Preceptorial Spotlight #3: Montaigne’s Essays

[If you’re wondering what a “preceptorial” is, please visit this post first.]

I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice: for it is myself that I portray.  My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed.  Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.  Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

So wrote Michel de Montaigne to any and every reader of his Essais, not only the forerunner of the essay form in the West, but probably the most candid, funny, and influential collection of essays the world over. No one since St. Augustine a thousand years earlier had ever attempted such a painstaking self-analysis — and no one ever with an eye towards explaining the nature of the rest of his species. Who knew one man’s vanity could reward us so well?

Led by tutor Louis Petrich, each class serves up some of the most delicious inquiries on the soul (and the body) ever written. Just the titles themselves hint at the philosophical potpourri upon which select Johnnies are feasting each week:

  • “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions”
  • “That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die” mon
  • “Of Drunkenness”
  • “Of the Education of Children”
  • “Of the Disadvantage of Greatness”
  • “We Taste Nothing Pure”
  • “Of Vanity”
  • “Of Cripples”
  • “Of Sleep”
  • “How We Cry and Laugh for the Same Thing”
  • “That Intention Is Judge of Our Actions”
  • “Of Liars”
  • “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us”
  • “Of Cannibals”
  • “Of Repentance”
  • “By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same End”
  • “That the Taste of Good and Evil Depends in Large Part on the Opinion We Have of Them”
  • “Of Thumbs”

Petrich shared his thoughts on Montaigne:

“I chose to offer a preceptorial on his Essays because I wanted to read something French, something happy, something wise, and something beautiful.  Also, something that you or I could have written, if you or I knew how to write ourselves down while still in motion, bravely, truthfully, and pleasingly.  Montaigne shows how to write thus by remaining always a beginner, a student of himself and the varieties of other selves available to observation as life conducts its experiments.  His note to the reader reports why he writes, but it also implies why it is good to read him in company, for reading inspires speaking and writing, which come close to being one activity of leisure and wonder at the verbal forms we take upon us, and then shirk.  His essays are therefore an offer of friendship between at least two people who put on and off the masks of knowing themselves.

Who cares about a man named Montaigne, long dead and far gone who knows where?  It is caring, rather, about ourselves and for ourselves that he matters and we read him still.  No doubt there is some vanity in this choice, and frivolity, but that goes with the terrain of mortal creatures who would speak–since they cannot live–everlastingly well, to some purpose, to be discovered by and by.”



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