Montaigne Essays Summary
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TheMontaigne Essays are a selection of essays by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. The essays provide a general assessment of Montaigne’s opinions and assessment of the world around him. Montaigne wrote and revised them between 1570 to 1592, and they were first published as a collection in 1580. Containing a stream-of-consciousness approach designed to engage the reader, and backed up with quotations from the scholars of Greek, Latin, and Italian literature, The Montaigne Essays discuss many contemporary events, with a focus on the nature of man, European colonialism, and the social conventions of the time. They were first translated into English in 1603 and have been reissued several times since. Considered a classic work of French philosophy, the essays are still widely read and studied in philosophy classes today.
The Montaigne Essays are comprised of one hundred and seven individual essays, organises into three volumes, and open with a series of personal letters to important figures of the time. The first volume is the longest, featuring the following topics in order: The ways men arrive at the same end in different ways; sorrow; the way our affections carry themselves beyond us; the way the human soul wastes its passions on false objects and distractions; whether political leaders ought to sue for parlay or peace personally, or send envoys; the dangers of parlay meetings; whether intention is the judge of our actions; idleness; liars; the difference between quick and slow speech; prognostications, constancy; the ceremony of the interview of princes; the obstinacy of humans and the punishments they face for their stubbornness; the punishments people face for cowardice; the proper proceeding of ambassadors; fear; the way happiness cannot truly be judged until after death; the relationship between studying philosophy and preparing for death; the force and power of imagination; the way the profit of one person is often the damage of another; of custom, and the importance of respecting established law; viewing various events from the same counsel; pedantry; the proper education of children; the folly of measuring truth and error solely by our own capacity; friendship; a focus on the twenty-nine sonnets of Estienne de la Boitie (a woman Montaigne had frequent correspondence with, and which bear little relevance to the rest of the essays); the importance of moderation; cannibals; the importance of soberly judging the divine ordinances; and the avoidance of pleasure. Further topics in the first volume include the way fortune is often observed to act by the rule of reason; defects in the government; the customs of wearing clothes; the works of Cato the Younger; the way we often laugh and cry over the same thing; solitude; a look at the works of Cicero; the way relishing good or evil depends upon opinion; the reasons to avoid communicating a man’s honor; inequality in society; sumptuary laws; sleep; the history of the battle of Dreux; names; the uncertainty of judgement; the history of war horses; ancient customs; a study of the Ancient philosophers Democritus and Heraclitus; the vanity of words; the parsimony of the ancients; the famous sayings of Caesar; vain subtleties; smells; prayer; and age.
The second book explores topics including the inconstancy of actions; drunkenness; customs on the ancient Isle of Cea; the way tomorrow always brings new promise; conscience; the way use makes perfect; ways to make recompenses of honor; the affection of fathers for their children; the arms of the ancient Parthians; books; cruelty; an apology for Raimond Sebond; judging the death of another person; the way our mind hinders itself; the way our desires are augmented by difficulty; glory; presumption; giving the lie; liberty of conscience; the way we taste nothing pure; the case against idleness; posting; ill means employed to a good end; the grandeur of the Romans; the case against faking being sick; thumbs; the way cowardice is the mother of cruelty; how all things have their season; virtue; the story of a monstrous child; anger; a defense of Seneca and Plutarch; the story of Spurina; an observation of a war according to Julius Caesar; a story of three good woman; a study of the most excellent men; and the resemblance of children to their fathers.
Book three is a shorter volume, dealing with topics of profit and honesty; repentance; three modes of commerce; diversion; the verses of Virgil; coaches; the inconvenience of greatness; the art of conference; vanity; managing the will; the disabled; physiognomy (the science of facial expressions) and experience.
Michel de Montaigne was a French statesman and author, and one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. He is celebrated for popularizing the essay as a literary genre, and for his effective merging of casual anecdotes, political commentary, and autobiography. He is best known for his collection of essays, and is considered an important influence on many later European writers. In his lifetime, he was admired more for his skills as a statesman than as an author. He is considered to be a pioneer in his attention to psychology and childhood education.
Of the Education of Children
- Montaigne admits that his understanding often stumbles and reaches an end while there yet remains much more to be known. He claims that he has no other goal in writing, but to discover himself, which may change if he encounters any new instruction.
- Montaigne dedicates this essay about the proper education of a child to a woman friend of his who is expecting to give birth to a baby soon. He writes that he cannot better employ his time than in this endeavor because the greatest and most important of the sciences is the education of children.
- Montaigne advises that children should be instructed in manners and judgment rather than traditional learning of letters.
- The instructor must allow his pupil to speak too. The instructor must not merely lecture the pupil; he should engage the pupil in discussion and allow the pupil to form opinions.
- A pupil must apply his education to his own life, and judge the profit of such knowledge, whether the knowledge is practically beneficial.
