The French thinker Michel de Montaigne wrote in his essay, Of Books: “I make no doubt that I often . . . speak of things that are much better, and more truly, handled by those who are masters of the trade. You have here purely an essay of my natural, and not acquired, parts.” Montaigne titled his work, Essays which means literally, trials. Over a twenty-year period from 1572 to 1592 he penned 107 such trials, attempts to know, on subjects ranging from cruelty to names to vehicles to cannibals to experience to books.
Montaigne professed at the outset of his Essays that his was an honest book, that his aim was private, to inform his family of their patriarch, who would shortly leave this earth; that he was not seeking to court the public’s favor, and that it would be a waste of time for a reader to seek anything further.
Many skeptics might assume that Montaigne was being tongue-in-cheek, that he clearly thought that his life and opinions were important, that he cherished fame and sought immortality through words. Montaigne himself was a skeptic, but a forthright one. There is no reason to doubt his words. Indeed, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to write an honest book, to be as truthful as possible even at the expense of sometimes appearing foolish, sometimes contradicting himself, and sometimes appearing vain and ignorant.
What writer publishes a book merely for the sake of the human race and not for his own selfish reasons? Montaigne refused to hide his personal motivation for writing–to deny it would be patent nonsense. He wrote the Essays for friends and relatives, perhaps assuming that those who took the time to read the Essays would be his friends, linked in the spirit of inquiry. And, true, to study one man seems frivolous and unrewarding. But what object of study is not, ultimately, a futile exercise? Who can say that they have acquired more than just a fleeting knowledge of the great questions of life? Montaigne was honest enough to admit his inability to know. So he turned to the object of study that of all others he might master best: himself. “I study myself more than any other subject,” he declared in Of Experience. “It is my metaphysics; it is my physics.”
A serious man, nevertheless Montaigne reveals in the Essays his penchant for a good joke. Life is filled with humor. Doubtless Montaigne’s sides would split to find so many books, articles, conference proceedings, essays, reviews, critical analyses, monographs, biographies, et cetera, written about himself. Scholars have made Montaigne a big academic business. More humorous, perhaps, is the many scholarly epitaphs that have decorated Montaigne’s grave. He is critic, essayist, skeptic, humanist, atheist, Catholic, Frenchman, psychologist, ethnographer, Stoic. He is rarely called merely human. Humor degenerates to perfect absurdity when one examines the scholarly work surrounding Montaigne in our own day. Some scholars argue that we cannot take Montaigne at face-value. That he is an unconscious liar, that his words mean something besides what he intended. Who knows what his words mean? Why, the scholar, of course! Montaigne has been condemned for his inconsistency, his lack of clarity, his contradictions, his inability to know himself and his motives.
Well . . . yes. Montaigne wrote about the scholarly world of interpretation in Of Experience: “Never did two men make the same judgment of the same thing; and it is impossible to find two opinions exactly alike, not only in several men, but in the same men, at different times.” “There is more ado to interpret interpretations than to interpret things, and more books upon books than upon all other subjects. We do nothing but comment upon one another. Everywhere commentaries abound: of authors there is great scarcity.”
Clearly Montaigne anticipated all the lovers of semantics that would wrench and twist his Essays, reinterpret and explain, expound the real Montaigne, and so on. The real Montaigne is dead. Should a miracle occur and Montaigne appear again, and should you sit and converse with the resurrected Montaigne for hours, still he would remain an enigma. Only Montaigne knew Montaigne! And this knowledge he doubted more than once!
There are two ways to approach Montaigne. One, is the way of modern scholarship. Montaigne described this in Of Books: “they will chew our meat for us; they will take upon themselves to judge of, and consequently to bias history to their own fancy.” The other way, is Montaigne’s approach to study those writers he admired. Montaigne was like Francesco Petrarca, “Petrarch,” in that he communicated with the writers of the past, with Cicero and Plutarch, Plato and Horace. He engaged in a dialogue with these past writers.
This “dialogue with the past” is the only way to approach Montaigne, or any great past writer, any historical episode. What right do we have to judge the past, to judge others for what they thought or did during a past time? Rather, the past invites us to explore it on a two-way street: one must explore past lives by exploring one’s present life. Who can know a person of the past if they cannot know a person, oneself, in the present?
Montaigne’s goal was a private one, personal knowledge. The individual who seeks a dialogue with Montaigne, to respond to the Essays, must himself admit their own private goal. In the end the dialogue with the past is a subjective trial, a pursuit of an answer to the question, “What do I know?”