Without pretending to untangle all of the knots of this “book with a wild and desultory plan”, let me tug here on a couple of Montaigne’s threads to invite and assist new readers to find their own way.
Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic, hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars, and his grief at the loss of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie through dysentery.
Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change.
Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.
He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot.
Voltaire celebrated Montaigne - a man educated only by his own reading, his father and his childhood tutors – as “the least methodical of all philosophers, but the wisest and most amiable”.Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favourites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles.It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called “a way of life”.He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all.With an almost Socratic irony, he tells us most about his own habits of writing in the essays titled “Of Presumption”, “Of Giving the Lie”, “Of Vanity”, and “Of Repentance”.When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind.He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.Nietzsche claimed that the very existence of Montaigne’s Essays added to the joy of living in this world.More recently, Sarah Bakewell’s charming engagement with Montaigne, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) made the best-sellers’ lists.His Essays’ preface almost warns us off: Reader, you have here an honest book; …in writing it, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end. No one before Montaigne in the Western canon had thought to devote pages to subjects as diverse and seemingly insignificant as “Of Smells”, “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”, “Of Posting” (letters, that is), “Of Thumbs” or “Of Sleep” — let alone reflections on the unruliness of the male appendage, a subject which repeatedly concerned him.