February 13, 2020 by Jason Phillips
Who the fuck is Michel De Montaigne?
No idea why, but i’ve become a bit obsessed with this French dude lately. (1533-1592).
He claims that he is the first writer to ever have, for his subject, put up himself for study. He promises nothing but blatant honesty in his study of his life and mind and opinions. And some of his rants are genius and others bat shit crazy!
His opus ‘THE ESSAYS”… is still available. There were 3 volumes, which he spent 20 years or so editing and rewriting and changing. He was the first ever author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. The french word essay meaning to ‘try’.
I recently dusted the Penguin English translation of Selected Essays. It was pretty tough going, to be tangled up in this guys mind and follow him on every whim and tangent. He was tackling, 500 years ago, some of the same shit we think about today.
He set up a library and writing desk in a turret in his castle, after retiring from working in the courts in Bordeaux, after the age of 42ish. The writing room is still as it was, and you can visit it, in The Dordoigne in France today. Back then France was in the grip of civil wars and it seemed like quite a dodgy time to be around. I think he got robbed several times, almost killed, his castle got charged and several of his men killed.
He had a rough time trying to build a family, and after several children dying very young, he only managed to have one daughter carry on the lineage. He speaks of brain-children. These are the children you leave behind for the world through a creation of work, and argues sometimes you may have more love for brain-children than your actual children. This collection of essays could be seen as Montaigne’s second child, and his only Brain Child.
I find it fascinating that these records of thoughts still exist today, giving us a glimpse into the minds of our ancestors. His pioneering self-centred style was loosely a prototype for Gonzo journalism to be born 4 centuries later, with its P.O.V. narrative of the events and thoughts of the experiencer. This style sits you in a comfy arm chair moulded in a front centre location in the cerebrum of the author. What can be more fun than a virtual reality trip… we ARE the author!
He was a Christian who studied philosophy and had an interest in living to the full. He often quotes The Stoics in all their wisdom, also taking apart the wisdom and looking at it from every angle.
He disregarded other styles of philosophy he had no time for, by simply taking the piss:
“But what will he do when they harass him with some sophistical syllogistic subtlety:
Bacon makes you drink; Drinking quenches your thirst; Therefore bacon quenches your thirst?
Let him simply laugh at it: is is cleverer to laugh at it than to answer it. Why should I unravel that? It is bad enough all knotted up!”
I’ve collated some of the bits I underlined in the book here, there’s a lot… There were a plethora of nuggets, and I wanted to put them somewhere where i could dive in again for a refresher! I still, however, urge you to pick up a copy and indulge yourself.
A bientôt Mon Ami.
Over to Michel……..
“It was a melancholy humour brought on by the chagrin caused by the solitary retreat I plunged myself into a few years ago, which first put into my head this raving concern with writing. Finding myself quite empty, with nothing to write about, I offered myself to myself as theme and subject matter. It is the only book of its kind in the world.”
Book 1, Essay 20: To philosophize is to learn how to die
“How absurd to anguish over our passing into freedom from all anguish.”
“As we are born we die; the end of our life is attached to its beginning.”
“Triumph over time and live as long as you please: death eternal will still be waiting for you.”
“No night has ever followed day, no dawn has ever followed night, without hearing, interspersed among the wails of infants, the cries of pain attending death and sombre funerals.”
Book 1, Essay 26: On educating children
“Our lessons will slip by unnoticed if we apparently happen upon them, as, restricted to neither time or place, they intermingle with all out activities.”
“There is a great difference between not wanting to do evil and not knowing how to.”
Book 1, Essay 31: On the cannibals (the recent discovering of the new world)
“Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course: whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage.”
“Ivy grows best when left untended; the strawberry tree flourishes more beautifully in lonely grottoes, and birds sing the sweeter for their artlessness.”
“Just as our wives are zealous in thwarting our love and tenderness for other women, theirs are equally zealous in obtaining them for them.”
“Being more concerned for their husband’s reputation then for anything else, they take care and trouble to have as many fellow-wives as possible, since that is a testimony to their husband’s valour.”
Book 1, Essay 39: On solitude
“Socrates was told that some man had not been improved by travel. ‘I am sure he was not,’ he said. ‘He went with himself!’
