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But the message of this latter essay is, quite simply, that Were I to live my life over again, I should live it just as I have lived it; I neither complain of the past, nor do I fear the future; and if I am not much deceived, I am the same within that I am without …I have seen the grass, the blossom, and the fruit, and now see the withering; happily, however, because naturally.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.
If Rancière is right, it could be said that Montaigne’s 107 Essays, each between several hundred words and (in one case) several hundred pages, came close to inventing modernism in the late 16th century.
Montaigne frequently apologises for writing so much about himself.
Many titles seem to have no direct relation to their contents.
Nearly everything our author says in one place is qualified, if not overturned, elsewhere.
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.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”.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.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.Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it. ‘He has passed over his life in idleness,’ we say: ‘I have done nothing today.’ What? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious of all your occupations.One feature of the Essays is, accordingly, Montaigne’s fascination with the daily doings of men like Socrates and Cato the Younger; two of those figures revered amongst the ancients as wise men or “sages”.