Montaigne, Michel de Entries

France Days 15 - 16: Montaigne + St. Exupéry


Yet again I have an overwhelming amount to tell you about a two-day period! We left our relaxing mini-castle and vineyard yesterday morning and made our way out to the Dordogne countryside, walking in the footsteps of the Romantic poets who first confused the estate's owners by insisting on making a pilgrimage to the former home of Michel de Montaigne, pioneer of the essay form.


These days it's set up a bit more like a tourist attraction than it was back in the late 18th century, although not much more. There was only one other car in the small parking lot when we arrived, and a group of friendly British and Welsh students greeted us and led us along the path through the grounds (modest by the standards of a Renaissance château, but still quite lovely), and to the tower itself. The tower is the only part of the château that remains of the house that Montaigne himself knew, the rest having burned down and been replaced by another house, which is still privately owned. But the tower would have been the most interesting part anyway, since that's where Montaigne went to get away from his forceful wife and mother, to sleep, and, of course, to write.


Here there is the opposite problem we found at Mont St. Michel: today this site is peaceful and quiet, and Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell points out that in this environment it's easy to imagine Montaigne as a retiring man, lost in his meditations. In fact, during his lifetime this was a working farm, and would have been teeming with all kinds of human and animal life, including yelling, mooing, cackling, and all the coming and going inherent in farm life. As one gesture toward all the agricultural activity that took place here, Montaigne's saddles are on display in his study; it's possible that one of these was involved in the near-fatal riding accident that changed Montaigne's worldview and enabled him to become more accepting of the idea of his own death. I particularly thought of my friend Ariel when I saw these, as we first read Montaigne in a college seminar together and, being a horsewoman, she would probably be able to make more of a saddle than I can. Hi Ariel!


One striking thing about the rooms in the tower is that by modern standards they are very small: David (5'11") had to duck to get through the doorways, and even I (5'4") was aware of them when passing through. The tower was Montaigne's sanctuary in more than one sense, as the ground floor contains a small chapel where he heard mass, which is still painted with the coats of arms and trompe l'oeil niches and columns that he had painted there. Up a very worn, steep stone spiral staircase is his bedroom, equipped with an extra niche next to the bed (for getting warm in the winter in an era of un-glazed windows) and an audio channel that was installed from the chapel to the bedroom, to enable the aging, bedridden Montaigne to listen to masses. Up another set of spiral stairs is the study, with its rafters engraved with sayings in Latin and Greek. Certain sections of the carvings are facing one way, while others are facing the opposite; this allowed Montaigne to pace back and forth, reading all the while.


During his lifetime all of his then-impressive collection of books would have lived up here too, but they were sold off after his death and visitors have to imagine how much more full and cozy the little room might have seemed with a thousand volumes shelved on the wall across from the writing desk.

The Montaigne estate was, and is again, covered with vineyards (although in the interim they were torn out), and we grabbed a bottle of their wine on the way out. In addition, of course, to a volume of the Essais. The friendly Welsh and British ladies waved us on our way and we were off on the longish drive to Toulouse, to meet up with our friends Yves and Marie Christine. After a few misadventures with getting turned around on the freeway and having to go through a ridiculous number of toll plazas as a result, we arrived and were fed an excellent salade niçoise before heading to Les Abbatoirs, a former slaughterhouse subsequently converted into a modern art museum.


Pablo Picasso, "Le Rideau de scène du 14 Juillet" (1936)

A big star of the museum's collection is the curtain that Pablo Picasso designed for the first July 14 celebrations after the triumph of the Front Populaire in 1936 (which established things like paid vacation and workers' rights in France). The above is just a detail of it; the thing is of an epic size, a full two floors tall, and can be viewed from three different levels of the museum. They really make the most of their light, open, many-leveled building to show this piece to best advantage. Marie Christine and I were interested to learn that it was scaled up from a smaller drawing using the same grid-line technique that she uses to design tapestries, and I use to design knitting charts!


François Morellet, "Geometree #10" (1983)

I was excited to see a few more pieces by François Morellet, the artist responsible for the "Esprit de l'escalier" windows at the Louvre, which I wrote about a few entries back. In the two pieces at Les Abbatoirs, one large and one quite small, he plays with the juxtaposition between the organic lines of found natural objects, and the exact geometrical lines created by humans. I liked both pieces and I liked their placement in relation to one another, on either side of a doorway: this delicate piece was offset by its much larger cousin, also in blacks and whites but made of a giant branch and black acrylic tape.


Yolande Fièvre, "Plan d'une vielle cité pour rêver" (1960)

A new discovery for me was Yolande Fièvre, who makes these amazingly appealing, densely-packed box constructions out of found objects. Those who know my taste in visual art will know that "box construction" is pretty much my favorite ever medium (Joseph Cornell being one of my favorite visual artists), and Fièvre's work is right up my alley: textural and evocative, but much denser than Cornell's. As suggested by the title of this one, each of her pieces is like a whole city in miniature, and as I stood and gazed at them, more and more details jumped out at me: objects arranged into the shapes of human figures; the texture of wheels and axles underlying the surface; textural waves leading the eye from one part of the piece to another. You can check out images of a few more of her pieces here; I'd love to pick up a monograph, but they don't seem to be readily available. A little research does indicate that Fièvre was friends with Raymond Queneau and André Breton, though, which only makes me more intrigued to get to know her art!


Georges Mathieu, "La bataille de Hastings" (1956)

In an extremely odd coincidence, right after posting twice about the Bayeux Tapestry, which details the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings in 1066, I ran into another, very different representation of that same battle, this one by abstract expressionist Georges Mathieu. Crazy! The two depictions are about as far apart as you can get, but I think they both manage to convey the intensity, energy and chaos of battle. And they are both, somehow, contained as well: the Bayeux Tapestry is very long but very small top-to-bottom, and its narrative was constructed to justify the way events turned out. Mathieu's canvas is explosive and chaotic, but the chaos is all neatly contained within the borders of the black background; none of the lines threaten to overflow the boundaries of the painting.


After leaving the museum's interior we took a walk around the grounds, which continue to make good use of the preexisting architecture; in the brick niches on the outside of the building are a series of ten or more mosaics by Fernand Léger, which I quite liked. The gardens next to the museum are home to an amazing steampunk carousel, which Marie Christine tells us was a project designed to employ out-of-work artists while also creating something TOTALLY RAD (okay, that last was my editorializing). Surely the most stylish carousel I've ever seen, it features Jules Verne-style flying machines, a giant clockwork ant, an ancient-looking turtle, an ironclad rhinoceros, and the riveted fish above, among many others.


Marie Christine then took us for a lovely walk along the promenade that borders the river Garonne, which runs through the center of Toulouse. I always prefer my cities to have a river running through them, so this helped me warm up to Toulouse right away. It actually reminds me a bit of Portland, with its large student population and its riverside esplanades, full of people lounging on the grass taking advantage of the nice weather. One obvious difference, though, is the amount of history here and the cultural memory of times long ago. Crossing the bridge, for example, Marie Christine pointed back to an area by the bank and informed us that that's where people used to be locked in a cage and dunked repeatedly in the river until they divulged whatever information they were being "interrogated" about. And further on, a niche by the door of a former hospital building was revealed to be the revolving platform where distressed parents could deposit infants they were abandoning. You can see it to the right of the main door in the picture below:

And so after a bus ride and a delicious dinner (including cheese AND dessert courses, and a conversation about how the French are opposed to the very idea of drinking water instead of wine with cheese or sweets), we had a macaron-making lesson (on which more later) and headed to bed.


Although he was born in Lyon, the writer and early aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (of Le Petit Prince fame) spent time in Toulouse, and the city seems to have adopted him wholeheartedly as a native son. A major street is named for him (with another one named after the Little Prince), and murals and statues abound. The above is a detail of a mural near our house, and below is a statue in a charming setting, next to a duck pond crossed by a footbridge in the Royal Garden. I like how the author and his character seem to be in conversation.


In other Saint-Exupéry news, we paid a brief visit to the Hotel Grand Balcon, where the author and other pioneers of aviation would gather, drink, and also sleep, in their glory days of the late 1920s and 1930s. The vintage mosaic floor tiles are still intact, although the interior has been remodeled into an ultra-chic black-and-white cocktail bar and restaurant.