“We take our fetter with us; our freedom is not total: we still turn our gaze towards the things we have left behind; our imagination is full of them.”
“In lonely places, be a crowd unto yourself.”
“Let us pluck life’s pleasures: it is up to us to live; you will soon be ashes, a ghost, something to tell tales about.”
“You have lived up to the present floating and tossing about; come away into the harbour and die… Renounce all concern for your name and glory… Among other gratifications give up the one which comes from other people’s approval.”
“You and one companion are audience enough for each other; so are you for yourself. For you, let the crowd be one, and one be a crowd.”
“We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs.”
“You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself.”
Book 2, Essay 1: On the inconstancy of actions
“Anyone who turns his his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice.”
“Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull; brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal – I can see something of all that in myself, depending how i gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy.”
“Anyone who has not groomed his life in general towards some definite end cannot possibly arrange his individual actions properly. It is impossible to put the pieces together if you do not have an idea in your head of the whole.”
“What is the point in providing yourself with paints if you do not know what to paint?”
“The bowman must first know what he is aiming at: then he has to prepare hand, bow, bowstring, arrow and his drill to that end.”
“Our projects go astray because they are not addressed to a target.”
“No wind is right for a seaman who has no predetermined harbour.”
Book 2, Essay 8: On the affection of fathers for their children
“I am incapable of finding a place for that emotion which leads people to cuddle new-born infants while they are still without movements of soul or recognizable features of body to make themselves lovable. And I have never willingly allowed them to be nursed in my presence.”
“I would have been more punctilious with boys, who are less born to serve and whose mode-of-being is freer: I would have loved to make their hearts overflow with openness and frankness. I have never seen caning achieve anything except making souls more cowardly or more maliciously stubborn.”
“I was thirty-three when I married; and I approve of thirty-five – the opinion attributed to Aristotle.”
“He is right to laugh at spouses who lie together after fifty-five, their offspring unworthy to live and eat.”
“The history of Greece notes how //many great athletes// deprived themselves of any sort of sexual activity during the time they were getting their bodies in trim for the races, wrestling and other contests at the Olympic Games.”
“Whenever I hear of the state that some other man is in, I waste no time over that but immediately turn my eyes on to myself to see how I am doing. Everything which touched him touches me also. What has happened to him is a warning and an alert coming from the same quarter.”
“I know only too well from experience when we lose those we love there is no consolation sweeter than the knowledge of having remembered to tell them everything and to have enjoyed the most perfect and absolute communication with them.”
“The village-women where I live call in the help of goats when they cannot suckle their children themselves… These nanny-goats are trained from the outset to suckle human children; they recognize their voices when they start crying and come running up. Theu reject any other child you give them except the one they are feeding; the child does the same to another nanny-goat.”
Book 2, Essay 11: On cruelty
“To act badly was too easy and too cowardly; to act well when there was no danger, too commonplace; but to act well when danger threatened, was the proper duty of a virtuous man.”
Book 2, Essay 37: On the resemblance of children to their fathers
“Neither be afraid of your last day nor desire it”
“Let praise rush to pile up around me, thickly not thinly spread, plentiful rather than long-lasting. Then, when its sweet voice can strike my ears no more, it can be bold enough to disappear with my own consciousness.”
“If anyone is worth anything, let is appear in his behaviour, in his ordinary talk when loving or quarrelling, in his past-times, in bed, at table, in the way he conducts his business and runs his house.”
Book 3, Essay 2: On repenting
“If all complain that i talk too much abut myself, I complain that they never even think about their own selves.”
“Evil swallows most of its own venom and poisons itself. Vice leaves repentance in the soul like an ulcer in the flesh which is forever scratching itself and bleeding.”
“In my own climate of Gascony they find it funny to see me in print; I am valued the more the farther from home knowledge has spread. In Guienne I pay my printer: elsewhere, they pay me.”
“My decisions are so fashioned as always to take the easiest and the surest side. I find that I proceeded wisely, according to my rule….. and in the same circumstances I would do the same a thousand years from now. I pay no regard to what it looks like now but to how it was when I was examining it.”
