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The Complete Essays of Montaigne Paperback – June 1, 1958
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From the Back Cover
In his Essays Montaigne warns us from the outset that he has set himself 'no goal but a domestic and private one' yet he is one author whose modernity and universality have been acclaimed by each age since he wrote. Probing into his emotions, attitudes, and behavior, Montaigne reveals to us much about ourselves.
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Montaigne's essays have lived for over 400 years, so his appeal can't be questioned. What makes this edition hard to deal with is the typesetting. The space between lines -- the leading -- leaves lines so scrunched together it's hard to stay focused on the ideas. For days I set the book aside, partly because I was busy, but also because I didn't want to face those scrunched lines anymore. I'm back at it, and the ideas are always stimulating, but the narrow leading is a recurring distraction.
Donald M. Frame's translation is highly acclaimed, and I've since learned also appears in Everyman's Library. A friend, who works with catalogs and design, had no problem with that typesetting. This edition also includes Montaigne’s letters and his travel journal. Had I known earlier, I'd have bought it.
If you're doing Montaigne in English, you will never find a reason to use another edition. All of Montaigne's essays complete, and all with Frame's useful and non-condescending footnotes right on the bottom of every page: translating the Latin, providing helpful historical or contextual information, etc.
I was quite surprised to find this book was banned by the Catholic church (don't know if it still is). I consider it one of the finest examples of high-literary Catholic writing. For non-believers, this book was the launching point for many famous atheistic writers (e.g., Rousseau, Descartes, Azimov, Nietzsche). No wonder Montaigne was selected to mediate the protestant - Catholic disputes racking his country during his time. His writings (and thinking) appealed to all.
Reading Frame's translation strikes me with how much that form
has changed. Montaigne's essays have been aptly compared to a
mirror: you read his thoughts, and you discover your own. Thus, I
find myself asking who I am, as a 21st Century reader, as I
struggle through these essays. How different they are from the
essay writing I learned in school.
Essays, as I was taught, usually begin by stating a particular
point or position, proceed by arguing for that point using logic
and evidence, and conclude with a brief summary. Following the
dictates of Strunk and White, Zinsser, Hemingway, or Orwell, one
should write simply and directly, omitting needless words,
preferring the active voice, etc.
What then is one to make of his essay "On Solitude", for example,
beginning with these words:
"Let us leave aside the usual long comparison between the
solitary and the active life; and as for that fine statement
under which ambition and avarice take cover -- that we are not
born for our private selves, but for the public -- let us boldly
appeal to those who are in the midst of the dance."
I struggle to parse the meaning of that opening sentence. Is it
just me? Or, is it that I am reading a translation, albeit one
widely regarded as excellent? By modern tastes, Montaigne's
writing is often florid, meandering, and unnecessarily complex. I
find myself impatiently wishing he would just get to the point.
But, should this be taken as a criticism? I expect Montaigne
wrote for his contemporaries, for people who had both the time to
read for pleasure and the willingness to follow the meandering
wherever it lead. Four centuries later, we are awash with words
and media. Something in me wants the PowerPoint bullet point
summary, the "take home message" of his thoughts on solitude --
delivered as concisely as possible. The problem here may be with
me, the reader.
About solitude, Montaigne argues that the business of governing
one's life is not easily escaped. He says,
"Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us
when we change our country.
'Behind the horseman sits black care.' --Horace"
Here is a second issue: his use of classical quotations. I have
no idea what how Horace quotation contributes to the point
Montaigne is making. Do you? Throughout his essays, Montaigne
delights in being the "what do I know?" skeptic, the nonexpert,
the author who believes that a personal truth can be as great as
a universal one. It's that attitude that gives him his
friendliness and his greatness.
So, why is it, then, that he so often quotes ancient authorities?
Most such quotations add little to his arguments and occasionally
come across as snobby name-dropping. What could be Montaigne's
motivation? If you read his essay "On the vanity of words", you
will see that he is well aware of the malign power of fine-sounding
rhetoric to bamboozle audiences.
Perhaps my issues with Montaigne are merely a matter of taste.
Essays admit many styles, some quite different than that used by
Montaigne. Solitude has been discussed by many authors. In
Walden, for example, Thoreau wrote
"I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for
friendship, three for society."
I thank Montaigne for the form, yet I prefer the simple
directness of Thoreau.