Being John Malkovich, I mean, Michel de Montaigne...

Michel de Montaigne has been credited with creating the 'essay' as a genre of writing when he published a work entitled simply The Essays in 1580 C.E. Besides earning him the eternal resentment of the young students who have been forced to turn in essays as assignments over the centuries since Montaigne wrote, the fact that he created this format means that it could not reach its highest level of technical finesse with Montaigne. The essay as a writing form needed to be refined and polished once it had spewed forth from Montaigne's pen (and seeing this need, other authors jump at the chance to display their acumen). But Montaigne did not start out intending to create 'the essay'; he intended simply to create a record of himself, "to the private benefit of my friends and kinsmen so that… they can find here again some traits of my character and of my humours. (Montaigne 4)" He wished to portray a mind at work, and he did so admirably. Montesquieu has been attributed as saying "In most authors I see someone writing; in Montaigne I see someone thinking," and he is absolutely correct. Montaigne's frank essays reveal to the light the inner workings of a Renaissance mind, complete with cultural biases and human organic processes.

Perhaps the first quality a reader will note upon reading a Montaigne essay is its absolute frankness. Montaigne discusses bodily functions and illnesses, his irritation with other members of his society, and his (ostensibly) true opinion of himself, and he does all of this without the slightest hint of apology. Indeed, he cannot understand why some members of his culture would be so hung up about these things, and he prefaces his entire collection of essays by saying so. "[H]ad I found myself among those people who are said still to live under the sweet liberty of Nature's primal laws, I can assure you that I would most willingly have portrayed myself… wholly naked. (4)" Unlike his contemporary, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Montaigne perceives that modesty is not a natural law, that it has been instilled by the culture, and that to be able to live without it would be sweet indeed. And while he does not want his reader to throw down The Essays in disgust, it would probably bring a smile to his lips to see students, born 500 years after the date of On Experience's publication, squirming as they read: "since I wrote that, the slightest movements which I make have begun to squeeze pure blood from my kidneys again (400)." In the same essay Montaigne examines other intimate functions, such as vomiting (399) and sexual intercourse (390). The closest comparable moment I have read from contemporary pieces was a line from Erasmus, who at one point mentioned how much healthier it is for the body to break wind loudly than to attempt to control the function, but even this does not operate on the same level of frankness as Montaigne's explicit paragraphs. Such descriptions would have little place if On Experience was meant to persuade like a rhetorical speech, but as part of the record of a thought process, they are indispensable. The human body and mind are interconnected; modern science has shown to what extent this is true on a chemical and hormonal level. If Montaigne had not dealt with the workings of his body, or if he had done so through euphemism, then the record he meant to create of himself would have been incomplete. After all, he is the author who reminds us "upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses. (426)"

Even if a contemporary reader were to acknowledge the place given to Montaigne's bodily functions, he might balk at some of the blunt opinions Montaigne expresses about various other members of his society. The reader might even belong to one of the categories of men that Montaigne looks down upon. For example, in his essay entitled On Educating Children, Montaigne displays a real disdain for grammarians, and derides them and their work:

…they keep us four or five years learning the meanings of words and stringing them into sentences; four or five more in learning how to arrange them into a long composition, divided into four parts or five; then as many again in plaiting and weaving them into verbal subtleties. Let us leave all that to those who make it their express profession… we who… are trying to form a gentleman not a grammarian or a logician should let them waste their own time: we have business to do elsewhere. Provided that our student be well furnished with things, words will follow only too easily…(63)
If Montaigne wished his writing to be approved of by his society's elite intelligentsia, he would have done well to censor himself and leave this passage out, as well as the extensive portions of On Experience in which he expresses his distrust for doctors and their art ("If doctors want to know how to cure syphilis it is right that they should first catch it themselves!" (382)). But to censor himself, to leave out the portions of his opinions that other members of his society would have found controversial or disagreeable would, again, have gone against his purpose of leaving a record of himself. A person who does not hold even one opinion that someone else disagrees with is a person who is afraid of taking a stand, and the audience of such a person will find him palatable, but in the end, unexciting. Montaigne's strong opinions invite the reader to interrogate his (or, in modern times, her) own opinions, to respond either with affirmation, or 'I don't think you're right, and here is why…'

Having related in painstaking detail the workings of his own body, and also what appears to be his true opinions on the lives (and to some extent the bodies (393-4)) of others, the major area of the human sphere that is left for Montaigne to explore frankly in these writings is that of his true opinion of his own life. And indeed he does so. Montaigne has no small amount of pride in the way that he has lived and the choices that he has made. "I so order my ways that I can lose my life without regret… I enjoy it [life] twice as much as others… I want to arrest the swiftness of its passing by the swiftness of my capture. (420)" But at the same time, Montaigne looks at himself with a sense of humor, and needles at his own shortcomings. He candidly admits how poor he was as a student:

