Montaigne’s Essays

Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French statesman who is credited with inventing the essay.   “Essay,” which means “trial” in French, was what he called his short, trial pieces of writing on various topics that he would edit—or discard—as he developed his thoughts.  They are considered classics, and I am reading some of them now.

He observes that a patch of land lying fallow inevitably teams with “countless kinds of wild and useless plants,”  and sees this as a metaphor for our minds that rush wildly to-and-fro if not constrained by some definite thoughts.

This is exactly what I find most valuable in writing a blog.  I enjoy focusing on one small, simple topic, and when I write it out logically I almost always discover gaps in my understanding—how “this” becomes “that” in the sequence.

Issac Asimov had it right when he said, “Writing is thinking with my fingers.”

When Montaigne first published his essays in 1580, his new style was considered indulgent, that he overly digressed into anecdotes and personal ruminations.  Today, we expect authors to reveal something of themselves, and his essays sound quite modern.

He wrote his essays to collectively describe himself, for, he says, what better way to do that than to present his variety of thoughts?   We cannot describe ourselves by our own biased conclusions.  We can only lay out the evidence and let others judge what they see.  Are we witty or just corny?  Are we profound or pompous?  Righteously crusading or ranting and raving?  This is not for ourselves to decide.

Montaigne found himself interesting not out of vanity, but because “I have never seen a greater monster nor miracle than myself,”  and he consciously tried to reveal both sides.

I feel the same about this blog.  I hope someday my grandchildren, or even their grandchildren, will read the postings and get a clear idea of the person I was.  Sometimes serious, sometimes not.  Open-minded on some things, but closed-minded on others.  Sometimes forgiving, sometimes mean-spirited.  I want to lay it all out, warts and all.

But expectations of posterity are slippery concepts, and if all these postings die with me, so be it.  I can only leave the possibility they will survive, which is all I can control.  You never know where or with whom a future interest will originate and what will be their conclusions.

As I laboriously researched and restored our old family photographs going back to 1860, especially those of my wife, I often thought how totally amazed these people who casually gaze into the camera—these once teenagers, newlyweds, and proud young parents—would be if they knew of my interest in them over a hundred years later.  I am fortunate to know what they looked like, but their personalities, how and what they were thinking, are forever lost.

My mother kept a diary when she was my age.  You would think a diary would describe a person, but mostly it was of unrevealing trivia such as, “Went to yoga in AM.  Bridge at night.”  She wrote the diary as a reminder, not a revelation.

I encourage you to write down your thoughts, even if no one else now reads it.  Think of how much your descendants would value such insights into your personality.  Think of the insights you would gain about yourself.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in Aging, History, Popular culture, Writers and Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Montaigne’s Essays

  1. Mariann says:

    Dear Mr. Walck, I am enchanted. I stumbled on your writing today when I was looking for information about the antitrust case against DuPont that led to ICI and Hercules. I loved the blog you wrote about it for many reasons (and in fact, just this morning, bought an antique Atlas Powder explosives crate — antique being the only kind that could exist!). I joined ICI 30 years ago and am with AstraZeneca now. Thirty years later, I am moving next week to the “new” buildings (built a mere 16 years ago), so I’m feeling a little nostalgic. I love the way you write. I’ll be following (not stalking) you from now on. Thanks!

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