Marie Christine is a wonderful guide around the city, and imparted lots of information about Toulousian history. A wealthy city during the Renaissance due to its specialty as an exporter of woad (the plant used to create the blue and green dyes for the Bayeux Tapestry, and apparently intensely stinky to process into a dye), the town fell on hard times with the importation of indigo and didn't fully recover until the aviation/space industry came here in the 20th century. There are still lots of beautiful Renaissance details, especially when you are with Marie Christine, who knows where to look. David and I both loved the gargoyle scratching his ear on the windowsill above, and the carvings below are found in the courtyard of an erstwhile inn, Le Vieux Raisin, which has now been converted into doctors' and lawyers' offices. Facing this young man and woman are their elderly counterparts, their twisting lower halves replaced with bundled sheaves of grain.


We were introduced to several aspects of typical Toulousian architecture, including these cool "antefixe" roof tiles, which are affixed to the outside edge of the roofs (originally to hide the chimney apparatus). Some, like these with little faces and fleurs-de-lis, are quite elaborate.


Toulouse is also full of gardens and green spaces—another similarity with Portland, although the latter's gardens are of course not surrounded by the remnants of the medieval city gates...


...nor do they feature quite this shade of hydrangea (this is right out of the camera, with no manipulation). At least, if they do, I haven't seen them.


Today we're headed back into town for further adventures. A big thanks to Yves and Marie Christine for their hospitality in putting us up and showing us around their lovely town.

After two somewhat lacklaster reading experiences at the end of January, I'm happy for the opportunity to write about a book with which I was passionately engaged: Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is, in my opinion, how literary biography should be written. Or, more specifically, it's the way this literary biography should be written: a perfect match of subject and approach which was a joy from cover to cover.

Given that I just went into my love affair with Montaigne's peregrinatory style of "accidental" philosophizing, I won't wax lyrical about it again. Suffice to say, in starting How to Live the evening after I finished that post, I was nodding and chuckling along with Bakewell's characterizations of the Renaissance essayist, checking to make sure I myself hadn't written her book in a moment of more-than-characteristic narrative fluidity and verve. And indeed, in placing Montaigne's life and work in their evolving historical contexts, Bakewell points out over and over that this was a reaction readers often had to Montaigne himself: they found, in the Essays, a reflection of themselves and their own times, and ignored or rejected those aspects that didn't mesh with their worldviews. Thus, the same writer could be embraced by his contemporaries as a provider of helpful mental tricks in the tradition of Stoical skepticism, while seventeenth-century libertins could read him as a rebellious free-spirit, and early twentieth-century modernists find inspiration in his attempts to analyze his own consciousness.

Indeed, Bakewell's book, while incorporating throughout a thread of traditional biography (Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born, grew up unconventionally, wrote steadily, died), interweaves another, equally prominent thread concerned with the intellectual conception and after-life of the Essays: fitting, since Montaigne himself said that he and his book were one and the same. These sections were my particular favorites. It's probably true that any author who is read for five hundred years will be subject to many versions and interpretations, but Bakewell makes a good case that Montaigne's own propensity to look at an argument from all possible perspectives, and chart the bending and winding of his own mind without passing judgment, has lent him to an especially large number of interpretations over the years—often ones he would never have predicted, but which, she argues are nonetheless fascinating for what they reveal of the readers' own times and characters. Two of my favorite examples demonstrate Bakewell's narrative range, which is always engaging and readable but moves with ease from clever and humorous to quite tragic.

In the chapter on late 18th-century reception to Montaigne, Bakewell relates how the Romantics basically invented the idea of literary tourism—the instinct to make pilgrimages to the homes and haunts of writers one admires. One of the sites so honored was Montaigne's château, which left his descendants a bit bemused at all the scruffy, overly-earnest young men suddenly showing up and wanting to tour the old man's tower. The post-Rousseau generation was deeply struck by Montaigne's fascination with people from the New World, interpreting his open-mindedness about the arbitrariness of custom as agreement with the idea of the uncorrupted "noble savage" (conveniently ignoring all the times when Montaigne points out cruel or unjust customs practiced by "savage" peoples). They were also drawn to the heat of his youthful passion for Étienne de la Boétie. Despite their initial enthusiasm, however, many Romantics became disillusioned with Montaigne's insistence on moderation, on keeping an even keel. Bakewell writes,

The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was one such frustrated reader. When he first came across Montaigne he hero-worshiped him, and kept a volume of the Essays always in his pocket or on his table so he could seize it whenever he had the urge. But later he turned against his idol with equal vehemence: Montaigne, he now decided, knew nothing of the real miseries of life. He explained to a correspondent that he had only been able to love the Essays when he was young—that is, about nine months earlier, when he first began to enthuse about the book in his letters. Now, at twenty-one, he had been weathered by pain, and found Montaigne too cool and measured. Perhaps, he wondered, he might return to Montaigne many years later, in old age, when even more suffering had dried his heart. For now, the essayist's sense of moderation made him feel positively ill.