“I have few regrets for affairs of any sort, no matter how they have turned out, once they are past. I am always comforted by the thought that they had to happen that way: that they are in the vast march of the universe and in the concatenation of Stoic causes; no idea of yours, by wish or by thought, can change one jot without overturning the whole order of Nature, both past and future.”
Book 3, Essay 3: On three kinds of social intercourse
“We must dispel the vices of leisure by our work.”
“No occupation is more powerful, or more feeble, than entertaining one’s own thoughts – depending on what kind of soul it is.”
“Being a man who does not ask to be thought better than I am, I will say this about the errors of my youth: I rarely lent myself to venal commerce with prostitutes, not only because of the danger to my health but also because I despised it.”
“Every place of retreat need an ambulatory. My thoughts doze off if I squat them down.”
“Books have plenty of pleasant qualities for those who know how to select them. But there is no good without ill… Reading has its disadvantages – and they are weighty ones: it exercises the soul, but during that time the body remains inactive and grows earth-bound and sad. I know of no excess more harmful to me in my declining years, nor more to be avoided.”
Book 3, Essay 5: On some lines of Virgil
“Gloomy thoughts should be made pleasant by jests.”
“Let us not be ashamed to say whatever we are not ashamed to think.”
“I loathe a morose and gloomy mind which glides over life’s pleasures but holds on to its misfortunes and feeds on them… like leeches which crave to suck only bad blood.”
“I hunger to make myself known. Provided I do it truly I do not care how many know it. Or, to put it better, I hunger for nothing, but I go in mortal fear of being mistaken for another by those who happen to know my name.”
“If you praise a hunchback for his fine build he ought to take it as an insult.”
“That rule in which ordains that //ladies// must detest us because we worship them and hate us because we love them is indeed cruel, if only for the hardship it causes.”
“Like one of the gentlemen in my neighbourhood who was suspected of impotence: whose tiny dagger, drooping like a flabby parsnip, never stuck halfway up his underwear.”
“Lock her up, shut her in. But who will guard your guardians? Your wife is clever: she will start with them!”
“Marriages and wives are called good not because they are good but because they are not talked about. We should use our ingenuity to avoid making such useless discoveries which torture us. It was the custom of the Romans when returning home from a journey to send a messenger ahead to announce their arrival to their womenfolk so as to not to take them unawares.”
“A good marriage needs a blind wife and a deaf husband.”
“..either she had set herself on the road to becoming chaste because of the indifference of her husband, or else that she had sought another husband who would stimulate her desire by his jealousy and excite her by standing up to her.”
“Do I not always talk like that? Am I not portraying myself to the life? If so, that suffices! I have achieved what i wanted to: everyone recognizes me in my book and my book in me.”
“All topics are equally productive to me. I could write about a fly! I may begin with any subject I please, since all subjects are linked to each other.”
“The poet who tells all, gluts us and puts is off: the one who is timid about expressing his thoughts leads us in our thoughts to discover more than is there.”
“Think how far kisses, the form of greeting peculiar to our nation, have had their grace cheapened by availability…. Cold leaden snot drips from his dog-like conk and bedews his beard. Why I would a hundred times rather go and lick his arse.”
“An ugly old age when openly avowed is in my opinion less old and less ugly than one smoothed out and painted over.”
Book 3, Essay 6: On coaches
“As a rule, where you feel less fear you experience less danger.”
“Such pleasures – as festivals… have an effect only on the lowest of the low; they immediately vanish from their memory as soon as they have had enough of them; no serious man of judgement can hold them in esteem.”
“Liberality without moderation is a feeble means of acquiring good-will, since it offends more people then it seduces.”
“The man whose thoughts are set on getting thinks no longer of what he has got. The property of covetousness is, above all, ingratitude.”
Book 3, Essay 11: On the lame
“The distance is greater from nothing to the minutest thing in the world than it is from the minutest thing to the biggest.”
“Our reasons often run out ahead of the facts and enjoy such an infinitely wide jurisdiction that they are used to make judgements about the very void and nonentity.”
Book 3, Essay 13: On experience
“Cut anything into tiny pieces and it all becomes a mass of confusion.”
“Never did two men ever judge identically about anything, and it is impossible to find two opinions which are exactly alike, not only in different men but in the same men at different times.”
“There is no end to our enquiries: our end is in the next world.”
