The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book One

My morning routine has been mindfulness, meditation, and Montaigne for the past several weeks as I finally picked up Europe’s “great bedside book” to begin the journey. The chapters are groupings of several ‘assays’ as Montaigne tries to stick a pin in his soul so that he may examine it more clearly. He wrote and distilled his thoughts from his retirement (1571, aged 38) up until his death in 1592.

Going on a Montaigne journey makes you laugh and wonder and be amazed; you have this simply eloquent bridge between pagan and Christian antiquity and our own time. He was raised speaking Latin as his first language, learning French later, and thus finds comfort in the ancient tomes he rips quotes from liberally. In a nod to his preference for quotes (he also had dozens of quotations carved or painted on the beams of his library ceiling), I pull out my own favorites of his:

“An abundance of children is a blessing for the greater, saner, part of mankind: I and a few others find blessings in a lack of them. When Thales was asked why he did not get married, he replied that he did not want to leave any descendants.” (1:14)

On punishing cowards: ‘Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere.’ [Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.] (1:16)

“Always bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know the best.” (1:17)

“I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.” (1:20)

“I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance.” (1:21)

“When the Cretans wished to curse someone, they prayed the gods to make him catch a bad habit.” (1:23)

(What Plato taught about education:) “Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it; the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what it is given.” (1:26)

Horace: “It is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.” (1:39)

“I always write my letters at the gallop, with so headlong a dash that I prefer to write them by hand than to dictate them (despite my appalling writing) since I can never find anyone who can keep up with me… as soon as I flag, that is a sign that my heart is not in it. I prefer to begin without a plan, the first phrase leading on to the next.” (1:40)

Ancient customs he gives details about (in 1:49): the ancients watered their wine, took a gulp of breath when they drank, ate between meals, used snow to cool their wine, wiped their arses with a sponge on a stick, kept jars on the street corners to piss into.

Explaining his process of writing the essays: (1:50) “Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me;  I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.”