Shocks of familiarity with Michel de Montaigne

At the beginning of her book “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer”, Sarah Bakewell writes (p.5)

‘to read Montaigne is to experience a series of shocks of familiarity’. I have found this to be true.

I have only recently begun to explore Montaigne’s life and writing. More’s the pity that it has taken me this long. Even though he lived more than 400 years ago (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592), there is still much we can learn from and relate to in Montaigne’s work. According to Sarah Bakewell, he devoted the last 20 years of his life to writing his essays, in which he wrote about himself and what he could learn about how to live by exploring and reflecting on the minutiae of his daily life. He wrote:

‘If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off – though I don’t know’.

Montaigne describes himself as being idle and slow-witted, with a tardy understanding and a weak imagination. He had a strong aversion to human pretension.

Sarah Bakewell points out that self-exploration and revelation, and discovering who each other is, as practiced by Montaigne, is one of the great adventures of modern times; this is easy to see in the success of social media. Whilst this kind of writing and communication seems very familiar in the 21st century, it was a completely new kind of writing in Montaigne’s time.

There is so much about even a brief encounter with Montaigne that I can relate to. Iain McGilchrist says that what you pay attention to determines what you see. The quotes below are what I paid attention to, but no doubt another reader of Montaigne would ‘see’ and select other quotes. My copy of his book of essays amounts to 1045 pages, so there is plenty to go at.

Here are some quotes from my brief acquaintance with Montaigne that have resonated with me.

Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide.

There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognise almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient.

If I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention; so that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I have has risen.

I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself, by an honest diversion; ….. I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading ; after a charge or two, I give them over.

The only hope of emerging from the fog of misinterpretation is to remain alert to its existence, that is, to become wise at one’s own expense.

When all is said and done, you never speak about yourself without loss. Your self-condemnation is always accredited, your self-praise discredited.

We are all patchwork and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment plays its own game.

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

Sarah Bakewell quotes the journalist Bernard Levin as saying,

‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: “How did he know all that about me?’

That perfectly describes how I have felt in beginning to learn more about Montaigne, his life, times and essays.

Currently he is the person I name when asked who I would like to meet, or invite to dinner.


Bakewell, S. (2011) How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  Vintage Books.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters (2003) Translated by Donald, M. Frame. Everyman’s Library.

Bakewell, S. (2010) Montaigne, philosopher of life (parts 1-7). The Guardian.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

4 thoughts on “Shocks of familiarity with Michel de Montaigne

  1. Stephen Downes May 10, 2019 / 6:50 pm

    Definitely worth reading. I read him in my 20s (the Essays, not the travel works and letters). Along with writers like Descartes and Hume, he taught me to entertain endless reservations about the state of my own knowledge.

    A lot of what he says resonates even more so today. I feel like I remember a lot less today than I did in my 20s (objectively this is probably not true; in my 20s there was a lot less to remember). This reinforces to me how much of my own experience is (as they say) in the moment – I’m not drawing on memories, I’m not creating memories, I’m living in that in-between state where I’m creating and living through experience only.

  2. jennymackness May 10, 2019 / 7:24 pm

    > I’m living in that in-between state where I’m creating and living through experience only. <

    I love that Stephen. Thank you.

  3. Benjamin David Steele May 11, 2019 / 11:43 am

    “Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide.”

    As a side note, the early Quakers were the first to popularize giving each family member their own separate room. They believed it was important that every person should free to be an individual before God.

    They also believed that a family household should be independent of others. So, they were also the first to popularize the nuclear family as a unit separate from others. This was at a time when neighbors could be quite nosy and would freely enter each other’s homes.

    Privacy is a rather modern invention. And the Quakers considered it sacrosanct.

    See: Quakers and the American Family by Barry Levy

  4. jennymackness May 14, 2019 / 7:07 am

    Thanks for that interesting information about the Quakers Benjamin, which I didn’t know.

    I went to a Quaker school in my teenage years, but I’m afraid all we girls thought about, at the time, was to dare each other to break the silence. I didn’t appreciate this focus on silence until much later.

    But a room of my own has always been important to me. It’s a privilege though, isn’t it, to be able to physically have one.

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