Philosopher Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance. Montaigne is famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography—his massive volume Essais (translated literally as “Attempts”) contains, to this day, some of the most widely influential essays ever written.
Montaigne’s humanist traits evolved as a direct result of his early education (and in spite of having been born into wealth and privilege). Soon after his birth, he was brought to a small cottage, where he lived the first three years of life in the sole company of a peasant family, “in order to,” according to his father, “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help.” Following these first spartan years, he was brought back to the family Château where he was taught Latin as his first language, accompanied by constant intellectual and spiritual stimulation (he was apparently familiarized with Greek by a pedagogical method that employed games, conversation, and exercises of solitary meditation, rather than books).
In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author—eventually, however, he would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) and remains remarkably modern even to readers today.
Montaigne had a direct influence on writers the world over, including Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stefan Zweig, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaac Asimov, Eric Hoffer, and possibly even William Shakespeare. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne and writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling.
A few of the (many) lines of profundity and wisdom he left us:
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I quote others only in order the better to express myself.
I speak the truth not so much as I would, but as much as I dare,
and I dare a little more as I grow older.
My trade and art is to live.
The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.
A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.
Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.
The clatter of arms drowns the voice of law.
Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.
No matter that we may mount on stilts, we still must walk on our own legs.
And on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.
A straight oar looks bent in the water.
What matters is not merely that we see things but how we see them.
An untempted woman cannot boast of her chastity.
No man is a hero to his own valet.
Death, they say, acquits us of all obligations.
Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.
Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.
He who establishes his argument by noise and command
shows that his reason is weak.
How many things we held yesterday as articles of faith
which today we tell as fables.
I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.
Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head.
In nine lifetimes, you’ll never know as much about your cat
as your cat knows about you.
When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not
amusing herself with me more than I with her.
It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.
We can be knowledgable with other men’s knowledge
but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.
Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.
Make your educational laws strict and your criminal ones can be gentle;
but if you leave youth its liberty you will have to dig dungeons for ages.
Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in,
and those inside equally desperate to get out.
There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
There is perhaps no more obvious vanity than to write of it so vainly.*
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*Might Montaigne perchance be referring to blogs and bloggers here? :-/