- A student should read the great writers, but not merely memorize the writings in order to recite them. A student ought to digest the writings and then state the principles he has learned from these authors in his own words according to his own experience, so that he makes those principles and knowledge his own rather than someone else’s.
- When a student travels abroad, he should not concern himself with petty subjects such as the length of the Parthenon, but rather the humors, manners, customs, and laws of the land, and sharpen his wit by conversing with the land’s inhabitants.
- Mother’s should not be the instructors of children because they are too tender; they will not suffer the boy to return home from play dirty, or allow the boy to engage in rough play or dangerous activities. A boy must exercise his body as well as his mind, for the soul will be repressed if not assisted by the corporal members. A man is not either a body or a soul, but a combination of these components.
- A boy ought to be taught to acknowledge a defect in his argument, and to humbly renounce his argument in favor of another more persuasive one.
- A boy should examine the talents of all men – painters, carpenters, etc. – for each science has a particular insight to bestow upon him.
- A pupil should not focus on remembering narrative aspects of a great man’s life, such as the date of Carthage’s ruin; a pupil should rather focus on the behavior of Hannibal and Scipio, and then judge those behaviors.
- The world itself with its many sects, humors, laws, customs, judgment, and opinions teaches us to judge aright in our own.
- The world is a mirror wherein we behold ourselves.
- A teacher ought first to teach a student to be wise and good. Then a teacher may teach a student the divers sciences of logic, mathematics, physics, geometry, and rhetoric.
- Montaigne agrees with Plato that boys should be assigned duties based upon their faculties and capacities rather than upon their birthright.
- Montaigne advises that the first 15 years of a boy’s life ought to be spent in education, the remainder spent in action.
- Montaigne advocates a moderate workload; not the typical 15 hour days of rigorous study he underwent in his youth.
- Montaigne argues that instruction should not be severe, but rather delightful for students so that they will be encouraged to learn rather than learn from fear of punishment from the instructor. Those students who develop a fondness for learning because they find the pursuit pleasurable will continue to improve their mind after schooling.
- A student will better grasp a lesson when he applies it himself in an actual situation rather than in theory.
- A student and scholar ought to speak in plain terms. Ornate language is detrimental to the purpose of persuasion and articulation when the language draws attention to itself rather than the substance of the writing or speech.
- By utilizing fear and punishment in education, a teacher merely fills the student’s head with knowledge. An instructor ought to make the lesson enjoyable to the student, and require the student to “digest” the lesson, and espouse it in his own words.
I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself, who, also shall, peradventure, be another thing to-morrow, if I chance to meet any new instruction to change me.
The greatest and most important difficulty of human science is the education of children.
Let the master not only examine him about the grammatical construction of the bare words of his lesson, but about the sense and let him judge of the profit he has made, not by the testimony of his memory, but by that of his life. Let him make him put what he has learned into a hundred several forms, and accommodate it to so many several subjects, to see if he yet rightly comprehends it, and has made it his own, taking instruction of his progress by the pedagogic institutions of Plato. ‘Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed; the stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct. Our minds work only upon trust, when bound and compelled to follow the appetite of another’s fancy, enslaved and captivated under the authority of another’s instruction; we have been so subjected to the trammel, that we have no free, nor natural pace of our own.
It will be necessary that he imbibe their knowledge, not that he be corrupted with their precepts; and no matter if he forget where he had his learning, provided he know how to apply it to his own use. Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: ’tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them. Bees cull their several sweets from this flower and that blossom, here and there where they find them, but themselves afterwards make the honey, which is all and purely their own, and no more thyme and marjoram: so the several fragments he borrows from others, he will transform and shuffle together to compile a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment: his instruction, labour and study, tend to nothing else but to form that.
Let my governor remember to what end his instructions are principally directed, and that he do not so much imprint in his pupil’s memory the date of the ruin of Carthage, as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio; nor so much where Marcellus died, as why it was unworthy of his duty that he died there. Let him not teach him so much the narrative parts of history as to judge them.
The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness.
‘Tis not a soul, ’tis not a body that we are training up, but a man, and we ought not to divide him.
The conduct of our lives is the true mirror of our doctrine.
In this essay, Montaigne advises a female friend, who is expecting to give birth to a child very soon, on the proper education of children. Montaigne argues for an educational system drastically different than the one that was common during his time. Many students who lived during Montaigne’s life were instructed through memorization and recitation exercises. Montaigne argues that these exercises merely furnish the minds of students with knowledge, rather than bestow upon them the truly valuable attributes of judgment and wisdom. Montaigne contends that simple memorization can never lead to the level of understanding required to develop into a wise man. A parrot can perform the same skill of memorization and recitation. A student should “digest” the material, and then espouse the lessons in his own words according to the student’s own personal experiences and intuition. The process of considering the writings and speeches of great men, and then forming an opinion based upon one’s own capacities and experiences enables a student to grasp the lesson or argument set forth and apply it to different types of situations that he may encounter throughout life. This is something that memory and recitation cannot achieve.
That It Is Folly to Measure Truth and Error by Our Own Capacity
- We often attribute credulity to simplicity or ignorance. The fewer ideas and arguments a mind possesses, the more readily the mind will yield to the first persuasion it encounters.
- However, it would be foolish to condemn something as false that we initially regard as improbable, which is an ordinary vice of people who regard themselves as wiser than their neighbors.
- To regard something as false or impossible is to foolishly limit the will of god and the power of Mother Nature within the bounds of one’s own capacity for understanding.
- The knowledge of most of the things around us does not take away the strangeness of those things; rather custom and the frequent perception of these things is what actually remove the strangeness of these phenomena. For example, people grow weary of the things they see every day, and do not regard those things with the wonder and curiosity accompanying their first experience of the phenomena. If we were newly introduced to those phenomena, then we would consider them incredible.
- To condemn something as impossible is to presume to know the bounds of possibility. We should recognize that our firm convictions often alter throughout time; things once considered articles of absolute truth, are regarded today as mere fables.
As the scale of the balance must give way to the weight that presses it down, so the mind yields to demonstration.
‘Tis a foolish presumption to slight and condemn all things for false that do not appear to us probable; which is the ordinary vice of such as fancy themselves wiser than their neighbours. I was myself once one of those; and if I heard talk of dead folks walking, of prophecies, enchantments, witchcrafts, or any other story I had no mind to believe.
A little river seems to him, who has never seen a larger river, a mighty stream; and so with other things—a tree, a man—anything appears greatest to him that never knew a greater.
Things grow familiar to men’s minds by being often seen; so that they neither admire nor are they inquisitive about things they daily see.
The novelty, rather than the greatness of things, tempts us to inquire into their causes.
Why do we not consider what contradictions we find in our own judgments; how many things were yesterday articles of our faith, that to-day appear no other than fables?
I agree with Montaigne that people who lack exposure to various philosophical arguments and the physical sciences are often very gullible and credulous, readily yielding to the first suggestion or persuasion that they encounter. Our conceptions of what is possible are greatly limited by our experiences. For a great while, humanity believed that it was impossible for a man to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, but that has subsequently been proven to be true.
Montaigne uses this insight to logically conclude that we should therefore suspend disbelief when we hear tales that seem improbable. For example, many people scoff when they hear tales of ghosts or other supernatural phenomena. Montaigne argues that this attitude is presumptuous because the person presumes to know the bounds of what is possible, which also means that the person foolishly limits the will of god and the power of nature within the bounds of his own capacity for understanding. Humanity’s capacity for understanding, as previously stated, is severely limited by our experiences. Thus, what we regard as possible is constantly changing as we observe new phenomena.
- Men ought to be cautious about taking things upon trust from vulgar opinion, and ought to judge by the eye of reason and not from common report.
- In this essay, Montaigne records the conversations he held with a man who lived in the New World (Brazil 1557) for 12 years. Montaigne assures the reader that the man was a plain and ignorant fellow; and therefore more likely to tell the truth.
- Montaigne does not discern anything barbarous or savage about the inhabitant of the New World. Europeans refer to these people as barbarians merely because their customs do not conform to European customs.
- Montaigne argues that “wild” animals are more natural than the domesticated animal that humanity has perverted to satisfy our corrupted palate. Similarly, the “barbarians” of the New World resemble humanity in its most natural state.
- Montaigne describes the New World in utopian terms – a place in which there is no poverty, no contracts, no employment except those of leisure, etc. The words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, and pardon had never been heard in the New World. They seem to be men fresh from the gods.
- It is rare to hear of a sick person in the New World, or see natives who are paralytic, blind, toothless, or crooked with age. They live in a temperate climate along the sea shore with mountains. They eat only once during the day in the morning and spend the rest of the day dancing. Occasionally men will hunt while women prepare a warm drink. There moral code is to be valorous in battle and to love their wives. They believe in the immortality of the soul. The blessed souls dwell in an eastern region where the sun rises, the cursed souls dwell in the West where the sun sets.
- They engage in continual war with tribes that live further inland beyond the mountains. They cannibalize their prisoners after killing them. Montaigne argues that the typical European response of abhorrence and condemnation of this practice illustrates the great ignorance of the cruelty of European customs. For example, Montaigne believes that cannibalizing a dead body is less barbaric than the European practice of tearing a live body limb from limb on the rack or releasing dogs upon a live person to be eaten alive. Thus we may call these natives barbarous in respect to reason, but not in respect to ourselves (Europeans).
- Chrysippus and Zeno, the two leaders of the Stoic sect, believed that it is not evil to use dead bodies according to necessity, even for sustenance.
- The disputes between the nations of the New World are never for financial or territorial gain, but always for glory. As previously stated, there is no poverty among the tribes, and the people do not desire superfluities. The land and ocean provide all that the people require. The people most desire the admission from their prisoners that they conquered them; for true victory only exists when the conquered admit defeat. Accordingly, the prisoners obstinately refuse to admit defeat, remaining defiant to the very end of their life, even in the face of excruciating torture and painful death. The valiant man who defies his conqueror to the very last is killed, but not conquered. Valor consists solely in the strength of the will, not the strength of the body.
- The most valiant of men have the greatest number of wives. The wives, chiefly caring about the honor of her husband, seek out additional wives so that his honor is aggrandized.
- One native from the New World who visited France was astonished to see “halves” (the native saw other men as their halves) starving in the streets while others walked about in fin attire an amply fed. The native wondered that the necessitous halves suffered so great an inequality and injustice without grabbing the others by the throats or setting their houses on fire.
- Montaigne asked a leader of one tribe what was the greatest advantage he derived from the superiority he had amongst his people. The native replied that he had the privilege to march at the head of his tribe to war.
We have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
All things, says Plato, are produced either by nature, by fortune, or by art; the greatest and most beautiful by the one or the other of the former, the least and the most imperfect by the last.
I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.
Valour towards their enemies and love towards their wives, are the two heads of his discourse. They believe in the immortality of the soul, and that those who have merited well of the gods are lodged in that part of heaven where the sun rises, and the accursed in the west.
Their disputes are not for the conquest of new lands, for these they already possess are so fruitful by nature, as to supply them without labour or concern, with all things necessary, in such abundance that they have no need to enlarge their borders. If their neighbours pass over the mountains to assault them, and obtain a victory, all the victors gain by it is glory only, and the advantage of having proved themselves the better in valour and virtue. They demand of their prisoners no other ransom, than acknowledgment that they are overcome: but there is not one found in an age, who will not rather choose to die than make such a confession, or either by word or look recede from the entire grandeur of an invincible courage. There is not a man amongst them who had not rather be killed and eaten, than so much as to open his mouth to entreat he may not.
No victory is complete without the admission of the conquered that they are conquered.
We have sufficient advantages over our enemies that are borrowed and not truly our own; it is the quality of a porter, and no effect of virtue, to have stronger arms and legs; it is a dead and corporeal quality to set in array; ’tis a turn of fortune to make our enemy stumble, or to dazzle him with the light of the sun; ’tis a trick of science and art, and that may happen in a mean base fellow, to be a good fencer. The estimate and value of a man consist in the heart and in the will: there his true honour lies. Valour is stability, not of legs and arms, but of the courage and the soul; it does not lie in the goodness of our horse or our arms but in our own. He who, for any danger of imminent death, abates nothing of his assurance; who, dying, yet darts at his enemy a fierce and disdainful look, is overcome not by us, but by fortune; he is killed, not conquered; the most valiant are sometimes the most unfortunate. There are defeats more triumphant than victories. Never could those four sister victories, the fairest the sun ever be held, of Salamis, Plataea, Mycale, and Sicily, venture to oppose all their united glories, to the single glory of the discomfiture of King Leonidas and his men, at the pass of Thermopylae.
They had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.
Asking him what advantage he reaped from the superiority he had amongst his own people (for he was a captain, and our mariners called him king), he told me, to march at the head of them to war.
I think that humanity is naturally intrigued at novelty. I was very interested to read about the life of tribes living in Brazil in 1557. However, I believe that we often have a tendency to idealize what is foreign, and ridicule what is common or customary to us. For example, Montaigne describes the New World and the life of the inhabitants in Utopian-like terms, and criticizes his own culture for labeling the native people savages while European behavior is similarly cruel and barbarous. While I agree that both society’s possess savage and cruel customs, the native Brazilian culture of 1557 certainly is not an ideal society; the tribes are engaged in continual war with each other for nothing except glory. In my opinion, war engaged for purposes of acquiring the necessities of life is more justified than war for mere glory. I pose a rhetorical question: Is it more justified to kill someone in order to attain glory, or kill someone in self-defense?
Nevertheless, the natives’ valor and strength of will never to admit defeat is very admirable. When Montaigne described how prisoners would remain defiant even in the face of imminent death and torture I was remembered 1984 by George Orwell. In the novel, Winton believes that Big Brother could torture and kill him, thereby physically defeat him, but that it could never mentally defeat him; Big Brother could never make him betray his love for Julia or make him believe that 2+2 is not 4. However, Winston’s will finally was conquered, and he loved Big Brother. The natives of Brazil demonstrate that humanity can preserve their own will in the face of such adversity.