I’m reading along in Montaigne’s Complete Essays and continuing to enjoy it. There are three “books” in this volume, and I recently began the second one. The essays are on a whole range of topics, many of them related to philosophy, quite a few on warfare and politics, and many on how best to live one’s life. Even when the subject is one that I am not terribly interested in, Montaigne usually manages to give some bit of wisdom or to say something revealing about himself that keeps me engaged. And in his best essays, he’s wise, insightful, and amusing.
I was first turned on to Montaigne in college when I took a Senior Seminar in the personal essay, and my professor was a Montaigne devotee. I remember admiring Montaigne’s essays at the time, but mostly I was caught up in my professor’s enthusiasm, wanting to like the things he liked because I had so much respect for his opinions. I dipped into Montaigne in later years, although I never got all the way through the essays. I continued to admire him, but the complete essays require a level of devotion I didn’t have at the time.
This time around, I’m committed to reading the entire book, and I’m seeing that he’s an excellent companion. It’s not so much the specific things he says, which I will probably forget anyway, but it’s his attitude — his honesty and his energy — that I admire. He’s not afraid to talk about either his weaknesses or his strengths openly, and I think it takes courage to do both. He’s also not afraid to write at length about himself. He openly acknowledges that he finds himself interesting and that the whole purpose of the essays is to figure out who he is.
In the essay I just finished, “On Practice,” he discusses writing about himself, and it makes me realize that not only would he be an excellent blogger were he living today, but he would have no patience with those who accuse bloggers of useless self-absorption. He finds being absorbed in himself highly valuable, in fact, and not only useful for himself but potentially useful for others:
The lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else. Meanwhile I am not spoiling anything: I am only using what is mine. And if I play the fool it is at my own expense and does no harm to anybody.
So, in other words, if you get annoyed with those who write about themselves, what’s your problem? It’s not hurting you. And he says it’s not easy either:
It is a thorny undertaking — more than it looks — to follow so roaming a course as that of our mind’s, to penetrate its dark depths and its inner recesses, to pick out and pin down the innumerable characteristics of its emotions.
To those who complain that talking about oneself can lead to boasting and presumption, he argues that just because some people do it badly doesn’t mean nobody should do it:
My belief is that it is wrong to condemn wine because many get drunk on it. You can abuse things only if they are good. I believe that prohibition applies only to the popular abuse. It is a bridle made to curb calves; it is not used as a bridle by the Saints, who can be heard talking loudly about themselves, nor by philosophers nor by theologians; nor by me though I am neither one nor the other.
And finally, he argues that writing and talking about oneself is valuable because it’s valuable to understand ourselves:
I hold that we must show wisdom in judging ourselves, and, equally, good faith in witnessing to ourselves, high and low indifferently. If I seemed to myself to be good or wise — or nearly so — I would sing it out at the top of my voice. To say you are worse than you are is not modest but foolish. According to Aristotle, to prize yourself at less than you are worth is weak and faint-hearted. No virtue is helped by falsehood; and the truth can never go wrong.
So, if you have ever felt uncertain or self-conscious or foolish for writing about yourself, Montaigne says don’t! If you are learning something about yourself, then what you’re doing is good.