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There are few things more pleasurable than conversing with the great master of the essay, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592).
Sarah Bakewill’s excellent How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (2011) has inspired wide current interest in Montaigne as a writer whom readers uncannily feel they know—our contemporary. He lived in a deeply contested and divided society, to which his answer was to become the greatest reader of his age. His essays, among the best ever written, bring all of life into discussion: from birth to death, from his hometown to the New World being explored and exploited in his day, all the virtues and the vices, cannibals and cats, drunkenness, books he read, names, thumbs, coaches, horses, doubt and belief, manners and customs, history, sexuality, and every kind of relation we have to family, friends, society, and animals.
Montaigne’s essays have been a perennial influence in literature and philosophy, having at their heart his attempts to answer his great question, how shall we live? They have appealed to writers of memoirs, biographers and autobiographers, essayists, dramatists, and authors of autofiction. Through his influence on Shakespeare, Pascal, Rousseau, Emerson, Nietzsche, Woolf, and, among our contemporaries, Joan Didion, Eula Bliss, Brian Blanchfield, Brian Dillon, and Maggie Nelson, among many others, Montaigne’s Essays is the source of the modern literature of self-examination.
We will read a selection of the essays that show us a mix of topics and of emotional range. These will guide us in reflecting on his work as thinking that illuminate how we are to respond to our present situation and crises, as well as a picture of the man, his times, and the early modern European religion, philosophy, and art and culture that influenced him.
Text: Selections from Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, translated by M. A. Screech (New York: Penguin, 2017).
“On Affectionate Relationships” (1.28, pp. 205-219)
“On Solitude” (1.39, pp. 266-278)
“On the Inconstancy of Our Actions” (2.1, pp. 373-380)
“On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse” (3.3, pp. 922-934)