The Complete Essays of Montaigne

by Michel de Montaigne

Other authorsDonald M. Frame (Translator)
Paperback, 1958




Stanford University Press (1958), Edition: 1, 908 pages


Considered the inventor of the essay itself, Michel de Montaigne published Essays (Essais, literally "Attempts") in 1850. Known for his skill at merging serious intellectual debate with personal anecdotes, his vast work collects together some of the most influential essays the world has ever seen, shaping the thoughts Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stefan Zweig, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Isaac Asimov among others. Montaigne stated that his aim in writing these works was to describe humankind, including himself, with complete frankness.

User reviews

LibraryThing member keigu
This is the book i wish i had been given in highschool, for it would have turned me into an essayist. This is a liberal education in a book. Give this to a bright young person to help them blossom early. I was astounded to find my MS Word ignorant of Montaigne. It tells you something about Bill
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Gates. And, to return to the Essays, they tell us that we have not come so far as we think. Montaigne is not only a modern, but the type of person we must create if we hope to have a future. If you have not read montaigne, do not read one more novel until you do.
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LibraryThing member baswood
[Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays translated and edited with an introduction and notes by M. A. Screech].

[How to Live, A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer] by Sarah Bakewell.

Reading the Complete essays I had to wait a long time before I came across that
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“How did he know that about me” moment which Sarah Bakewell claims in her book is a feature many readers experience, this was mine:

“As soon as I arrived I spelled out my character faithfully and truly, just as I know myself to be – no memory, no concentration, no experience, no drive; no hatred either, no ambition, no covetousness, no ferocity – so that they should be told, and therefore know, what to expect from my service”

(Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 1137). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)

This quote is in the essay/chapter “ on restraining your will and covers Montaigne’s two periods as Mayor of Bordeaux. It comes from book three page 1,137 out of a total page count of 1,269 pages and so as a reader you have to be pretty keen to read through the whole lot. I was helped by M. A. Screech’s excellent translation that somehow brings the 16th century text alive and readable for 21st century readers. He aids the reader by an excellent main introduction; a heading to each new chapter and over 250 pages of notes.

The essays vary wildly in length for example the first chapter of book 1 “We reach the same end by discrepant means” is four pages long whereas “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” clocks in at nearly 200 pages almost a book in itself. Montaigne was a Renaissance man and so his store of knowledge, his ideas on philosophy were mostly generated by his love for antiquity. The majority of his anecdotes come from classical literature, with many quotes in Latin and Screech translates these for us immediately following the quotation so the flow of the essays is not interrupted. Montaigne spent 20 years ruminating and adding to his work and each edition during his lifetime had amendments (usually additions to the original text) Screech incorporates these into the main body of the text with a symbol (A, A1, B, or C) to denote their origin. This all seems to work pretty smoothly.

There is no substitute to reading the essays themselves, they are a unique experience. Montaigne writes exclusively about himself, but without a hint of pride, boastfulness or grandeur, he is aiming at self knowledge with the belief that if he can get some of it down on paper then he will also be writing about most other people as well, because he believed that the similarities vastly outweighed the differences. From Montaigne we understand that the way people see and feel about issues and about themselves change with age, with new experiences, or even depending on how they felt that particular day, but there is a basic thread running throughout our lives that Montaigne wishes to expose. Perhaps that is why so many readers through the centuries have seen themselves in Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne writes about day to day events, about travel, about education about death, about work, about being in the moment, about sex, about melancholy, about anger and about a natural theology. All the time he sets down how he feels about the subject that is concerning him and links it back to the wisdom (or otherwise) of antiquity. He can be humorous, serious, thoughtful, but never didactic; his search for truth makes his honesty almost painful at times. He exposes himself so that others can see themselves and I think you need a certain amount of courage to do that.

Montaigne’s world seems equally divided between 16th century France and classical Rome and some readers might find too much classicism in the essays, but this grounds the author as a typical renaissance man. A man of his times that can communicate forward to current times. Not to be missed especially with M A Screech’s excellent translation and introductions. 5 stars.

Sarah Bakewell’s [How to Live, A life of Montaigne] is written for contemporary readers almost like an overnight sensation - wham bam thank you mame - This is Montaigne she shouts, don’t miss out - you too will find yourself in my/this book. In her first chapter she nails her colours too the mast:

“Since it is a twenty-first-century book it is inevitably pervaded by a twenty-first-century Montaigne . As one of his favourite adages had it, there is no escaping our perspective: we can walk on our own legs and sit only on our own bum.”

So Bakewell sets about picking out the bits of Montaigne that she thinks will appeal to her 21st century audience, which unsurprisingly misses some of what Montaigne was about.

Having read the essays myself I asked myself the following questions before picking up Sarah Bakewell’s book:

1) Does the book add anything to the reading of the essays.

2) Does it supply any additional information.

3) Is it a substitute for reading Montaigne

4) How accurate is it with reference to the text?

Well lets start with the positives: Bakewell’s book is subtitled A Life of Montaigne and she does fill in some background information. She has good chapters on the religious wars that for most of his life threatened to engulf Montaigne, she tells us about Montaigne's family and private life and how he worked, she tells us about the printing history of the book; its reception at the time and then through the subsequent centuries and so in this respect it answers questions 1) and 2). I found Bakewell’s writing lively and interesting; of course she cannot help but add her own thoughts on Montaigne’s situation but I found nothing too jarring here. She even attempts to provide her readers with a bit of grounding in Hellenistic philosophy and although I found this chapter a little glib it was better than nothing.

So far so good, but then doubts started to creep in, surely she was going to say something more about Montaigne’s classical references, especially after she had told us that Montaigne was made to converse in Latin from his first attempts at speech until he was sent away to school. Surely she was going to “home in” on the near 200 page essay where Montaigne expounds his ideas on a natural theology. It was important enough for him to write such a long chapter, so there should be some commentary from Bakewell. Montaigne had a deep respect for nature in which he saw Gods handiwork, this is an underlying theme throughout the essays and is nailed down in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond. Bakewell rightly highlights Montaigne’s preoccupation with death and his own approach to death, but picks out the chapter where he describes his own near death experience after a hunting accident and makes this a sort of watershed for all subsequent thoughts. Then there is her claim that Montaigne had never been a soldier ………………..

So does Bakewell see her book as a sort of substitute for reading Montaigne’s essays, she never says it is, but I can imagine that many readers will read this book and think that they have read Montaigne. They would be wrong, because reading Bakewells comments on Montaigne would be like reading a commentary on Moby-Dick which claimed the main theme of that book was a mans obsession with killing a white whale. So I cannot recommend this book as a critique of Montaigne and it falls short in being A Life, however it is an entertaining read and if it leads people to dip into the real thing then it cannot be all bad 3.5 stars.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
The most modern, and most lion-hearted, sixteenth-century man I know. I get more pure pleasure out of these "Attempts" than any other essays I can think of, and hope that one day I too will be wise enough to uncomplicatedly espouse a motto like "What do I know?" I think of all my struggles with the
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nature of truth and the good life, and then I think that in some ways you can throw your Derrida in the garbage and just stick with Montaigne's "the only thing certain is that nothing is certain", and "nothing is su fully believed as that which least is known". And when bad things happen, I think about how I may not be able to govern events, but I can surely govern myself. And that I can get up in the morning and remind myself that life is neither good nor evil, but what I make it. And if you still press me to say why I love him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I am I.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
Montaigne is known as the father of the essay for good reason--he coined the very word for them. An essai is french for attempt--which gives you a sense of Montaigne's style and intent. They're very conversational, as if he's thinking out loud. A little rambling, yes, in the way the conversation
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with a friend can be, jumping from subject to subject. Some reviewers complained he's vain--well, he is a bit of a know-it-all, including a great deal of quotes from classical sources: Homer, Aesop, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Caesar, Lucretius, Tacitus, Plutarch... For me that was part of his charm. I'm with the Librarything reviewer who said that "this is a liberal education in a book." There seems to be no aspect of life he doesn't cover in his hundred plus essays.

Montaigne actually struck me as both humane and strikingly modern in quite a few respects--in his concern for native Americans being colonized by the Europeans, his opposition to torture, his concern for animals, among other instances. I found Montaigne lively, often funny, readable, quotable. More so than his imitator Francis Bacon and far, far more so than Emerson. All three, interestingly, have essays on friendship. Montaigne's is the wisest and most moving of the three.
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LibraryThing member roblong
16th Century French noble retires to his home in later life to wax lyrical on cannibals, the limits of human knowledge, experience, and whatever else occurs to him. Can't really sum up 1300 pages of that, but I'd recommend reading him, perhaps in a selection rather than as a whole, although it was
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a good tome to take away on a holiday with a bit of travelling. His style is conversational, so it feels like time spent in good company rather than hard work. You can sense the cusp of a new era in his scepticism, but he's also strongly attached to the Catholic church and the existing order - he was writing during the French wars of religion, so that was not a small matter. He was a man of his time and also a decent and interesting guy, and I found plenty of appeal in both.
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LibraryThing member kohsamui
"'Look back into your self; get to know your self; hold on to your self.' Bring back to your self your mind and your will which are being squandered elsewhere; you are draining and frittering your self away. They are cheating you, distracting you, robbing you of your self."

This is one man's study
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of himself and his inquiry into his own nature. Through a careful study of himself Montaigne seeks to understand more fully the place of the human soul in the universe.

As an autobiography this can feel scattered. Just a glance at the table of contents tells one how diverse the subjects of these essays are: "To philosophize is to learn how to die" or "On the length of life" or "On war horses" or "On a monster child". Montaigne uses these subjects as a starting point (and does not always stick to his announced subject) and always comes back from the subject to his inquiry of himself. Because the books are centered around subjects rather than the chronological story of a life it took me a couple hundred pages before the theme of the book was cemented in my head. By the end of the book I had grown to love Montaigne's wit and charm. He is a person I would love to have some watered down wine with. This book was worth the time and is recommended to anyone who will settle down with it.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is a difficult book to review, not because it is difficult to read or comprehend but rather because it is so exceptionally comprehensive in its topics and thoughts and ideas. In one sense it began in 1571 when Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library
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tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write what we know now as his Essays. At the age of thirty-eight he could look out his windows to see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about 60 maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him.

In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. Montaigne wrote on a wide range of topics -- education, cannibals, drunkenness, war-horses, repentance, thumbs -- and he wrote in a highly readable, thoroughly skeptical way. The roof-beam carvings of his "solarium" convey his general frame of mind and include sayings like these: "The plague of man is the opinion of knowledge. I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine. Breath fills a goatskin as opinion fills an hollow head. Not more this than that -- why this and not that? Have you seen a man that believes himself wise? Hope that he is a fool. Man, a vase of clay. I am Human, let nothing human be foreign to me."

The essays that he wrote defined the form of his thought while providing a window into both his mind and his life. Through his essays he has influenced writers and thinkers in every place and century since. One of my favorite examples of those he influenced is the self-taught working-man's philosopher Eric Hoffer who commented on the influence of Montaigne in his life. When on a gold-digging trip to the Sierras he took along a copy of Montaigne's essays. "We were snowed in and I read it straight through three times. I quoted it all the time. I'll bet there are still a dozen hobos in the San Joaquin Valley who can quote Montaigne." Montaigne's collected essays are worth returning to again and again to spur one's own thoughts about living and dying. I have read and enjoyed these essays over most of my adult life. With them I would also recommend those of Francis Bacon, Emerson, and Orwell, among others.
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LibraryThing member jpsnow
Even if he is the father of the essay, I find him somewhat vain and not completely poignant. However, the last passages of "Of Experience" do bring together some thoughtful points about the meaning of life and he does share some interesting anecdotes throughout -- particularly in reference to
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Socrates, Alcibiades, and other famous classical figures. Given the times in which he lived and his experiences, he does also found the essay with the perspective of the classics, religion, and modern society. I can see why the French so highly revered him.
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LibraryThing member saibancho
It's by my bed on the bedside cabinet. that should indicate to all of you how much of a loved vade mecum this work is. Unparalled.
LibraryThing member jasoncomely
Expert of oneself becomes expert of life.
LibraryThing member Westwest
This is I book that I should have read decades ago, but was a little spooked by its length. It was a mistake to wait, as it usually is. Like when you're reading Balthasar Gracian, you feel stoic wisdom jumping out of every page. It was truly a great primer in classical education. This experience
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taught me that I should not be scared of War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Paideia and Les Miserables that still are in my reading list.
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
In essence a late 16th diary of an aristocrat in a France torn by religious wars. It was mostly focused on his thoughts and his opinions in th elater years of his life as he observed his own aging. There were only hints at the chaos around his estates. Incredibly well read on the Roman and Greek
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Classics which served as his philosophical fodder as he thought about his life and his times in France. No one today could be so intimate with these Classic writing. It is what an educated individual was weaned on. After reading all 1269 pages I understand how his thinking eventually became part of the Enlightenment.
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LibraryThing member JayLivernois
The best translation of Montaigne out there although more than 50 years old--a must-read classic.
LibraryThing member iSatyajeet
Montaigne is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the Western tradition because of his profound understanding of human nature. Reportedly, Shakespeare read and drew on Montaigne's insights. When we think of "Essays" today, it is fortunate to be able to read a biography of the creator of this
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writing form.
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LibraryThing member iSatyajeet
Montaigne is regarded as one of the greatest writers of the Western tradition because of his profound understanding of human nature. Reportedly, Shakespeare read and drew on Montaigne's insights. When we think of "Essays" today, it is fortunate to be able to read a biography of the creator of this
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writing form.
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LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
Collection of Experiences
My first impression in listening this audiobook was that somehow I would not make it. It’s a long book. I didn’t like the style, didn’t appreciate the prose. I do like the multiple quotes of classical writings but that was not enough to engage me. As always, like my
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experience with audiobooks taught me, I became more attentive to the book as the listening went on. The essays that I like most are the epistemological ones, in which Montaigne exposes his skepticism. Montaigne’s work impressed me because of its openness. In listening to the essays one gets a fair account of Montaigne’s approach to life and knows his ideas about what is a life worth living. This audiobook is about wisdom. Classical wisdom as it was understood in XVI century.
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