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Yet there is a strong sense in which all of the Essays are a form of what one 20th century author has dubbed “self-writing”: an ethical exercise to “strengthen and enlighten” Montaigne’s own judgement, as much as that of we readers: And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? I have no more made my book than my book has made me: it is a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life …As for the seeming disorder of the product, and Montaigne’s frequent claims that he is playing the fool, this is arguably one more feature of the Essays that reflects his Socratic irony.Socrates consented serenely to taking hemlock, having been sentenced unjustly to death by the Athenians.
Their wisdom, he suggests, was chiefly evident in the lives they led (neither wrote a thing).
In particular, it was proven by the nobility each showed in facing their deaths.
Nietzsche claimed that the very existence of Montaigne’s Essays added to the joy of living in this world.
More recently, Sarah Bakewell’s charming engagement with Montaigne, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) made the best-sellers’ lists.
He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot.
Voltaire celebrated Montaigne - a man educated only by his own reading, his father and his childhood tutors – as “the least methodical of all philosophers, but the wisest and most amiable”.He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all.With an almost Socratic irony, he tells us most about his own habits of writing in the essays titled “Of Presumption”, “Of Giving the Lie”, “Of Vanity”, and “Of Repentance”.Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change.Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … French philosopher Jacques Rancière has recently argued that modernism began with the opening up of the mundane, private and ordinary to artistic treatment.Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason that you should employ your leisure upon so frivolous and vain a subject. Modern art no longer restricts its subject matters to classical myths, biblical tales, the battles and dealings of Princes and prelates.Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favourites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles.It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called “a way of life”.Montaigne’s persistence in assembling his extraordinary dossier of stories, arguments, asides and observations on nearly everything under the sun (from how to parley with an enemy to whether women should be so demure in matters of sex, has been celebrated by admirers in nearly every generation.Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare.