on February 19, 2005
Over the years I have kept a copy of the Essays by my favorite reading chair to be enjoyed at random, particularly in the middle of the night when Entropy seems to hold the upper hand. They exercise a remarkable calming effect.
Seduced by the idea of having a complete set of all the Essays, I initially opted for the Screech translation, but found it wooden and pedantic. I moved to the Cohen translation, which does not include all of the Essays, but has all of the major ones and is far more enjoyable.
Montaigne's Essays are one of the more enjoyable massive tomes of renaissance writing available, and if reading in English, one has two major modern choices of translation, Screech and Frame.
To start with Translation: Both major translations are excellent in their own way, but some differences are of note. When a translation is done, usually the translator will translate the major language of the text, French in this case, and leave quotes by the author from other languages, mostly Latin in this case, untranslated. The translator will provide a note with the translation of the quote, and preferably the source of the quote.
This is where Screech and Frame differ considerably. Screech does what should be done, and Frame just translates everything into English with no significant notations other than the person quoted. This means, however, that one may prefer one translation over the other based on this alone. For example, one that wishes to take a more scholarly look will likely use Screech (or the original), and one that simply wants to read for pleasure may have no problem using the translation by Frame. Also, Screech is British and Frame is American, so one may have other preferences for style.
As for the Physical Copy:
The physical copies of Frame's translation (Stanford and Everyman's) are vastly superior to the Penguin Classics Screech version. The Penguin paperback is thick, but in keeping with the generally small form factor, the print is terribly small, and the paper is of a horrible quality, which is the reason I also purchased the Kindle version.
As for the Kindle version:
The Penguin Classics Kindle file is much more pleasant to read and deal with than the paperback alternative. However, there are many errors in the Kindle version that are not present in the paperback version. It appears some items get corrected occasionally, but still, it is not nice to charge so much for the Kindle version, and not have it completely proofread and ready for primetime.
This actually lead me to have a conversation with a Penguin representative about the quality of the Kindle version, and in that conversation, I learned something I had not realized before. Penguin does not produce the Kindle version. Amazon does. So, all of the quality issues I have noticed in the past about Kindle versions essentially are the fault of Amazon rather than the publisher listed. I suppose the publisher only sells Amazon license to produce the Kindle file and sets price limitations, and Amazon does the rest. This needs to change, because there needs to be more quality control.
***EDIT 02/01/2016: SEE COMMENT BELOW BY RAFA. APPARENTLY, IT IS THE PUBLISHER'S FAULT, NOT AMAZON'S.***
However, because of the limitations of the Penguin paperback, I would still recommend the Kindle version if one is to read Screech.
Five stars for Montaigne's Complete Essays, regardless of which version one chooses to read.
on April 30, 2000
Montaigne wrote what he called "essays", in the sense of "attempts" - he was trying to find out what he thought about stuff. It helped that he'd read a great deal, led a pretty full life and had known some interesting people, although one of his great virtues is that he seems to have found them more interesting than they themselves probably thought they were.
Pascal struggled all his life with the example of Montaigne. The problem for Pascal was that he was only really concerned with one thing - God's grace - and he was scandalised that Montaigne didn't seem to find it that big a deal. MM will write as readily about theological disputes and poetry as he will about sex, forgetfulness and his own stupidity. Apart from anything else, he was perhaps the first person to observe that nobody can pretend that his s*** doesn't stink (I can't remember the exact page, but then there _are_ over a thousand.)
There's a lifetime's reading in here. For such a big fat classic of a book it reads like it was written yesterday, although if it _had_ been written yesterday, he'd've been all over Hello! magazine by now.
Wisdom is maybe underrated these days, but Montaigne isn't just spouting off. This is not a 16th century evening with Morrie. You can see him thinking. He _encourages_ you. (What a great word "encourage" is.) It's not that bad for about fourteen quid.
on June 23, 2001
MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE - THE COMPLETE ESSAYS. Translated and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by M. A. Screech. lviv + 1284 pp. (Penguin Classics). London : Penguin Books, 1993 and Reissued. ISBN 0-14-044604-4 (pbk.)
