The French thinker was desperate that everyone stop arguing so violentlyby Sameer Rahim / December 29, 2016 / Leave a comment
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was one of the most extraordinary and unusual thinkers of the Renaissance. A French aristocrat who spent most of his time in his library tower, he is famous for inventing the essay but as Tim Parks explains that undersells how interesting he is. Parks, a novelist and critic, has edited a new selection of Montaigne’s works, “Drawn from Life: Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne” (Notting Hill). He spoke to Prospect about the Frenchman’s illuminating inconsistencies and what they might teach us about getting along in a turbulent age.
Sameer Rahim: Why read Montaigne now?
Tim Parks: Before doing these essays, I only had a very marginal knowledge of Montaigne. Going back and reading them is an extraordinary experience. The first feeling is that you have a very intimate voice—surprisingly intimate given the period it was written in. We always associate books from 400 to 500 years ago with something formal, but they’re extremely intimate.
You recognise what he’s talking about: he has a genuinely different way of looking at things and feelings that is really quite exciting. It has implications for the way you see yourself, so one reads Montaigne for the reasons one might read an excellent self-help book (if they exist—presumably they do), to get this wholly different perspective. What on earth can progress mean when we see Montaigne producing a level of thought that seems ahead of what we read today?
SR: Montaigne’s often thought to have invented the essay, but a reader coming to this collection will find his works are very different to what you find in Francis Bacon or Samuel Johnson.
TP: Montaigne doesn’t need us to say he invented this or that form. His essays are nothing like what we’d think of as a normal essay. They appear, at first glance, extraordinarily unfocused. That’s because his subject is really always the same: how to set your mind to deal with what’s out there, and how to defend yourself against everything that’s going to make life difficult for you. It seems to me that it’s an essentially phobic approach—approaching life being aware of how dangerous it is and how exciting it is. But to talk about inventing the essay—who cares? No, it’s a completely individual voice. If you come to British essayists it’s a very different kettle of fish in terms of metaphysics.