Wednesday 20 July 2011

Word Master

I’m in the process of reading The Complete Essays of Michel Montaigne, a labour worthy of Hercules. Please don’t misunderstand me; if it’s a labour it’s a hugely entertaining one. I’ve read some of his essays before though in a highly abridged edition. The full collection weighs in at thirteen hundred pages, full of all sorts of surprises and delights.

Montaigne is the father of the essay as a literary form. In so many ways his own personal technique, his assaying has never been bettered in style, range or content. I’ve not long finished On Democritus and Heraclitus, where he says of himself:

I take the first subject that Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expand them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! 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 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 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.

It’s just so brilliantly put, this technique of playful serendipity, the one I try myself with a fraction of the skill or the insight. There is not the least artifice in the way that Montaigne looks at things, though there is a slight tendency to self-deprecating understatement. He is the subject of his book, and spending a little leisure in pursuit of the subject is neither frivolous nor vain, as he himself suggests!

Montaigne also has a quality I admire most in a writer: a simple love of words. In introducing On the Vanity of Words, the essay that follows on from the above, the editor says that, despite the author’s mastery of language, he despised words and admired deeds. But that seems to me not to be a wholly accurate reading; for, drawing on classical examples, what he really despises is rhetoric, and rhetoric here is the worst kind of artifice; an abuse of words, an abuse of meaning and an abuse of language. Montaigne does give examples of bad usage, particularly in overblown technical terms, but he does so in words that are anything but vain. In other words, he disproves his own argument, or he proves the subtle irony of his intellect.

On Democritus and Heraclitus has another passage that I particularly like:

I do not think that there is so much wretchedness in us as vanity; we are not so much wicked as daft; we are not so much full of evil as inanity; we are not so much pitiful as despicable.

Vain, daft, inane and despicable, watching the news night after night, discovering the latest antics of some politician or celebrity, it’s a conclusion that is almost impossible to escape.


  1. Good quotes. You may already know of this free copy (on-line) of his Essays: - type Montaigne in search box (down a bit on left- hand side of page). After the Authorised Version of the Bible, he was quoted more than anyone else by the American colonists during speeches in the run-up to the regrettable separation from the U.K.(but please don't hold that against him). If Parliament and Lord North has listened to Edmund Burke, all that unpleasantness might have been avoided, eh?

  2. Check out Sarah Bakewell discuss "What Bloggers Owe Montaigne" at,

    It's about "the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people", blogging at its best, in other words!

  3. Well what an interesting read. Such for being daft, fain, inane and despicable. I shall accept those traits though alleviate the pain by

    surrendering what I do to doubt and uncertainty :-)

    your friend,


  4. Stephen, I shall. Thank you so much. Montaigne as the world's first blogger - I like that!

  5. Thank you, Tony. I have another friend called Anthony, a regular contributor here. For a moment I assumed this was from him, but he is always Anthony. :-)

  6. I am not familiar with this chap michel De Montaigne, have I missed much? The last few days have been quite hectic and it has been scorching hot over here despite a good rain that we had; it seems that the Scots got quite a bit too.

  7. Engaging post - I have never read Montaigne but now am intrigued. I love the idea of an appreciation for words and a despise of rhetoric. I'd have to say though, in my opinion, words can be deeds because they live in relics that we look to in our day to find some sort of understanding of the chaos around us:)

  8. Hi Ana, I am sure you will know Sarah Bakewell's delightful book on Montaigne but the master is even better than that. You have read more than I have already but I think that if one roots oneself in Montaigne he can provide a way of looking at things that will last for life.

  9. Anthony, nice to see you back. No, not much. Yes, the rain here has fallen mainly on the - Scottish - plain. :-)

  10. Charles, I have her book though I've yet to read it. I will, as I've got to the top of the mountain. :-)