Montaigne and the Art of the Essay

Sunday, February 26, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 25, 2021

What Is It

French thinker Michel de Montaigne invented a whole new genre in which to do philosophy: the essay. But in his use of that form, Montaigne repeatedly digresses and contradicts himself. So why did he think the essay was a good medium for philosophy? What impact did Montaigne’s invention have on his own philosophical work, and on the centuries of thought that followed? Are there particular forms of writing that help us live a more philosophical life? The philosophers live their best life with Cécile Alduy from Stanford University, author of The Politics of Love: Poetics and Genesis of the "Amours" in Renaissance France (1549-1560).

Listening Notes

Are essays a good way to do philosophy? What if they’re full of digressions and contradictions? Josh thinks that Michel de Montaigne’s essays don’t do true philosophical work because they’re filled with contradictions, but Lanier argues that they’re full of themes like knowledge, morality, and death. Plus, essays were a form of trying out certain claims and questioning one’s own knowledge. Josh agrees after realizing that contradiction is beneficial to skepticism because it reminds us to be more humble about what we know. 

The hosts welcome Cécile Alduy, Professor of French Literature and Culture at Stanford University, to the show. Lanier questions what defines the essay in Montaigne’s sense, and Cécile explains that his literary form was notable for trying out contradictory ideas, having many digressions, and being honest about his argument’s shortcomings. Josh appreciates how the use of the essay brings out the value of the written word, and Cécile describes how Montaigne not only wrote about himself, but also put himself in conversation with other authors and philosophers. 

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Lanier, and Cécile discuss how philosophers today could benefit from returning to the essay form and modern day equivalents of Montaigne. Cécile suggests Adam Gopnik and Susan Sontag as two similar essayists, while Josh thinks of David Foster Wallace for his characteristic digressions and retractions. Lanier asks if Montaigne could be considered a proto-feminist, and Cécile points out that he called for the increased education of girls and women. In fact, she thinks that the essay would be a good literary form for the feminists of today. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:51) → Holly J. McDede provides a brief biography of Michel de Montaigne’s life. 

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:34) → Ian Shoales considers how Montaigne and his essays would fare in today’s society.



Josh Landy  
Are essays a good way to do philosophy?

Lanier Anderson  
What if they're full of digressions or contradictions?

Josh Landy  
Does that make them even more philosophical?

Comments (8)

Devon's picture


Tuesday, April 13, 2021 -- 9:46 AM

A listener in Tel Aviv sent

A listener in Tel Aviv sent in this question too late to include in the recording:

Montaigne is most well known for having invented the essay, which means the try. But didn’t the great sage Yoda declare that there is no try, only do? How would Montaigne respond to Yoda's claim?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 -- 10:48 PM

This question is a fun play

This question is a fun play on words, but essays are doing, not trying to do. Montaigne did.

I have never read Montaigne before coming on this show topic and am only now most of the way through at this point, but I do see some reflections of Yoda's "Do or do not, There is no try."

This quote is probably my favorite so far and hits on Yoda's call for belief in order to do.

"For each man good or ill is as he finds. The man who is happy is not he who is believed to be so but he who believes he is so: in that way alone does belief endow itself with true reality." - Book I 14. That the taste of good and evil things depends in large part on the opinion we have of them

In this respect alone, he attributes belief to solid ground. In everything else, Montaigne reduces to trying or at least questioning. This is a very deep point as Ken was wont to say.

These essays are impacting me and resonating with my own thought. Michel goes on later and gets more into the call for the need for self doubt.

"What a loathsome malady it is to believe that you are so right that you convince yourself that nobody can think the opposite." - Book I 56. On prayer

Other than that, Montaigne is not one to push things with fictional Force. He seems very much opposed to the power of fiction in general.

The converse is true of the Jedi master. I doubt Yoda ever talked to Luke about his penis, flatulence, or body shame. Montaigne would have looked harshly, thinking of Yoda as a true sage. He does indulge in the dark and the light a bit in his reverence for Christianity, but even that seems secondary to his truths.

