Friday, August 26, 2011

Michel de Montaigne: on Montaigne

The following quotation is from Montaigne's Introduction to the first edition of his Essays.

"To the Reader"

This is an honest book, reader. It gives you to know, at this outset, that I have proposed to myself only an intimate and private end; I have not considered what would be serviceable for you or for my renown; my powers are not equal to such a design. I have devoted these pages to the particular pleasure of my kinsmen and friends; to the end that, when they have lost me (which they must do ere long), they may find herein some touches of my qualities and moods, and that, by this means, they may cherish more completely and more vividly the knowledge thy have had of me. Had I purposed to see public favour, I should have better adorned myself, and presented myself in a studied attitude. I desire to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday guise, without effort and artifice; for it is my own self that I portray. My imperfections will be seen herein to the life, and my personal nature, so far as respect for the public has permitted this. I assure you that, had I been living among those nations which are said still to dwell under the benign license of the primal laws of nature, I should very readily have painted myself quite completely, and quite naked. Since, reader, I am thus, myself, the subject of my book, it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on so trivial and empty a matter.

So, farewell. From Montaigne this first March, 1580.

Montaigne says elsewhere that he knows that others hold different opinions, but he has no intention of convincing or converting others to his way of thinking. He is simply telling the reader what he himself thinks.

So, here is Montaigne on his subject: Montaigne

My purpose is to pass quietly and not laboriously what remains to me of life. There is nothing I care to weary my brains about, not even learning, however great its value. In books I seek only to give myself pleasure by worthy entertainment; or, if I study, I then seek only the learning which treats of the knowledge of myself and which instructs me how to die well and to live well.

. . . . .

If I meet with any difficulties, I do not bite my nails over them; I give them up, after attacking them once or twice. If I sat down to them, I should waste myself and my time; for I have a nimble wit. What I do not see at the first attack I see even less by persisting about it. I do nothing without animation; an continuation and too earnest effort confuse my judgement, dispirit and weary it.

. . . . .

If this book wearies me, I take up another; and I give myself to it only at times when the irksomeness of doing nothing begins to lay hold upon me. I care little for new books because the old ones seem to me fuller and stronger; nor for those in Greek, because my judgement can not do its work with imperfect and unskilled comprehension

Michel de Montaigne
February 28, 1533 -- September 13, 1592
"On Books"
from The Essays of Montaigne

The last sentence of the quotation refers to Montaigne's imperfect knowledge of Greek rather than to any imperfections that may be in the books themselves.

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