French thinker Michel de Montaigne invented a whole new genre in which to do philosophy: the essay.
Are essays a good way to do philosophy? What if they’re full of digressions and contradictions? Could that possibly make them more philosophical, not less? What does the essay reveal about what we can or cannot know? This week, we’re thinking about Michel de Montaigne and “The Art of the Essay.”
One of Montaigne’s great contributions to philosophy is his invention of the essay form. Over a period of two decades in the late sixteenth century, he wrote (and rewrote) 107 essays, combining personal reflections and anecdotes with philosophical arguments and speculations.
These writings are fascinating and brilliant, but they’re also, notoriously, a mess. The claims sometimes contradict each other—is discussion good or bad? is philosophy about learning to face death, or is it impossible to do that, and the effort just a recipe for ruining your life?—and the writing often digresses: one moment Montaigne will be talking about the limits of human knowledge, and the next thing you know he’s telling you about sneezing, thumbs, or his own carving skills. (In case you’re wondering, those skills are not great.)
So does that just make the Essays bad philosophy? Contradictions and digressions are definitely not always a virtue in philosophical writing, and in my view they usually tend to be a sign that something has gone wrong. But Montaigne is arguably a special case. He says at one point that his (apparent) digressions are deliberate: “I go out of my way, but rather by license than carelessness.… It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.” The burden is on us to understand the hidden logic behind each essay, the method behind its madness.
And the contradictions are deliberate too. “I may indeed contradict myself now and then,” Montaigne writes, “but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions.” The word essay literally means “attempt,” and Montaigne’s aim, in inventing the form, was to try things out, to explore ideas he wasn’t yet sure of.
The essay form also allowed Montaigne to figure out who he was, fashioning some kind of meta-stable self out of the fragments. (“I have no more made my book,” runs one famous sentence, “than my book has made me.”) But more than that, essay-writing allowed Montaigne to keep himself honest—“truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict”—including about the limits of his knowledge. (Another of Montaigne’s most famous lines: “What do I know?”)
Montaigne was writing during the Wars of Religion in France, wars that pitted Catholics against Protestants and that claimed somewhere on the order of three million lives. All because each side believed it knew for certain not just that Christianity was the right religion but which version of Christianity was the right religion. That, to put it mildly, was a case of lethal overconfidence. And to counter it, Montaigne thought, we need a healthy dose of skepticism. We need to acknowledge how hard it is to know things, and how dangerous it can be when we think you know more than we actually do.
So perhaps that’s why the essay form made so much sense for Montaigne. It allowed him to remind himself how unstable, uncertain, and changeable his opinions were. He repeatedly revised his essays, but never deleted anything: “I add,” he said, “but I do not correct.” And so, once the essays were out in print, he couldn’t fool himself into believing his opinions had never changed. (“This public declaration obliges me to keep on my path, and not to give the lie to the picture of my qualities.”) The book served as a reminder for him of just how confused he was, just how little he knew. It was a recipe for a salutary humility, and one that allowed him, among other things, to separate himself from the prejudices of his moment: while he argued against fomenting unrest (he’d seen enough of it), he deplored the Religious Wars, preached the equality of women, and bitterly lamented the barbarity of imperialism.
Montaigne’s creation of the essay form offers us a really interesting way to understand the value of writing—as opposed to thinking, which we can do in our heads—in the philosophical life. And it’s also an interesting way to understand what philosophy is in the first place, and what it’s for. If we assume that the point of philosophy is to arrive at a set of correct beliefs, then contradiction and digression are a bad idea. But if we think, as the ancient Skeptics and Stoics did, that philosophy is all about living the right kind of life, then taking a leaf out of Montaigne’s book—which, perhaps, more people are doing now than ever before—may be of benefit to all of us.
Our guest this week is Stanford’s Cécile Alduy, an expert on Montaigne, the French Renaissance, and political polarization. Join us for a discussion on Montaigne’s essaying, his philosophy, and his politics. I think it will be fascinating. But then again, what do I know?