Bakewell goes on to make the intriguing point that, by advocating moderation over the (perhaps sexier but unsustainable) frenzy, be it of war or doomed poetic brilliance, Montaigne was actually proving himself rebellious,

bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love.

Yet the "ecstasy" of war, something Montaigne was forced to see at close quarters throughout the forty years of France's bloody civil wars of the 1560s through 1590s, proved an understandably unconvincing answer to the question "How to live?" as far as he was concerned. A more serious yet still occasionally wry Bakewell does a remarkable job bringing these wars, with their prevalent spirit of religious extremism, to life for the reader. Of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, which left ten thousand dead throughout France, she relates this mind-bending rationale:

In most places, the bloodshed was done more chaotically [than in Bordeaux] and by people who would have been reasonable folk the rest of the time. In Orléans, the mob stopped at taverns between killings to celebrate, "accompanied by singing, lutes and guitars," according to one historian. Some groups were composed mainly of women and children. Catholics interpreted the presence of the latter as a sign that God Himself was in favor of the massacres, for He had caused even innocents to take part. In general, many thought that, since the killings were on no ordinary human scale, they must have been divinely sanctioned.

I am no theologian, but if anything does NOT say "divinely sanctioned" to me, it's little children slaughtering people in the street. Montaigne, too, rejected the romanticized furore tradition, arguing that ideally, even a soldier in the midst of battle should be able to turn away from killing a friend if he recognizes him on the field. Reading about the extremism with which he was surrounded throughout his life gave me new respect for the doctrine of moderation that was one of the most consistent elements of Montaigne's work.

Montaigne's own secularism is an interesting subject, especially in light of this ongoing religious conflict, and it's one Bakewell treats with sensitivity. Although he remained a nominal Catholic throughout his life, the essayist hardly ever takes his arguments in a religious direction, even in cases where one might expect him to do so. Among his answers to the "How to live?" question, one never finds, for example, "trust in Jesus Christ," or "Obey the dictates of the Church." This makes it easy for a secularist like me to relate to the Essays, but Bakewell points out that Montaigne's lack of religious fervor probably doesn't indicate that he was a complete non-believer: hardly anyone was, in sixteenth-century France. More likely, he was moderately religious in a way that didn't intrude much on his day-to-day life, and at the same time was likely attempting to steer clear of trouble with either set of the extremists demolishing his country, by not seeming to hew too closely to the theology of either group.

I could go on in Montaigneanly unending style about How to Live; it brings up a plethora of fascinating points about a favorite author of mine, placing him in his time and place as well as analyzing how his work has been transplanted into other contexts, including our own. There are so many juicy tidbits I didn't even touch on in this post: Montaigne's extremely unorthodox childhood, for example, or the bizarrely strong aversion certain seventeenth-century philosophers felt for the Essays. Instead I'll just say that I gobbled up every page of this book, and was sorry to see it end.

On Friendship


It's fitting that the folks at Penguin chose the theme of friendship for their mini-collection of Montaigne essays (the sixth in their Great Ideas series), because at this point, after spending an academic year writing about the French essayist in a tight-knit group of collegiate buddies, and revisiting him with my blogging pals as part of my Essay Mondays project last year, I do indeed feel as if the man were an old friend of mine—warm and witty, occasionally exasperating but always a fascinating companion for a bit of conversation. Even if these particular selections aren't (in my opinion) the best of his oeuvre or the most representative of his unique intellectual contributions to the Western canon, I always enjoy watching his mind pursue its curious labyrinth, doubling back on itself exuberantly in the process of self-discovery.

