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Thought As Style: Montaigne’s Essays

By Jared Marcel Pollen.


Inventing a literary form is an honor bestowed upon few. We may speak of Don Quixote as the “first novel,” or Emerson as the “father” of American poetry, or Augustine’s Confessions as the earliest example of autobiography, and enjoy doing so because it exercises our desire to create ranks, build consensus and celebrate true originality, even if we know full well that American poetry didn’t begin at any one point, nor was there a first novel. Still, this hyperbole is fun, and lists need to be made. So when it comes to the essay, it should be said that the verdict is essentially unanimous: it belongs to Michel de Montaigne.

When we trace the invention of a form to a single individual effort, what we are really doing is citing the innovation of a style that feels so realized, so accomplished, it fits in seamlessly with later efforts of the same genre, showing no signs of germination or primitivism. It comes to us without comparison or any visible debt to prior works, and yet it comes already completed. The free verse of Whitman is a good example of this. They, like Montaigne’s essays, are a tour de force. They are intellectually and aesthetically total, in which it is impossible, or at the very least unduly onerous to isolate form, and should instead be treated as a sensorium.

In the ancient world up through the middle ages, if you were bright enough, you worked as a philosopher and you wrote either dialogues or treatises. The notion of occasional, brief writings on subjects like law, friendship, education, custom, government, death and civil society by an individual who was not acting in a professional capacity was a new enterprise indeed, and one that the culture of print helped bring into existence. The materials that make up the corpus of the essays, letters and travel logs began in 1571, when Montaigne, “long weary of the servitude of the courts and public employment” went into self-imposed exile in the south tower of his estate near Bordeaux and set about the task, or essais (in French “trial”) of self-examination.

The essays are a series of intellectual self-portraits that together produce an autobiography of the author. But unlike, say, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or Augustine’s Confessions, which are reflections upon a lifetime of learning, Montaigne is able to provide us with continuously altering snapshots of himself over the course of years, which furnish a diagram of the mind throughout its maturity. It is a personal investigation out of which the author might to sketch a vision of himself: “I have no thought of serving either you or my own glory,” Montaigne tells us at the outset; “I am myself the matter of my book,”––and that “…you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” Indeed, the project is that there is no project, but to record the mind contemplating itself, in which: “the first feature produces the second.” Thus we receive in the opening pages the dismissal of any possible culmination, or end goal, so that the inner narrative of the self is free to evolve. “I do not depict being,” Montaigne says, “I depict passage.”

It is tempting to want to credit Montaigne’s pensée with more methodology and philosophical intent than it really bears. As a thinker who is often referenced alongside Descartes and Pascal, it’s important not to understate just how whimsical and playful Montaigne’s work truly is. The more time is spent with the essays, the more it becomes apparent that there is, in fact, no method at all. In “Of Idleness,” he acknowledges that in committing his truant thoughts to his pen, his hope is to: “make [his] mind ashamed of itself.” This self-doubt––which often casts itself in the hue of self-reproach––is the presiding tone of the essays, so much so at times that one begins to suspect the author is being falsely modest, or blatantly disingenuous. (The essays were massively successful upon their publication, and most people who could read had probably read them.) Throughout the voluminous collection, Montaigne is frequently unserious and pathologically self-aware––ever ready to undermine himself at the moment he appears pedagogical, or didactic. Instead, the essays display a consummate knowledge without pedantry or rigor; the author is erudite without being esoteric.

This lack of agenda becomes the looseness of the writer’s technique––in contrast to the turgid, rococo style of the Ciceronian mode, with its strict adherence to form, which dominated European prose in the mid-to-late sixteenth century. But the essays are not bound by form, in as much as they repeatedly neglect any obligation for organization or procedure. It is a style that is completely internal, malleable and self-justifying. And because there is no imposed structure, the essays are less argumentative than exploratory, speculative while also avoiding relativism, committed but not systematic, and often severed at the moment Montaigne senses he is approaching a conclusion. One such famous example of this is the last line of “Of Cannibals”, which ends with a spectacular shrug: “All this is not too bad––but what’s the use? They don’t wear breeches.”

Montaigne engages his style through what he calls, “la peinture de la pensée” (“the painting of thought.”) The writer confronts the blank page as the blank canvas of the mind, and as the mind adjusts itself to a topic in the act of unpacking it, so do the “high” and “low” styles of the voice. As he says while apologizing for one of his signature digressions: “My style and my mind alike go roaming.” It is this mimetic representation of intellectual process that defines Montaigne’s technique; and technique, as Oscar Wilde says, is really personality. As readers, we are guided along the contours of the mind in motion, with the writer thinking and discovering as he writes. We, in turn, experience two prongs of thought: the voice of the mind discovering the subject, and the “other voice” of the mind interjecting on itself to reflect as it makes the discovery. Here, style is epistemic, style is judgment, and it reflects the process of induction. Thus, a particular mode of argument it is not simply a demonstration of the how the writer thinks, but the arrival of knowledge itself. The sensation one feels in reading is like that of falling through a consciousness, unprepared and desperate to make sense of itself and the world, a process hideously and perpetually internal that is at once denigrating and self-flattering.

