A year ago, I created this blog, the American Plutarch, to write reflections on a variety of historical, philosophical, and religious topics. I invite responses from readers, as I enjoy a dialogue about the nature of humanity.
To me, history, philosophy, and religion are all about the nature of humanity. One of the most significant writers in this regard, in my view, was Michel de Montaigne, a French aristocrat who lived from 1533 to 1592. I was introduced to Montaigne and his works, the Essays, when I was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire (many years ago!). Professor Donald Wilcox asked me to read some of Montaigne’s Essays when I took a summer reading seminar. Linda and I lived at Country Pond, New Hampshire, and I read voraciously while enjoying nature and life with Linda, our preschooler Ben, and our dog Hannibal. Montaigne’s writings opened up a new world to me. His essays were a combination of erudition, skepticism, wit, penetrating philosophy, self-reflection, faith and piety, and historical thinking. Montaigne was himself deeply influenced by the ancient classics of Greece and Rome, and particularly the writer Plutarch, author of Lives. I, too, when a teenager, had discovered Plutarch, and found in Montaigne a like-minded thinker who engaged in a “dialogue with the past” with Plutarch and other ancient writers.
This idea of the dialogue with the past probably defines me more than anything else. In a way, I live in the past, not so much my own, but the human past. It surrounds me. Likewise Montaigne, in the library of his chateau in Burgundy, France, surrounded himself with the books of ancient writers as well as words carved into the wooden rafters of the room from the most compelling writers of the past. He surrounded himself with the works, the ideas, the experiences, of the past. I do, too.
I have always encouraged students (I have been teaching since 1983) and readers (my first book was published 18 years ago) to engage in a dialogue with the past. It is the means by which to know oneself. Since we live in time, and the present is so fleeting, and the future is unknowable–does not exist, yet–the past is essentially the repository of knowledge. The past, of course, also does not exist, but the mind, through memory, and images in art, photography and video, and writings in books and other literary expressions, provide us with the means to recover the past in a way that we cannot similarly know the future, as it does not yet exist, nor make sense of the present, as it is so fleeting. The past is the key to knowledge. Therefore, everyone is a historian.
Montaigne wrote in his final essay, “Of Experience”: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” The idea that living can be a masterpiece, a work of art, is an old one in world thought: it is the sum of the thought of Epicurus and Zeno, Socrates and Plato, Livy and Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and Boethius, the Psalmist David, Lao Tze and Siddhartha Gautama, Augustine and Jesus. It is our most difficult challenge, as Michel de Montaigne knew.
Montaigne’s Essays were written in French, and can be found in a variety of good translations. I use Donald Frame’s translation, published by Stanford University Press. If you wish to read Montaigne’s Essays in a free, English version, you can find the entirety at Google Books: search Montaigne, Essays, and William Hazlett.