“The more simply we entrust ourself to Nature the more wisely we do so.”
“It must be important to put into effect the counsel that each man should know himself, since that god of light and learning had it placed on the tympanum of his temple as comprising the totality of the advice which he had to give us.”
“Child: thou hast come into this world to suffer: suffer, endure and hold thy peace.”
“You are not dying because you are ill: you are dying because you are alive; Death can kill you well enough without illness to help her.”
“What about those stinking possets, those cauterizations, incisions, sweat-baths, draining of pus, diets and those many forms of treatment which often bring death upon us when we cannot stand their untimely onslaught!”
“Anyone who is afraid of suffering suffers already of being afraid.”
“Death is more abject, lingering and painful in bed than in combat.”
“My nature is to follow the example of Flaminius (who lent his support to those who needed him, not to those who could help him) rather than that of Pyrrhus (who had the characteristic of being humble before the great and arrogant before the common-folk.)
“We should be less concerned with what we eat than with whom we eat.”
“I reckon that it is as injudicious to set our minds against natural pleasures as to allow them to dwell on them.”
“I who… welcome the pleasures of this life find virtually nothing but wind in them when I examine them in detail. But then we are too nothing but wind. And the wind (more wise than we are) delights in its rustling and blowing, and is content with its own role without yearning for qualities which are nothing to do with it.”
“Things are sensed through the understanding, understood through the senses.”
“‘I haven’t done a thing today.’ – ‘Why! Have you not lived? That is not only the most basic of your employments, it is the most glorious.'”
“It is for petty souls overwhelmed by the weight of affairs to be unable to disentangle themselves… not knowing how to drop them and then to take them back up again: O ye strong men who have often undergone worse trials with me, banish care now with wine: tomorrow we will sail again over the vast seas.”
“Nor is there anything more striking about Socrates than his finding the time when he was old to learn how to dance and to play instruments, maintaining that it was time well spent.”
“Philosophy says that all activities are equally becoming in a wise man, all equally honour him.”
“Greatness of soul consists not so much in striving upwards and forwards, as in knowing how to find one’s place and to draw the line.”
“Pain and pleasure, love and hatred, are the first things a child is aware of: if, after Reason develops, they are guided by her, then that is virtue.”
“It is the life of a fool which is graceless, fearful and entirely sacrificed to the future.”
“The delight of happiness and well-being… We.. must study it, savour it, muse upon it, so as to render condign thanksgiving to Him who vouchsafes it to us.. I deliberate with myself upon any pleasure. I plumb it, and now that my reason has grown chagrin and squeamish I force it to accept it.
I associate my Soul with it, not that she will get drunk on it, but take joy in it: not losing herself but finding herself in it; her role is to observe herself as mirrored in that happy state, to weigh that happiness, gauge it and increase it… She gauges how precious it is to her to have reached a point that, no matter where she casts her gaze, all around her the heavens are serene – no desire, no fear or doubt bring disturbing gales; nor is there any hardship, past, present or future on which her thoughts may not light without anxiety.
And so I pass in review, from hundreds of aspects, those whom fortune or their own mistakes sweep off into tempestuous seas, as well as those, closer to my own case, who accept their good fortune with such languid unconcern.
Those folk really do ‘pass’ their time: they pass beyond the present and the things they ‘have’ in order to put themselves in bondage to hope and to those shadows and vain ghosts which their imagination holds out to them – like those phantoms which , so it is said, flit about after death or those dreams which delude our slumbering senses – the more you chase them, the faster and farther they run away. Just as Alexander said that he worked for work’s sake – believing he had not done anything, while anything remained to be done: so too your only purpose in chasing after them, your only gain, lies in the chase.”
“I accept wholeheartedly and thankfully what Nature has done for me.”
“Temperance is not the enemy of our pleasures: it moderates them.”
“Aesop saw his master pissing as he waked along. ‘How now,’ he said. ‘When we run shall we have to shit?”
“Let us husband our time, but there still remains a great deal underused. Our mind does not willingly concede that it has plenty of other hours to perform its functions without breaking fellowship during the short time the body needs for its necessities.”
“Thou art a god in so far as thou recognizest that thou art a man.”
“And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.”
Michel De Montaigne – The Essays…. Go buy it now!