My rating: 5 of 5 stars
e’ssay. (2) A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
—From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.
Now I finally have an answer to the famous “desert island book” question: This book. It would have to be. Not that Montaigne’s Essays is necessarily the greatest book I’ve ever read—it’s not. But here Montaigne managed to do something that has eluded the greatest of our modern science: to preserve a complete likeness of a person. Montaigne lives and breathes in these pages, just as much as he would if he’d been cryogentically frozen and brought back to life before your eyes.
Working your way through this book is a little like starting a relationship. At first, it’s new and exciting. But eventually the exhilaration wears off. You begin looking for other books, missing the thrill of first love. But what Montaigne lacks in bells and whistles, he more than compensates for with his constant companionship. You learn about the intimacies of his eating habits and bowel movements, his philosophy of sex as well as science, his opinion on doctors and horsemanship. He lets it all hang out. And after a long and stressful day, you know Montaigne will be waiting on your bedside table to tell you a funny anecdote, to have easygoing conversation, or to just pass the time.
To quote Francis Bacon’s Essays: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Montaigne’s essays are to be sipped. This book took me a grand total of six months to read. I would dip into it right before bed—just a few pages. Sometimes, I tried to spend more time on the essays, but I soon gave it up. Montaigne’s mind drifts from topic to topic like a sleepwalker. He has no attention span for longwinded arguments or extended exposition. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but almost. As a result, whenever I tried to spend an hour on his writing, I got bored.
Plus, burning your way through this book would ruin the experience of it. Another reviewer called Montaigne’s Essays the “introvert’s Bible”. This is a very perceptive comment. For me, there was something quasi-religious in the ritual of reading a few pages of this book right before bed—night after night after night. For everything Montaigne lacks in intelligence, patience, diligence, and humility, he makes up for with his exquisite sanity. I can find no other word to describe it. Dipping into his writing is like dipping a bucket into a deep well of pure, blissful sanity. It almost seems like a contradiction to call someone “profoundly down-to-earth,” but that’s just it. Montaigne makes the pursuit of living a reasonable life into high art.
Indeed, I find something in Montaigne’s quest for self-knowledge strangely akin to religious thinking. In Plato’s system, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the abstract realm of ideals; and in the Upanishads, self-knowledge leads to the conception of the totality of the cosmos. For Montaigne, self-knowledge is the key to knowledge of the human condition. In his patient cataloging of his feelings and opinions, Montaigne shows that there is hardly anything like an unchanging ‘self’ at the center of our being, but we are rather an ever-changing flux of emotions, thoughts, memories, anxieties, hopes, and sensations. Montaigne is a Skeptic one moment, an Epicurean another, a Stoic still another, and finally a Christian.
And isn’t this how it always is? You may take pride in a definition of yourself—a communist, a musician, a vegan—but no simple label ever comes close to pinning down the chaotic stream that is human life. We hold certain principles near and dear one moment, and five minutes later these principles are forgotten with the smell of lunch. The most dangerous people, it seems, are those that do try to totalize themselves under one heading or one creed. How do you reason with a person like that?
I’ve read too much Montaigne—now I’m rambling. To return to this book, I’m both sorry that I’ve finished it, and excited that it’s done. Now I can move on to another bedside book. But if I ever feel myself drifting towards radicalism, extremism, or if I start to think abstract arguments are more important than the real stuff of human life, I will return to my old friend Montaigne. This is a book that could last you a lifetime.