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Montaigne speaks to Thoreau

By William J. Dean / August 16, 2000



Emerson read Montaigne in his youth. "I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience," he wrote.

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He may have introduced Montaigne's "Essays" to Thoreau, his young friend and neighbor. Montaigne and Thoreau are two of my favorite writers.

What they write is both wise and eloquent. Here is a fine passage from Montaigne: "And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days. There is no other light, no other night. This sun, this moon, these stars, the way they are arranged, all is the very same your ancestors enjoyed, and that will entertain your grandchildren."

Thoreau, in this passage, reflects on the benefits of his 26-month stay at Walden Pond: "If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, - that is your success."

What ought we to do with our lives? Thoreau offers this advice. "Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.... Be not simply good - be good for something." He chooses letters as his profession. Emerson suggests he keep a journal. Thoreau's journal becomes "a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done and said."

In 1571, after retiring from the law courts in his late 30s, Montaigne decided to record his thoughts. He undertakes "this daydream of meddling with writing."

Every life has its share of setbacks. Montaigne advises savoring the daily satisfactions that also accompany life. "Others feel the sweetness of some satisfaction and of prosperity. I feel as they do, but it is not in passing and slipping by. Instead, we must study it, savor it, ruminate it."

Both Montaigne and Thoreau encourage uncompromising independence. Montaigne "likes to give his freedom elbowroom in all directions." "To be a philosopher," Thoreau writes, "is not ... to have subtle thoughts and found a school - but ... to live a life of simplicity - of independence - of magnanimity and trust - such as all men should live."

Yet Thoreau does not want anyone to "adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead."

Both Montaigne and Thoreau are optimists; they believe we can change ourselves for the better.

In one of his most glorious passages, Montaigne writes: "To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most."

And Thoreau writes, "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life - by a conscious endeavor."

If my library were limited to 10 books, the works of Montaigne and Thoreau would be among the books to remain on the shelf.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society