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by William H. Benson

March 5, 2009

     On February 28, 1571, a French nobleman and a lawyer in Paris’s royal court named Michel de Montaigne retired. Coincidentally, it was his thirty-eighth birthday. He had shown no signs of literary ambitions, but he was determined to devote his remaining days to living in his country estate where he would think and write about nothing but himself.

     “Because I found I had nothing else to write about,” he said, “I presented myself as a subject. When I wrote of anything else, I wandered and lost the way.”

      For the next twenty-one years, until his passing at the age of fifty-nine from kidney stones, he wrote a series of, what he called, “essais,” a French word meaning “attempts” or “trials.” This was a first, for no one in all of literature had written only about themselves, using first person singular.

     Montaigne wrote “about his boyhood, his family, his education, his house, his travels, his books, his illnesses, his friends, his dreams, his interests, his habits, his experiences, his opinions, his religion”—a compendium of all thoughts that occurred to him, written down as they slipped in and through his mind, done without any plan or organization.

     He then gave each—some only two pages and others as much as fifty—a title: Of Smells, Of Friendship, Of Sadness, Of Idleness, Of Liars, Of Constancy, Of Solitude, Of Sleep, Of Fear, Of Age, Of Prayers, Of Conscience, How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing, Of Moderation, Of Thumbs, Of Cannibals, Of Names, Of Virtue, Of Anger, Of Vanity, Of Cruelty, Of Cripples, Of Glory, Of Presumption, Of Books, How Our Mind Hinders Itself, and Of Experience.

     In another essay that he entitled “Of Repentance,” he answered his critics when he wrote, “If the world finds fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves.”   

      A reader can see in Montaigne’s essays his humanity, his warm self-deprecating humor, and his endless curiosity. “I set forth a humble and inglorious life,” he said, and in his “Preface” he wrote, “Reader, thou hast here an honest book.” His motto was his ever constant question: “Que sais-je?”, meaning “What do I know?,” in which he professed his absolute ignorance about many things.

     Again, in “Of Repentance,” he wrote, “So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, . . . I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.” An admirer of Montaigne’s once wrote, “He renounced all intellectual and spiritual authority and that renunciation became his authority.”

     Was Montaigne’s life a waste of his talents? His contemporaries, no doubt, believed so. Did he make a huge mistake retiring from his job as a lawyer at age thirty-eight to write drivel about himself? His colleagues probably believed so. But Montaigne came to believe “that human beings must discover their own nature in order to live with others in peace and dignity,” and this self-imposed isolation was Montaigne’s way.

     How shall I live? What should I do with my life? What do I know? These are questions some people ask of themselves, but few seem to act upon the answers they receive back. Life comes at us in a rush—childhood, education, marriage, children, jobs, purchasing a home, television, the news, sports, theatre, all happening while we are trying to find our way—and the crucial questions of life we can lay aside, easily. Life happens whether I or you think deeply about it or not.

     Montaigne thought deeply about his. Toward the end of his final and grandiloquent essay, “Of Experience,” he wrote: “For my part then, I love life and cultivate it, such as it has pleased God to bestow it upon us. I do not desire it should be without the necessity of eating and drinking; and I should think it a not less excusable failing to wish it had been twice as long. ‘A wise man is the keenest seeker for natural riches.’”