As Montaigne's recent biographer Sarah Bakewell notes, he philosophizes more or less "by accident," as a by-product of writing about himself and his own experience. As such, his philosophy tends to be about as far from the abstract Platonic notion of timeless capital-T-Truth, as one could hope to get: highly idiosyncratic and often contradictory from one essay to the next—sometimes even within a single essay. He himself is totally frank about this, and about the very likely possibility that he will find himself to have been mistaken:

So contradictory judgments neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected; we ought to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. [...] My thought so often contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, seeing that I give to his refutation only such authority as I please.

Personally, this is what I love about Montaigne: the combination within him of warm opinions, passionate curiosity to discuss them with others and interrogate them himself, and complete acceptance of the human contradictions and imperfections that will unavoidably ensue. He believes it is important to mull over and draw conclusions from his own experience,

It is not enough to relate our experiences; we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport

and he believes in the importance of this activity even though he fully expects that many of his conclusions along the way will be incomplete or downright wrong. Therefore, even when his personal and literary sources mean his arguments are completely illogical or in direct opposition to my own, I still find him inspirational. His complete openness to investigating his own mind, body, and experience means that he follows many odd paths; the point for me is not that they are "wrong" or "right," but that the process itself is intrinsically worthwhile, not to mention fascinating to watch.

The title essay of this collection, "On friendship," is an interesting example of the beauty and oddity of Montaigne's project. Friendship is a subject particularly relevant to Montaigne's life and the existence of the Essays themselves: he began writing them after the death of his very dear friend Étienne de la Boétie, and some critics have suggested that the essays were an attempt to fill the void left by the frank conversations the two friends shared. As such, "Of friendship" is doubly freighted, since it deals with the subject of the lost friend, in the medium adopted to replace him. Those who associate the word "friends" with the adjectives "just" and "only" will need to revise their assumptions: Montaigne is describing the passion of his life.

In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that the efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: 'Because it was him: because it was me.' [...] This friendship has had no ideal to follow other than itself; no comparison but with itself. There is no one particular consideration—nor two nor three nor four nor a thousand of them—but rather some inexplicable quintessence of them all mixed up together which, having captured my will, brought it to plunge into his and lose itself, and which, having captured his will, brought it to plunge and lose itself in mine with an equal hunger and emulation.

This kind of language sounds very freighted to a modern ear, and indeed the Essays bring up some interesting questions about the best and/or most realistic ways to divide up one's needs and passions among the different figures in one's life. Drawing on his own experiences in a passionate, deeply meaningful same-sex friendship and a less-than-satisfactory arranged marriage, Montaigne becomes an advocate for the separation of sexual satisfaction from deep intellectual bonds, so that the memory of his friendship with Boétie seems much more important to him than his marriage. At the same time, he expresses his "abhorrence" of the ancient Greek model of sexual relationship between an older male teacher and younger male disciple. Based on his own divided experiences and the ingrained misogyny of his time, he writes bittersweetly that

[W]omen are in truth not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship, nor do their souls seem firm enough to withstand the clasp of a knot so lasting and so tightly drawn. And indeed if it were not for that, if it were possible to fashion such a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved—it is certain that the loving-friendship would be more full and more abundant. But there is no example yet of woman attaining to it and by the common agreement of the Ancient schools of philosophy she is excluded from it.

This passage always tears at my heart because it is simultaneously such an eloquent expression of a relational ideal ("a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved") and a harsh dismissal of that ideal's very possibility. Whether Montaigne was a misogynist extrapolating from his lackluster wife onto the souls of all women, or a man repressing his sexual desire for his male friend, or simply a human who longed to combine sexual and intellectual passion into a single relationship and found it impossible (as surely many modern people have as well), my heart goes out to him even as part of me recoils from his blunt dismissals of my soul's attainments.

Here, though, as in so much of his work, the intriguing (il)logic at play and the very human motivations behind the writing speak more eloquently, to me, than those points with which I disagree. Not least because reading the products of this flexible and curious mind makes me ever more aware that I myself am full of the same kinds of blind spots and contradictions that Montaigne uncovers in himself—and he reminds me that, despite this, examining and expressing my own mind is an endlessly rewarding activity.


There may be more Montaigne around here before long; David and I are planning to visit his former home when we're in France later this year, and I received Bakewell's biography for Christmas. Can't wait to dive in!

Essay Mondays: Montaigne


Aww, well. One of these Mondays I'll focus on an author who's a new discovery for me, but this week I can't resist singing the praises of an old favorite yet again. I wrote my undergrad honors thesis partially on Montaigne's "Of experience," but I had forgotten what a great old codger he is, and how much I enjoy spending time with him and his rambling, provocative, great-spirited essays.

Lopate obviously knew what he was doing in choosing "On some verses of Virgil" for his collection; it's a perfect showcase of all Montaigne's trademark strengths and eccentricities. One of the things that struck me when I was studying him in college was how suited this 16th-century Frenchman seems to the tastes of my generation: not only is his style frank and conversational, laden with quotes and outside cultural references (often left un-sourced, since the author assumes any quote from, say, Catullus, will be instantly recognizable to his audience - and if it's not, he doesn't really care), but the structure of his essays strike me as familiarly labyrinthine. "Let me begin with whatever subject I please," he writes, "for all subjects are linked with one another." "On some verses of Virgil," for example, resembles a Simpsons episode in the way it wanders around its main subject: beginning with a lament about his old age and failing health, it gradually works around to a lively discussion of male versus female sexuality, poking fun at both sexes and becoming progressively bawdier as he warms to his theme. In characteristic Montaigne fashion, he brings in a plethora of illuminating examples of customs from around the world and throughout history, employing them as stepping-stones in his hilariously meandering thought process:

       What mischief is not done by those enormous pictures that boys spread about the passages and staircases of palaces! From these, women acquire a cruel contempt for our natural capacity.
       How do we know that Plato did not have this in mind when, imitating other well-constituted states, he ordained that men and women, young and old, should appear in one another's sight stark naked in gymnastics?
       The Indian women, who see the men in the raw, have at least cooled their sense of sight. And although the women of the great kingdom of Pegu, who have nothing to cover them below the waist but a cloth slit in front and so narrow that whatever ceremonious modesty they seek to preserve, at each step they can be seen whole, may say that this is a device thought up in order to attract the men to them and divert them from their fondness for other males, to which that nation is altogether addicted, it might be said that they lose by it more than they gain and that a complete hunger is sharper than one that has been satisfied at least by the eyes.

As much as some of his conclusions are ridiculous (of which he was completely aware - his enjoyment of testing readers' credulousness was the subject of my thesis), I so admire Montaigne's lusty curiosity. So too, I love his willingness to muster any odd conglomeration of evidence - from classical antiquity to contemporary far-flung lands to examples from his own experience - to support whatever idea he may be exploring at the moment, only to turn about a few pages later and muster a different set of evidence in support of the exact opposite contention. In this essay, for example, he makes the Chaucerian claim that women are earthier and more sexually omnivorous than men, only to turn about forty pages on and promote the idea that women are naturally passive, made to receive male desire rather than express their own. His tangible enjoyment in exploring both options is obvious: Montaigne is often more about the process of arguing than the point being argued.

After his playful exploration of sexuality through the ages and nations, he drifts off on a beautiful little tangent about how good writers and thinkers benefit the languages in which they write and think, only to return to his sexuality theme in a more expansive and slightly more serious mood, making the heartfelt argument that our cultural shame around sex is misplaced and unnatural, and we really have enough to be worrying about without creating more problems for ourselves on top of those Nature provides.

Alas, poor man! You have enough necessary ills without increasing them by your invention, and you are miserable enough by nature without being so by art. You have real and essential deformities enough without forging imaginary ones. Do you find that you are too much at your ease unless your ease strikes you as unpleasantness? Do you think you have fulfilled all the necessary duties to which nature obligates you, and that she is wanting and idle in you unless you take on new duties? You are not afraid to offend the universal and indubitable laws, and are proudly intent on your own laws, which are partial and fanciful: and the more particular, uncertain, and contradicted they are, the more you devote your effort to them.
In short, whoever would wean man of the folly of such a scrupulous verbal superstition would do the world no great harm. Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.

And above all, this is what I love about the man: his great, humanist soul, always so curious about, and so deeply, humanely interested in, himself and the world around him. Re-reading "On some verses of Virgil" motivates me to revisit other favorite corners of Montaigne's work.

Up next: One essay by Abraham Cowley (which I didn't quite get to this week), one by Joseph Addison, and three by Richard Steele. I haven't read any of these men before, so I will be FORCED into writing about a new-to-me essayist for once.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography