By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Christopher Lane
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a sixteenth century philosopher and writer, wrote and re-wrote “Essays”, originally published in the 1580s. Essay was a new form of writing in the sixteenth century. Montaigne’s subject is the philosophy of life and death.
Montaigne writes his collection of essays while cloistered in a château in southwest France. Donald Frame translates and compiles three volumes of Montaigne’ essays into one book–“The Complete Essays of Montaigne”, first published in 1957. One of the benefits of Frame’s translation is in asides that clarify meaning, place, and person.
Montaigne, born into a family of wealth, affords the luxury of time for personal reflection and contemplation. Aristotle wrote that life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation. In one sense, this quiet life is a weakness in Montaigne’s philosophy. Montaigne reflects on history and ancient times to explain how life should be lived when his life seems a shadow of most people’s reality, the reality of a day-to-day fight for survival. There is reader skepticism about Montaigne’s philosophy based on a 1% versus 99% life of most people. The irony of that skepticism is that Montaigne is consider by some to be the father of skepticism; i.e. believing nothing is proven true by the senses.
Montaigne, with great family wealth and a storied education, becomes a Mayor of Bordeaux. He draws on a privileged life and recorded lives of great philosophers and leaders to create insight about lives of those that “do” and have little time, or no time, to contemplate. Montaigne’s privileged existence lacks the sweat of life.
Montaigne is modest about his erudition but there is an elitist smell that clings to his self-effacing commentary. He suggests the appeal of his essays lies in the middle of the human population; in-between those who are not highly intelligent and those who are abysmally ignorant. Inferentially, the ignorant are plebeians, the common and ordinary people; people of course nature and manner. In spite of this elitist odor, the wisdom noted in Monsieur Montaigne’s essays is enlightening; particularly, for we who are abysmally ignorant.
This is a one thousand page journey with something for everyone. Montaigne suggests humans need to embrace life and eschew tragic interpretations of death. Life and death are only stories of being. Death is inevitable and should not be feared. Death should be embraced like life; it is merely a final act, a denouement for a life well or poorly lived. In Montaigne’s opinion, there are justifications for ending one’s life volitionally but only with valued reason.
Justification and value for death are lines drawn from history. Montaigne suggests women may choose to kill themselves rather than be raped. Men may choose to kill themselves and murder their families to avoid enslavement by an enemy. The defeated may kill themselves if mortally ill or wounded. Euthanasia is permissible at death’s door. There is no religious constraint in Montaigne’s justifications.
Today, American justification for suicide is severely constrained by religion and/or law. Suicide is sanctioned in few States and only in proscribed circumstance (Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont allow assisted suicide by physician with third-party administration).
Montaigne is Epicurean in the sense that he believes living life is pursuit of pleasure. However, pursuit of pleasure is not defined by luxuries offered by money, power, or prestige. Those pleasures are diminished by their attainment because they are insatiable human desires.
When one makes more money than needed to sustain life, he/she buys more of what is not needed. Those “not-needed” things are human’ handcuffs. Owners worry about losing things; worry about replacing things; worry about keeping up with neighbors. Life becomes an unending accumulation of things that fail to satiate desire.
Power never rests. Power is always moving like an electron around a nucleus of followers. Leaders are enslaved by followers. Leaders with power are targets for support or destruction. Leaders worry about followers, worry about competition for position, worry about their place in history; they die alone just like every human being. Power is an ephemeral pleasure that never rests in one place.
Prestige comes from respect of fellow human beings. It is outside the control of the seekers or the chosen; it is limited by the opinion of others; it changes like the direction of the wind or habits of the culture within which one lives.
Montaigne disdains habit because it contains un-grounded reason that distorts nature. Montaigne attacks cultural shibboleths that are based on unfounded reason. Because one says the earth is the center of the universe does not make it so. A universe of fiction may grow around a culture of mysticism that denies the natural state of being. Montaigne insists on skepticism when confronted with culturally reinforced habits that are not bound by nature.
Montaigne’s skepticism is often warranted but also, sometimes, quite wrong. An inordinate amount of time is spent on misconceptions of the animal kingdom and its comparability. Montaigne distorts reality by arguing dogs and elephants have reasoned behavior comparable to man. Montaigne disdains Epicurean’ belief in the atomization of matter and chooses Aristotle’s less scientifically accurate belief in elemental construction.
However, Montaigne seems prescient in other areas of philosophy. Montaigne believes the penultimate goal of life, pleasure, lies in self-understanding; doing what one is best at; and letting go of those things in life that do not improve self-understanding. Montaigne cites many ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Lucretius that reinforce his arguments.
Plato drives the point of virtue as the human characteristic of doing what one is best at doing. Montaigne notes that both Plato and Aristotle emphasize the importance of education for self-understanding.
Self-understanding benefits humankind by revealing to each what they are best at and giving them tools (through education) to be the best they can be. Montaigne insists on learning; not rote memorization, but clear understanding. Montaigne argues that it is not reciting what someone has said but understanding what is meant by what is said. (This is somewhat ironic in view of Montaigne’s voluminous quotes from dead philosophers.)
Montaigne suggests humans under-value life without pain because it is not pain; it is not discomfort. It is nearly nothing; when in fact, “no pain” is nearly everything.
Montaigne reflects on his upbringing and his Father’s drive to educate his son. Latin becomes Montaigne’s first language, the language of scholarship in the 16th century. Despite Montaigne’s penchant for scholarship, he did take office as a politician. He was elected mayor of Bordeaux before retiring to his cloistered existence as a writer of the “…Essays…”
Montaigne applauds his father for providing him an education and infers that every family is obligated to support education of their children.Montaigne argues that education is essential to living a good life.
“The Complete Essays of Montaigne” is only a brief introduction to a person that lived as one of those rare human beings that “…have a superior perception of reality.” If one has a spare 40 hours to listen, “The Complete Essays of Montaigne” offers some fine human insight.