Montaigne's `Confused Medley'

MONTAIGNE was a contemporary of Shakespeare, but a generation older. He began writing his essays in 1572, as a way of coping with the boredom and restlessness - the "melancholy" - that overwhelmed him on retiring from public life to manage the estate he inherited. His first two books of essays were published in 1580. It was sometime in the late 1580s that Shakespeare began writing for the stage, moving ever more into the public eye.

Montaigne claimed to have published his essays only because it was less trouble than having them copied by hand. Yet their influence spread far beyond the private circle he claimed was his intended audience. One of his essays, "On the Cannibals," translated into English in 1603, influenced Shakespeare's concepts in "The Tempest" (1611).

One need not imply a parity between the two men's levels of genius to trace a correspondence between what has been described as the hyper-reality of Shakespeare's characters, who reveal untold depths of passion and intellectual complexity, and the multifaceted, omnivorous peregrinations of one man's mind as revealed in Montaigne's essays. If Shakespeare gave us characters of unprecedented individuality, Montaigne was one of the first writers to display the richness of an individual mind at work.

"Within the flux of the created universe," writes M. A. Screech, introducing his new translation of the Essays, "Montaigne strove to follow the Delphic injunction, Know Thyself. He sought to discover the personal, individual, permanent strand in the transient, variegated flux of his experience and sensations, which alone gave continuity to his personality - to his `being' as a Man."

Montaigne is credited with inventing the essay: the short, informal prose form that allows the writer to tackle whatever subject he fancies without invoking the privileges of expertise or resorting to the methods of formal scholarship. Montaigne claimed to be "assaying" or testing himself and his ideas by writing about them. His example established the tradition of the essayist as an amateur: a person claiming no special authority beyond his or her own intelligence, honesty, and judgment, appealing to in telligence, openness, and judgment of the reader.

Although Montaigne treats many subjects in the course of his essays, his expressed aim is not to provide an encyclopedic view of the world, but merely to leave a portrait of himself.

Unlike the ever more introspective self-portraitists who came after him, however, Montaigne did not gaze in a mirror or probe the innermost depths of what a much later generation would call the unconscious. The "self" he portrays is not even as introspective as the voice of Shakespeare's sonnets - or as Hamlet's voice. It is the self of an individual looking out at the world around him, measuring what he sees according to the yardstick of his own mind, testing his mind and its conceptions against the sta ndard of reality.

One of the great pleasures of reading Montaigne is the sheer variety of his interests. As he puts it, "No topic is so vain that it does not deserve a place in this confused medley of mine." The attractions and perils of withdrawing from the world; the pros and cons of a defeated soldier throwing himself on the mercy of his foe; the best way to educate children; whether it is wiser for a ruler to be harsh or lenient towards treasonous subordinates: There is no end to the variety of questions he ponders. A nd everywhere, one feels the presence of a seasoned, skeptical, humane personality: a man whose wisdom has little in common with the pontifications of the self-proclaimed sage, but is based upon a willingness to keep asking questions instead of offering ready-made answers. Unlike the famous Socratic technique of asking questions chiefly to demonstrate the flaws of your opponents' answers, Montaigne's questions seem genuinely open to discussion.

Many of Montaigne's concerns are as timely today as the day he pondered them: He is fascinated by the different values and customs of other cultures; he grumbles at the powerful influence of fads and fashions on manners and morals; he speaks out against the battering of children by parents and schoolmasters, in those days unhindered by the judicial system, which "takes no note of it, as though it were not the very limbs of our State which are thus being put out of joint and maimed." And his vigorous, pl ain writing style and skeptical outlook also contribute to the feeling that he, like Shakespeare, is "our contemporary."

Screech's translation (the first new one in 30 years) brilliantly captures the directness, energy, and pithiness of Montaigne's writing. His ear seems alive to the nuances of quick and subtle changes in tone, as Montaigne shifts from passion to irony, or from sobriety to playful humor.

In his introduction, Screech takes issue with the widespread notion that Montaigne's skepticism was the skepticism of a free-thinker. Although Montaigne may well have inspired a variety of unorthodox thinkers from Emerson to Gide in centuries to come, it would be a mistake, Screech argues, to read his work as anything but orthodox in its allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith he professed.

Scholars yet to come will doubtless continue to ponder what led this scrupulous, well-seasoned mind away from conventional thought patterns into fresh territory. In the meantime, readers of Montaigne's Essays can take pleasure in sorting out the various strands of his thought for themselves.

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