The rhythms of thought are not only depicted, they are captured. At once point Montaigne describes the essays as an attempt to keep the “register” of his thoughts. The register in this case is not only the recorded thought, but the moment of the thought itself, its pitch and delivery. “The play is the thing,” says Hamlet, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” But it is the prince’s attempt to catch his own conscience as much as the king’s. So in Montaigne’s writing is the awareness kept that his conscience could change at any moment, and change again. Thoughts move forwards as well as backwards, or back in on themselves, or spiral away before being retrieved several pages later. In “On Cannibals” we are thrown into a digression of speculative theories about the formation of the oceans, before being cautioned against pseudo-science and charlatanism; all this lasts nearly three pages and is heaped upon us almost immediately after the topic of discussion has been introduced.

In “On Vanity,” we get the admission: “I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.” It is this prescience, or the feeling of oncoming irony that makes capturing the thought at the moment of its arrival so crucial, though it provides no lasting comfort. Montaigne catalogues his thoughts at the very moment at which they occur in attempt to clarify them––before he can distrust them, before he can become ashamed of himself––just as Hamlet uses the artifice of the play to produce a renewed moment in which to hold a sense of resolve muddled by prolonged contemplation.

Montaigne is a writer we can be sure Shakespeare had read and knew well. In The Tempest, a passage from “On Cannibals” about utopianism and the idylls of the new world is spoken almost verbatim from the mouth of Gonzalo. (Caliban’s name can also be read as an obvious anagram for an anthropophagus.) Most of all though, we see him in Hamlet’s character. In “A Custom of the Isle of Cea”, a meditation on suicide, we get a few lines that ring eerily close to the prince’s in his most famous soliloquy:

“It is an act of cowardice, not of virtue, to go an hide in a hole, under a massive tomb, in order to avoid the blows of fortune?… Most commonly flight from other misfortunes drives us to this one.”


The essays contain a great deal of philosophy, but are not themselves a work of philosophy. They do not invest in their own ability to instruct, or serve as an example for the conduct of one’s life. Instead, we find in the essays a vocation liberated of the need to be right all the time. Simon de Beauvoir said that all philosophies had to be arrogant by virtue, because they sought to lay claim to something excessive: total possession of truth. Montaigne had a profound influence on the schools of skepticism and empiricism, which would begin with Descartes (who believed that only the self could be known to exist) and dominate European thought over the next two centuries, eventually reaching its logical terminus with Hume (who believed that the self was “nothing more than a bundle of perceptions.”) But Montaigne wasn’t nearly arrogant enough to perform as a philosopher. Dogma and intellectual rigidity are eschewed at every turn. And it is towards this conceitedness that many of the essays are counterposed.

Across nearly every subject, Montaigne demonstrates a pathological agnosticism. His sense of doubt is pregnant and unceasing, both of himself and others––critical, but rarely affirming or denying anything outright. Yet, in spite of his legacy to skepticism there is in the essays a clear and utter want of solipsism. The “I” of the narrator never diminishes the validity, or potential of other “I’s.” In the “Apology For Raymond Sebond” we get the metaphysically teasing line: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?”––a far cry from Descartes’ belief that animals were automata whose broken components made them incapable of speech. Montaigne’s skepticism, rather, is more closely allied with the Socratic form, one that that works free of the methodological traps and extremes of the Cartesian cogito.

The life of the skeptic is readily synonymous with that of the iconoclast. Yet occasionally the primacy of the former temperament has a tendency to get in the way of the dedication required for latter. Montaigne, for all his agnosticism, was averse to the trending political and religious rebellions of his time. He opposed The Reformation on the grounds that it had thrown Europe into what would become a protracted and cyclical civil war. His inherent distrust of individual opinion also meant that the revisions of one person could never justify the renovation of an entire institution, nor were they fit alone to establish a new one––believing instead that extant authority was best fit to regulate itself. Most of this is written about in “Of Custom,” in which much of the stress is placed on examples demonstrating that most laws, ranging drastically from nation to nation, are the product not of divinity but of arbitrary traditions. (But to accuse our author of contradiction is a truism.) In “Of Vanity” we get a defense of government that is dispassionately status quo: If you have monarchy, Montaigne says, and that body governs well enough, don’t bother to switch it out for hope of something better. Odds are you’ll wind up creating more trouble for yourself.

Organized religion, however, receives a much different treatment. Nominally a Catholic, Montaigne’s loyalty to his faith is difficult to parse. The best insight we have is the “Apology For Raymond Sebond,” which, at a hundred and fifty pages, is a book unto itself. In places, his contempt for religion is unambiguous: “Man is certainly crazy. He could not make a mite, and he makes gods by the dozen.” The essay contains only a few passages from scripture, and manages to avoid altogether any discussion of Christ. At a time when atheism was intellectually unattainable and any public display of irreligion meant persecution or death, it is tempting (mostly for the satisfaction of those of us in the club) to want to assume more about levels of unbelief in those who were obvious suspects. We can be confident enough though in saying that he was in all likelihood a Deist, or at the very least, a member of a new Christianity bastardized by Pagan thought.

