Although he’s revered as a great classic writer, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) is an author we read because we want to, not because we have to. He’s intimate, erudite, chatty, and expansive—qualities well suited to the peculiar genre he essentially created. While puttering around his tower library in 16th-century France, Montaigne crafted conversational observations into familiar prose, inventing the personal essay as a new literary form. Others had composed essays before Montaigne, but they wrote as kings, soldiers, officials, or philosophers. Montaigne wrote simply as himself—a bemused and befuddled French aristocrat trying to make sense of it all.
“Authors communicate themselves unto the world,” he told readers, “by some strange and special mark; I the first by my general disposition, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian, or poet or lawyer.”
On that score, Montaigne was the world’s first reality star, someone who shrewdly saw the modest intrigues of his domestic life as a marketable commodity. The public readily agreed, making his Essays, published between 1580 and 1588, a period bestseller. Since their appearance more than four centuries ago, Montaigne’s essays have never been out of print. Yet unlike Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump, Montaigne regarded the inward glance as an adventure in self-effacement, not self-infatuation. He was a charming and perceptive critic of his own foibles, especially alert to his weakness for inconsistency:
If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely on myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive by some measure or other to be in mine, according as I turn myself.
In accepting the sometimes conflicting beliefs and feelings that could exist within himself, Montaigne suggests that people are bound to disagree with themselves, and with others. A Roman Catholic, he celebrated tolerance while his country was being torn apart by bloody conflicts between Protestants and members of his own faith. It was a daring stand in an era so dominated by sectarian strife and political oppression. His essays don’t fully suggest the danger of his times or the risks he took as a mediator between religious zealots. Even Montaigne’s celebrated candor had its limits. But what abides in his writing is how much of himself he manages to get on paper. Montaigne appears to transcribe the workings of his mind in real time, so the conventions of formal argument give way to spontaneity and digression. The titles of his essays often offer only the vaguest of clues about where his brain is headed: “Of Experience,” for example, begins as a reflection on the limits of reason but eventually includes topics as varied as eggs, chimneys, and Portuguese tastes in wine. Along the way, Montaigne sizes up his country’s government:
For we have in France more laws than all the world besides—yea, more than were needful to govern all the worlds imagined by Epicurus. . . . And we have given our judges so large a scope to moot, to opinionate, to suppose, and decide that there was never so powerful and licentious a liberty.
That’s the other thing about Montaigne: Although he wrote his essays while Elizabeth I still sat on the throne of England, you sometimes feel as if he’s scanning this morning’s headlines. In our age of blogs, Tweets, and Instagrams, using the self as source material for a running commentary might not seem very special. But as Virginia Woolf (no slouch as an essayist herself) observed, writing as yourself isn’t the biggest challenge faced by an author of personal essays. There is, first and foremost, “the supreme difficulty of being oneself.” Authenticity is something many writers claim when they use the perpendicular pronoun, of course. “But this talking of oneself,” said Woolf of the master, “following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, color, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection—this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.”