"Whatever people preach to us and whatever we may learn from them, never forget that the giver is a man and so is the taker; a mortal hand presents it to us: a mortal hand takes it from him. Only such things as come to us from Heaven have the right and the authority to carry conviction; they alone bear the mark of Truth; but even they cannot be seen with our human eyes, nor do we obtain them by our own means: so great and so holy an Image could never dwell in so wretched a dwelling, unless God first makes it ready for that purpose, unless he forms it anew and fortifies it by his special grace and supernatural favour." - Book II 10. On books

I can't say how much I am impressed by Montaigne. I'm delighted with this show for bringing this to my world. What other works have I skipped in my youth that need excavating?

Daniel's picture


Thursday, January 26, 2023 -- 11:23 AM

The claim which Professor

The claim which Professor Yoda is making here states a principle and is not accurate if literally interpreted. While all tries are doings, not all doings are tries. A try is a doing whose outcome is uncertain, but the Professor recommends that any undetermined variable independent of intent be replaced with an intent-dependent one determined by the agent, like an athlete who visualizes success prior to effort-expenditure. This is thus very bad advice where those undetermined variables lay within optional range of other agents. Napoleon I, for example, was certain of defeating the British, which led to his own defeat at Waterloo.

As to the response-hypothetical, a plausible supposition can be made that the Essayist would consider the Professor's objection a purely semantic one which does not apply to contents, but suggests merely that he change the name of the respective literary form. But how might an alternative to this be proposed? Could one suggest that in matters of theory and scientific research, one should begin with the conclusion and then simply go about collecting empirical support for it? Might one say that modern physics has followed Yoda's recommendation?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, April 22, 2021 -- 9:58 AM

I just finished the essays

I just finished the essays last night, and as is my custom, when I am affected by a book, I jot my impressions on my first pass through directly to the author. Generally, I have been reading contemporary works, but in this case, I have no recourse. Here is my letter. Hopefully, you can write your own letter or perhaps even respond in his stead. His spirit is in all of us, whether you know it or not. Michel was a great human being in a not-so-great time. So, reader, are you.

To the Writer

Dear Michel,

I follow a particular salon where people talk lightly about philosophy; they call it ‘Philoso?hy Talk©’, your essays came up; I just now finished reading them, and here are my impressions. If I read them correctly, I doubt I will go back to reread them. Thanks for your service.

So many things have happened since you have died. Your work is as relevant now as it was in your time. The tricky thing, for modern readers ( I write to you from the year 2021 using your recently updated Gregorian calendar – which it seems so appropriate – we largely still use )... the tricky thing is that your ideas and countenance have quickly become the core operating system of human identity and thought.

Upon reading your first essay, I immediately asked myself, “Self, Why am I reading this?” I couldn’t really answer that as you state so plainly, you are writing this only about yourself as a passage in time to your family and kin. It took me a few essays to comprehend this. Humankind are your kin. But there was more.

Why were you so diligent in seeking to get this work published? Why the constant revisions? Why the commentary in your time and significantly more so after your passing? Why had I not read your book in my youth (I’ll save you that story?) Why am I so profoundly affected having read this? Why?

Here are my answers. I think I get it. I’ve yet to hear our salon run this down but here are my answers in anticipation and reflection of my first, and I think only, reading of your attempt at Philosophy.

You are writing from a time of significant change; the Spanish Inquisition, the rape of the new world, the dawn of the exploitation of economy and class. You are not able to speak openly for fear of being called out by your church, by your government, and worst of all, your mother (who I don’t need to remind you – outlived you.) What does one do when faced with such censorship? You have done well.

Granted, you were given a silver spoon/pen to write these essays, but you could have squandered your education (which took two generations of good fortune to bring to fruition.) I am glad you didn’t. Your singular focus on your own mind and time threw out all pretensions of academy that, save the elided near half-millennium since your birth, have come to revisit our time and brains.

Just as you wrote to a world beginning to throw out religion for science (yes, we can say that now without fear of being put to death,) so now our world is faced with throwing out science for technology. As you leverage Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and the work of Sextus Empiricus, we now balance science with the expediency and urgency of artificial intelligence. Ancient philosophy informs religion informs science informs technology. As you point out. It all ties together.