Those who discover Montaigne should count themselves very lucky. There are so many authors competing for our attention today, so many brilliant and less than brillliant men and women both contemporary and of the past, so many poets, novelists, philosophers, thinkers of every stripe, that Montaigne's voice can easily get lost in the general racket, like the voice of a single cricket on a noisy summer's night.
But Montaigne's voice is well worth singling out for special attention, like that one cricket whose song is especially musical, because there has never been anyone quite like him, nor anyone who has produced such a wealth of sensible observations on life and everything that goes to make it up.
We love Montaigne for his humanity, his wisdom, his clear insight into human nature, his tolerance of our weaknesses and failings, his love and compassion for all creatures whether man, animal, or plant, his calm, gentle and amiable voice, his stately and dignified progress as he conducts us through the vast repository of his mind. But above all we love him for his plain good sense.
Despite his distance in time, we can open these essays almost anywhere and immediately become engrossed. Some of what he says, particularly about our weaknesses and failings, may not be particularly welcome to some, though the open-minded will acknowledge its self-evident truth. Montaigne was not afraid to speak his mind, and as a man who was interested in almost everything, his observations range from the curious through to the truly profound.
At one time we find him, for example, discussing the best sexual position for conception, at others such deep notions as that "in truth we are but nothing" (p.555); "there is a plague on man, the opinion that he knows something" (p.543); thought as the chief source of our woes (p.514); "in man curiosity is an innate evil" (p.555); "only a fool is bound to his body by fear of death" (p.553); nature needs little to be satisfied" (p.526); there is only change (p.xvii); our absolute need for converse with others (p.421); how "if a ray of God's light touched us even slightly, it would be everywhere apparent : not only our words but our deeds would bear its lustre and its brightness. Everything emanating from us would be seen shining with that noble light" (p.493); how man should "lay aside that imaginary kingship over other creatures which is attributed to us" (p.487); how reason is not a special unique gift of human beings, marking us off from the rest of Nature" (p489); of how "we owe justice to men," and "gentleness and kindness" to "beasts, which have life and feelings [and] even to trees and plants" (p.488).
And so on through manifold topics, both weighty and light, his observations illustrated by stories contemporary and ancient, drawn not only from his incredibly wide learning, but also from his experience as man of the world.
The examples I've cited seem to me pitifully inadequate as describing or even suggesting the breadth of his thought - just a few examples selected at random that happen to appeal to me. Montaigne is too big to capture in a few words. His mind was as capacious as his enormous book, and he had something to say about almost everything. His is not so much a book as a companion for life.
Montaigne as that single special cricket singing away in the forest of learning along with thousands of others, is not only worth singling out because of his vast repertoire of songs, but even more because of the special way he sang them. What makes him so important and so valuable, especially to us today, is that he was characterized above all, not merely by reason, which is common enough, but by a REASONABLE, AND NOT EXCESSIVE, USE OF REASON. In other words, he knew that reason had its limits, that it was a tool limited in its applicability and useful only for certain purposes, and he had the good sense to know when we should stop.
There is in Montaigne a sanity, a balance, an affability, and a modesty and tolerance that is found in no other European thinker, and that reminds one more of the Chinese sage. But instead of fastening on the truly civilized pattern established by Montaigne, Europe instead chose Descartes, Apostle of the Excessive Use of Reason, and with what results we know.
The Cartesian ideology of Reason fueled and continues to fuel the relentless Juggernaut of Reason now underway that threatens to end up crushing everything beneath its wheels. Montaigne would have been appalled. He stood for something more human.
on April 17, 2000
A wonderful book to have for life. I already have the full version with detailed Essays of Montaigne, but this small paperback version is one which goes with me everywhere. It is my handbook to life and thoughts. I've had this book for long, handed to me by my father. I find all daily life substance and teachings with me when I read these wonderful notes, which are not only the thoughts reflecting a person but almost everyone of us. The chapters 'On the power of the imagination' and 'On the uncertainty of our judgement' relates so much to our own daily thoughts and actions- when I feel I have the power to do everything and then bringing it down to reality ... but the words written here in these chapters again fills me with power and optimism but also with a touch of pragmatism. I find this book thoroughly engrossing and often get back to it. These Essays are what all-time classics are made of.
