Montaigne and the Art of the Essay

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).

Comments (5)

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?

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.

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.