I was… so heavy, passive, and dreamy that nobody could drag me out of my idleness… My mind was lazy and would only budge so long as it was led; I was slow to understand and my inventiveness was slack. To top it all, my memory was incredibly unreliable. Considering all that it is no wonder that my father could make nothing of me. (70)
Admitting this sort of thing can serve a persuasive function, in that it endears the writer towards the reader. The reader is more likely to be sympathetic towards the message if s/he can put him/herself in the writer's position. But this can only go so far. Learning that Montaigne uses his skill at self-analysis in order to judge his friends "more precisely than they can themselves (378)" is hardly likely to make a casual reader anything but uncomfortable. But Montaigne does use his skill in this way; he says he has "trained [him]self since boyhood to see my life reflected in other people's (ibid.)" Montaigne extols this skill to the point where the reader begins to wonder if he is possibly self-absorbed: "I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics. (374)" This trait makes Montaigne the logical candidate for inventing the essay… and for using it to show someone thinking, moreso than someone writing.

How else can we tell that Montaigne's Essays are the product of someone thinking, instead of someone writing? By observing the presence of unconscious cultural biases, noting the opinions that would look utterly ridiculous if they came from the pen of someone in modern America (whose writing of course would display biases of its own). The two most noticeable biases that Montaigne displays are against women, and against those members of his society who are not part of the educated elite. Montaigne is by no means as guilty of holding (expressing?) these biases as other members of his culture (as witnessed by some of the statements that can be found in Erasmus' work), but they are undeniably present. This becomes evident on the opening page of On Educating Children, an essay which is dedicated to a Countess named Diane, but which begins with the statement "I have never known a father fail to acknowledge his son as his own, no matter how scurvy or crook-backed he may be. (37, emphasis added)" The title and dedication would seem to direct this essay towards all people, but the actual text makes it clear that what is really being dealt with is the education of sons. Many feminists, reading this sentence in modern times, will point out that it was this sort of exclusionist language that legitimized, on a fundamental, semiotic level, the perpetuation of the hoarding of cultural capital by members of the established patriarchy through the era of the Renaissance and into modern times. Montaigne, like his society, is not only biased against women; he is biased against all commoners. "[I]t is stupid to be satisfied with winning… the ignorant approbation of the crowd while losing all credit among men of understanding: their praise alone has any weight. (40)" Obviously, the person who loses out the most in this situation is the commoner woman, the "Petit-Pont fishwife" who will "talk you to death if you let [her]. (64)"

We need not be overly harsh towards Montaigne for saying these things; all that is necessary is that we accept that he does say them, and acknowledge that just because he has said them, that need not make them true. In fact it is vital that we do not accept everything that Montaigne says as absolute truth, if only because by doing so, we would become enmeshed in his self-contradictions. For this is perhaps the ultimate proof that Montaigne's essays are the product of a man thinking: they are not, in the end, self-consistent. In the opening section of On Experience, he seems to disapprove of the wide diversity of interpretations of truth that are made possible by its relative nature, but then he says that an able mind is not satisfied with thoughts that have gone before and searches out "a different way to proceed (368)." He seems unable to decide whether it is better to live flexibly (386) or by a routine (388); actively (401), or sedentarily (401). In On Educating Children he shames those who do not use their own words to form arguments and instead quote the texts of classical Greece and Rome (40)… and yet, throughout The Essays, he does precisely that, quoting and referring to the lives of Socrates and Plutarch, Seneca, Cicero and Plato. Montaigne may not have been aware of these inconsistencies; or, on the other hand, he may have become perfectly aware of them at some point during his extensive revision process, but decided to let them stand, because he wanted his reader to see his process of working through an issue. After all, Montaigne says his aim is "to reveal my own self, which may well be different tomorrow if I am initiated into some new business which changes me. I have not, nor do I desire, enough authority to be believed. (41)" His next sentence, "I feel too badly taught to teach others," is now ironic, given the fact that the context in which his name lives on is that of academia.

The human mind is truly "ever the same stream with its waters ever-changing (La Boetie cited by Montaigne 369)." Any record of a mind thinking must express this quality, and Montaigne's Essays do so perfectly. Their intrinsic quality of frankness and honest opinion remains constant, as do the channels of cultural bias which define and border them, but their content is much less stable. The text loops back on itself and at the same time manages to cover new ground in each permutation, as if the reader is on a picaresque journey… and every step takes that reader further into the head of Michel de Montaigne, the man who left a record of himself, in whom we can see, like Montesquieu did, a man thinking, as opposed to a man writing.


Montaigne, Michel. The Essays: a Selection. Screech, M.A., trans. New York: Penguin, 1991.


Txikwa noted via /msg that I did not mention "why he called them essays: it meant trials, tests, experiments then, and the meaning as a literary work came from his use."