"My library is in the third story of a tower; on the first is my chapel, on the second a bedroom with ante-chambers, where I often lie to be alone; and above it there is a great wardrobe...Adjoining my library is a very neat little room, in which a fire can be laid in winter, and which is pleasantly lighted by a window." Montaigne, On Three Kinds of Relationships
From the start, Montaigne (1533-1592) shows his great love of writing about life and his ultimate pleasure: exercising his mind through the discussion of philosophy. He also loved to point out incongruity and excelled in making logical conclusions.
His honesty seems to be his most attractive quality as he addresses the horror and beauty of life. At times he seems to almost be a reporter describing experience, detached and unemotional. Then when he delves into friendship he shows a new depth of emotion.
"There is no action or thought of mine in which I do not miss him, as he would have missed me. For just as he infinitely surpassed me in every other talent and virtue, so did he also in the duties of friendship." ~Montaigne, On Friendship
Montaigne's writing is at times a history lesson. He draws from the writings of Ovid, Cicero, Horace, Socrates, Plato, Seneca, Virgil and Petrarch.
His topics are fascinating and get even more interesting when he talks about the custom of wearing clothes, the Platonic paradox or why churches use incense. He explores the power of the imagination, truth and error, friendship, why civilized man is at times no better than a savage in his actions and freely discusses his ideas about education.
I must say that when he discusses books, this topic overflows and ends up in other essays. So, while the chapter on books may seem short, you will still find some excellent quotes later on while reading about the three kinds of relationships or "On Physiognomy," which seems to be more about the plague and death being inevitable and how philosophers contemplate death as a life-long exercise.
I learned a great deal about Socrates and how the Athenians felt when he died and that swans sing when they die. It all seems unrelated, but somehow Montaigne casually introduces topic after topic with great intellectual flair. Finally we happen upon his survival when captured by a band of horsemen. Then, we understand why he has titled this chapter "Physiognomy," because he is saved by the kind look on his face and his firmness of speech.
We also learn about his beautiful library. Later he discusses topics of interest like how Emperors built huge arenas that could be filled with deep water filled with sea monsters. These topics all seem related to his love of research.
While he discusses history at length and loves to add in quotes, he is also a keen observer of human nature. He sees life so clearly and freely says what most people fear will offend. Like that when we find a fault in other people, it might be a fault in our character or how strong we have to be to handle being criticized and why there are remarkable proofs of friendship when someone gives constructive criticism. Of course, many would not agree with this, although our friends do see us rather clearly.
"One must learn to endure what one cannot avoid," becomes more relevant near the end when Montaigne faces his own death. He discusses life so casually and even tells us about what he loves to eat and still doesn't enjoy. Life's simple pleasures are still of utmost importance even when he is suffering greatly with illness.
My blinds had turned golden in the early morning when I finished reading this book. I had the longing to sit by a fireplace and read another book by Montaigne. While it took three days to read the essays, this book almost ended too soon. Reading the essays was like discovering a long lost friend or a book through which we can live vicariously in another time and place.
~The Rebecca Review
on March 14, 2006
Montaigne. He has lessons for us all, I've found.
Some of the lessons are hard. He writes about everything, but most of all, he writes about himself. There is a painful clarity to his work - but that cliche term does nothing to properly explain what it is he accomplishes with his writing.
At thirty-three, Montaigne decided to retire to his home and write. He had vague ideas about writing a gentleman's book on warfare, and the first few essays reflect that. But, as he progressed, he kept going on little side journeys into his own thoughts and opinions. At first, Montaigne reigned himself in, struggling to stay true to the path he had decided for himself.
Happily for us, he failed.
