter VIII. Of the affection of fathers to their children.
- Chapter IX. Of the arms of the Parthians.
- Chapter X. Of books.
- Chapter XI. Of cruelty.
- Chapter XII. The Apology of Raymond Sebond. <ref>Translator John Florio</ref>
- Chapter XIII. Of judging of the death of another.
- Chapter XIV. That the mind hinders itself.
- Chapter XV. That our desires are augmented by difficulty.
- Chapter XVI. Of glory.
- Chapter XVII. Of presumption.
- Chapter XVIII. Of giving the lie.
- Chapter XIX. Of liberty of conscience.
- Chapter XX. That we taste nothing pure.
- Chapter XXI. Against idleness.
- Chapter XXII. Of Posting.
- Chapter XXIII. Of ill means employed to a good end.
- Chapter XXIV. Of the Roman grandeur.
- Chapter XXV. Not to counterfeit being sick.
- Chapter XXVI. Of thumbs.
- Chapter XXVII. Cowardice the mother of cruelty.
- Chapter XXVIII. All things have their season.
- Chapter XXIX. Of virtue.
- Chapter XXX. Of a monstrous child.
- Chapter XXXI. Of anger.
- Chapter XXXII. Defence of Seneca and Plutarch.
- Chapter XXXIII. The story of Spurina.
- Chapter XXXIV. Means to carry on a war according to Julius Caesar.
- Chapter XXXV. Of three good women.
- Chapter XXXVI. Of the most excellent men.
- Chapter XXXVII. Of the resemblance of children to their fathers.
- Book III
- Chapter I. Of Profit and Honesty.
- Chapter II. Of Repentance.
- Chapter III. Of Three Commerces.
- Chapter IV. Of Diversion.
- Chapter V. Upon Some verses of Virgil
- Chapter VI. Of Coaches.
- Chapter VII. Of the Inconvenience of Greatness.
- Chapter VIII. Of the Art of Conference.
- Chapter IX. Of Vanity.
- Chapter X. Of Managing the Will.
- Chapter XI. Of Cripples.
- Chapter XII. Of Physiognomy.
- Chapter XIII. Of Experience.