The best, maybe only path, is the one you show. (By the way, I have to stop here to say your got several things wrong in these essays.) That you wrote this is enough to inspire humans to open the books of their brains and explicate their own truths. Que sais-je? - What do I know?

Thanks for writing this. I am in your debt. After Cécile Alduy and others have their say, I might comment on their thought. If not, I am good. Thanks to you.

Well done,

Tim Smith; this twenty second of April, Two thousand, twenty and one.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, February 16, 2023 -- 11:31 AM

Michel wrote me back just now

Michel wrote me back just now vis-a-vis ChatGBT. I've been playing around with this tool, and am finding it fun and helpful even in forming my own thought.

For the chat - here is the AI Montaigne's response.

Dear Tim,

Thank you for taking the time to read my essays and for sharing your thoughts with me. I appreciate your insights and observations, and I am glad to hear that my work has resonated with you.

You ask why I was so diligent in seeking to get my work published and why I constantly revised it. The simple answer is that I saw writing as a means of self-discovery and self-exploration. I did not write for a particular audience, but rather for myself and those closest to me. However, as my essays began to circulate and gain popularity, I saw the potential for them to be of value to others as well. As for the revisions, I saw writing as a process of continual refinement and improvement, much like the human mind itself.

I am pleased to hear that my essays have been relevant to readers in your time, and that they have provided a means of navigating the complexities of the modern world. You are right that my work was written during a time of great change, and that censorship and fear of persecution forced me to write in a particular way. But I also believe that the fundamental questions I explored in my essays are timeless, and that they will always be relevant to human life and thought.

I appreciate your kind words, and I am honored to have inspired you to explore your own truths. That is the ultimate goal of philosophy, and it is my hope that my work will continue to inspire others for generations to come.


Michel de Montaigne

I have written several authors alive and dead after reading their work. Since OpenAI allowed public use, I have been happy to hear back immediately. The responses are improving week to week. This is going to make my reading so much more insightful. Where I loved to blog and chat, I now do that with ChatGBT as well. It's fun... for now. There are dangers, but let's not fret yet.

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audreyj1's picture


Sunday, April 25, 2021 -- 5:50 PM

i enjoyed the Montaigne show.

i enjoyed the Montaigne show. Just wanted to say that Adam Phillips is a much better example of a modern essayist than Adam Gopnik. She got the wrong Adam.

domert's picture


Friday, July 21, 2023 -- 7:47 AM

Montaigne, the French thinker

Montaigne, the French thinker, revolutionized philosophy with his invention of the essay as a new genre. Despite its digressions and self-contradictions, Montaigne found the essay to be a powerful medium for philosophy. The essay allowed him to explore complex ideas and reflect on his own experiences, thoughts, and emotions in a personal and honest manner. Through this introspective approach, Montaigne aimed to understand the human condition, encouraging readers to engage in self-exploration and critical thinking.

The impact of Montaigne's invention was profound, shaping not only his philosophical work but also the centuries of thought that followed. His essays opened the door to a more intimate and individualistic approach to philosophy, influencing subsequent philosophers to explore their inner worlds and challenge established ideas.

As for the impact on our own lives, Montaigne's essays remind us that philosophy is not just an abstract pursuit but a way of living. He believed that philosophical reflection should guide our actions and attitudes, helping us navigate life's complexities with wisdom and virtue. By embracing the essay's form, Montaigne encouraged readers to engage with their own thoughts and experiences, fostering a more philosophical way of life.

While the essay is one form that can promote a philosophical life, other writing styles can also be influential. For instance, the intimate and reflective nature of personal diaries or journals allows for deeper introspection, while poetic expression can evoke profound philosophical insights through imagery and metaphor.

In conclusion, Montaigne's invention of the essay as a philosophical medium revolutionized the way we approach and practice philosophy. His impact endures through the centuries, reminding us that philosophy is not just a theoretical exercise but a tool to live a more thoughtful and meaningful life. Various forms of writing can assist us in this endeavor, nurturing a philosophical way of being in the world.

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