He abandoned the idea of writing for gentlemen - though there are still slight evidences of this throughout the work. Instead, he decided to focus on the one thing he knew better than anybody else in the entire world - Montaigne. Who else could know more, or would bother to take as much time exploring this one man than the man himself? And why not explore his own mind - every day, he has to live and deal with the advantages and disadvantages, the habits and the thoughts, the opinions and the ironies of being Montaigne. Thus, he decided, it was worth exploring. In his view, there was nothing more important than understanding one's self. If you cannot understand yourself, how can you expect to understand anybody else?
There are moments of 'painful clarity', as I said above. Montaigne discusses (his) impotence, his imperfect marriage, the disappointments he has created in others, the times when he did not do what he should. But he also talks about how he can make himself a better person, and how, in a lot of ways, he is an admirable person. It is important to realise that Montaigne is not writing an apology for himself. He is putting himself on to paper, 'warts and all', and declaring it true. There is a point in one of the essays where he declares that he wouldn't want anyone to lie about the person he is, even if they flattered him or praised him. This is, in a nutshell, Montaigne's thinking. He is not concerned with being the greatest person ever known - he is concerned with understanding himself.
Four hundred years on, what is there to offer us, the modern reader, in Montaigne? An infinity of wisdom. Could I, in honesty, completely and unwaveringly disect myself for the consumption of both myself and others? I don't think so. I very much fear that the answer is no. And yet - why not? Is it shame? I don't think so, as I have nothing major to hide. Perhaps, then, it is simply the fear of unrealised ideas and thoughts. If I am unaware of myself, I cannot present it. Montaigne was and is aware of himself and thus manages to accurately describe the person that he is.
Montaigne's essays are invaluable not only for the man that they portray, but for the wisdom in what is spoken. Montaigne has thought about so many aspects of what it is to be a human and alive, and we can all learn from this. The topics he discusses go beyond mere 16th century issues, and deal with concepts, ideas and concerns that affect us now, and will affect us always. Absolutely essential reading.
on March 2, 2012
Be VERY careful when reading reviews. The Penguin reviews are for a different translation. This can be very important. Sample from Cotton translation: "It is an ordinary thing with several nations at this day to wound themselves in good earnest to gain credit to what they profess; of which our king, relates notable examples of what he has seen in Poland and done towards himself."
on October 2, 2002
Other reviewers here have commented about the contents of the essays and left me little to say. Instead, I have to pay a large compliment to the translator, M.A. Screech.
Aside from the clarity of his prose and his engaging tone, Screech managed to synthesize the multiple editions of the essays into a single work, giving the readers an insight into Montaigne's development.
The essays were originally published in three editions. With each revision, essays were amended, expanded, and edited as Montaigne's thoughts developed. Screech uses a subtle system to note these later additions and revisions, pointing out where the essays grew over time.
Screech's translations of the hundreds of classical quotations are also well handled, giving both the original language and a clear English rendering of the passage without interrupting the flow of the text.
This is an amazing book. Moving, insightful, humane, and thick enough to kill any bugs you choose to smack with it. I've had to order a second copy of this volume, since I've reduced my first copy to tatters, reading and rereading it. Okay, and smacking bugs.
on October 19, 2010
This Kindle edition of Montaigne's Complete Essays get a three star rating because as of today Amazon is still treating different translations as if they are the same thing. So, if you are looking at something costing about a dollar, you are probably looking at an old translation by Charles Cotton, which is widely available for free on the internet from sources such as project Gutenberg, and I'd give it a rating of one star. On the other hand, if you are looking at something costing around $15, it might be a modern translation by M. A. Screech (from Penguin) and I will give it a five-star rating. Please be aware that these prices are subject to change in the future. If you are not certain which is which, download a sample first to make sure it is the edition you want.
The Charles Cotton translation Michel de Montaigne - The Complete Essays (mobi), dated back in the 17th century, could be a little hard to understand sometimes. If you prefer (as I do) to read a modern translation of Montaigne, M. A. Screech's excellent translation has just become available on Kindle The Complete Essays. It is a little more expensive than the Cotton translation, but well worth the money. I also have the complete essays translated by Donald Frame The Complete Essays of Montaigne, which I actually like a little more because I have been reading the book for a while. But it is a physical book and I don't think it is available on the Kindle yet.