But Faith is a different matter. It is easy to hold contradictions in intellectual development against previous generations who hadn’t yet worked them out. That reason could be used as a defense in the name of faith––doubt as a qualifier for credulity––is to us an anachronism of the mind. The question of whether or not this is reconcilable is the subject of the Apology. The essay sets out as a defense Sebond’s Theologia Naturalis, but in usual Montaigne fashion passes though the whole of western thought concerning matters of science and divinity. In the end we are presented with a case for doubt as act of humility in the face of a higher intelligence––that is, the intelligence of the Creator, which, Montaigne maintains, is not accessible through reason or everyday experience. To be certain of anything else is extreme arrogance. To doubt oneself is necessary; to doubt God is folly. It is in many ways the apotheosis of Montaigne’s skepticism, but it also wouldn’t be unfair to view it as a concession to intelligent design at the limits of one’s knowledge. Thus, it is equally a statement of terminal credulity. It is also the closest any of the essays comes to a committed argument that isn’t undermined or contradicted a posteriori.

“On Vanity” is perhaps the most exemplary of all the essays. It is also the most flippant. To write about vanity, says Montaigne, is the greatest vanity of all––a product of the needless proliferation of opinions and commentaries, which is a mark of decadence routinely mistaken for enlightenment. (One only needs to spend an hour with social media or the twenty-four hour news cycle to feel the truth of this.) It is considerably longer than most pieces, and the author begins by announcing the foolishness of his enterprise:

Here you have, a little more decently, some excrements of an aged mind, now hard, now loose, and always undigested. And when shall I make an end of describing the continual agitation and changes of my thoughts, whatever subject they light on, since Diomedes filled six thousand books with the sole subject of grammar? What must prattle produce, when the stammering and loosening of the tongue smothered the world with such a horrible load of volumes? So many words for the sake of words alone! O Pythagoras, why did you not conjure away this tempest?

It is a classic Montaigne paragraph––anecdotal, irreverent, brooding, full of self-reproach and complete with two references to the Greeks. From here we drift to annoyances and habits, his contentment to be apolitical, his distrust of utopian idealism, the hypocrisy of sanctimonious officials, his thoughts on friendship, marriage, the household, women, travel and his honorary status as a citizen of Rome. It is in many ways a microcosm of the entire collection, a brilliant tumble of intellectual wandering, self-investigation as well as self-forgetting.

The transient nature of the Montaigne’s thought and the occasional contradictory handling of the same subjects has allowed him to resist being claimed, and made his allegiances difficult to place. A few things we are able to say with certainty though. Like most thinkers born before the enlightenment, he regarded “democracy” as a dirty word and treated it with pessimism. In “Of Prognostications” we get a firm rejection of charlatanism and soothsayery. The essays in the first collection, especially those related to death (“To Philosophize is to Learn How To Die”) or prophecy, (“Of Prognostications”) lean visibly towards a kind of Lucretian stoicism, a scientific detachment, one based on the order of Nature, designed to relieve angst and guard oneself against false consolation. In the age of rediscovered classical knowledge, spiritual kinship was to be found in either Greece or Rome. Montaigne was much more of a Roman. Cicero and Seneca are the thinkers cited with the greatest frequency throughout; Virgil and Lucretius the poets; Horace and Terence the playwrights; and though there is little mention of him, the later essays show an Epicureanism fitting old age.

The more time you spend with the essays though, the less concerned you find yourself with the need for answers, or the firmness of the author’s position. At a certain point you allow yourself not to care. The fluid agnosticism of the author instills itself in us and we, internalizing the voice, waft freely along with it. Pedagogy falls away and style takes over. Is this not what ultimately draws us back to great writing? We don’t continue to revisit our favorites so that we can root through their sentences, confirming opinions and statements of belief. We go to literature to experience the activity of another consciousness. In other words, we go to experience how a writer thinks more so than what they think. And with Montaigne, how is everything. And how is style. This is usually the territory of fiction, which can perform it with greater license––whereas critical writing is often burdened by the need to formulate argument and manage subjective experience with facts for the sake of accuracy or correctness.

The essais however, manage to find this same freedom, the same negative capability and world-making power of interiority. It is fitting that the last entry of the third book is titled “Of Experience,” in which, among other things, Montaigne weighs the question, which contributes more to knowledge: literature, or life? It is a question he never really seeks to answer. After completing the last installment of the essays, however, Montaigne would spend the final ten years of his life writing about his travels––writings that we have, though he never intended for them to be published. By 1581, the personal enterprise of the essays, spanning over ten years, had been closed, never to be reopened. What they leave behind though is an instruction simple enough: know thyself. Otherwise, what do we know?

Jared Marcel Pollen‘s work has appeared in The Millions and Open Letters Monthly. He currently lives in Windsor, Ontario.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 4th, 2016.