One of the most revolutionary and surprising insights Michel de Montaigne discovered during the composition of his internal essays is that opinion bears more weight than both certainty and scientific fact. This, however, was not his original intention, and the course his essays take travel through the life and discordant judgments of a man branded with an eternal melancholy and a fight with depression. It is these battles, together with an appetite for understanding and reflection at a declining moment in both health and optimism, that Montaigne is able to truly understand Man’s position-that a hunt for truth, virtue, and knowledge through self-exploration provides an increased awareness and a better understanding with problems such as aging, mental illness, and society’s ills. He finds, through a series of three chronologically haphazard books, that the truths to understanding lie in experience and acceptance: from the perspective of one man’s internal journey, Montaigne discovers that mankind fails in his attempts to overcome fear, confront emptiness, and develop a positive emphasis on the self as a reflector of a higher philosophy. His ironic subtleties and his modest yet complacent tone lead the reader to the conclusion that humility and a submissive nature towards oneself will ultimately benefit a clearer picture of the nature that resides within the human race.
Montaigne’s journey to discover the motivations of the self ultimately led him on a search to uncover the secrets of mankind through the interpretations of texts both ancient and current. According to translator M.A. Screech, he “was not seeking for verbal subtleties but to portray himself in all truth, to find solid facts about what Man really is, and practical counsel about how he should live and die” (xviii). Seeking this advice from classical Greek and Roman philosophers, his Renaissance mind turned from common observation to the interpretable writings of the ancient theorists who lined his libraries. In many ways, he believed that the worthiness of his writing rested in the philosophical criteria of men such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Lucretius; their influence, along with the theories and ‘-isms’ that they supported, are superior to other employed disciplines as historical example, theological concerns, and rational thought. For instance, “On Vanity” employs such a tactic: as he develops his theory that Man should consolidate himself, he backs his claim by digressing into the historical account of the text on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. He uses Socrates ancient prescriptions to say that it is ridiculous to investigate anything irrelevant to self-knowledge (1133). Montaigne’s sincerity lies in his humble personality, in which he claims to know very little (due to a failing memory), and his constant vacillations between religious commentary and skeptical explanation on his way to “hold[ing] all three philosophies (Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism) in a kind of taut harmony” (“Introduction”, xvii}. The support behind his theses stems from a meek and insecure ego and a practice through writing to achieve a balance within the self on both a historical and personal level. As a man concerned not only with his personal health but also with the true spirit of mankind, he is caught between the advice of men, the course of history, and the reflection of the soul.
From the first essay, it is obvious that Montaigne suffers from a unique kind of self-obsession, that of intense self-humility and, though ironic due to the nature of his work, recurring detrimental ego problems. One of the main elements he utilizes frequently to establish this tone is a series of essays devoted to his failures and inabilities. It is as if in self-humiliation verity is established, and it is in this way that Montaigne chooses to describe himself: from “On Vanity,” he states that his feeble “memory is growing cruelly worse every day,” and that it is merely he “who [is] responsible when anything goes wrong” (1089, 1080). He continually blames himself for social ineptitudes, health problems, and memory failures, and this, conversely, sets him up to be believable as an essayist. This clever set-up, carefully woven throughout all three books, allows him to begin making broad generalizations about Man, because in humble nature no lies can be found. By restraining from actually praising himself and capitalizing on the wisdom of his Roman and Greek masters, he is able to move freely through different philosophies and claims while professing his own beliefs or advice to the public. For example, the questions he poses are nearly rhetorical: “Can you not see that this world of ours keeps its gaze bent ever inwards and its eyes ever open to contemplate itself?” (1133). He is speaking to himself, but he is also addressing someone outside of his internal sphere.
This similar kind of self-affiliation and personal attack is interlaced throughout much of his collection, but is especially apparent in the two distinct chapters entitled “On Practice” and “On Vanity.” He centers “On Practice,” a short reflection on the ability to practice to die, around his obsession with death and the pain associated with the separation of his soul from his body. It is here that Montaigne is still ultimately concerned with himself and his own melancholic state: “Here you have not my teaching but my study,” he says. “The lesson is not for others; it is for me” (424). It could be that his fears associated with his own mortality and his own sense of the eternal plagued him long before he suffered from kidney stones; however, this fixation is diluted with the passage of time and acceptance, and does not remain with him forever. By the time he reaches “On Vanity,” Montaigne has realized that the only art he can truly practice during his lifetime is the practice of living-the practice, naturally, of understanding that Man is never perfect and will always be weak, alone, suffering, needy, and empty despite acquired wisdom and experience. It is not as if Montaigne feels defeated or condemned by the evils of the world, but rather that he has discovered Man’s ultimate reality: that humans “have limits to [their] labours and desires,” and that they will “always look upwards or downwards or sideways, or before or behind” (1133, 1132).
Through a stoic, clear sense of attaining personal well-being and an acute protection against uncertainty in life, health, and death, Montaigne structures his essays, up to a certain point, around the idea of cultivating happiness in a world of fallen beings. However, as his essays proceed throughout the three books, his search becomes less intimately motivated and more universally directed: as he says at the onset of the last section “On Vanity,” “we are all steeped in [emptiness and tomfoolery], each as much as the other; but those who realize this get off, as I know, a little more cheaply” (1132). It is clear that by this point in his search he has concluded that he is indeed as much a part of mankind as are his fellow companions, and he is suggesting that his internal investigations have led him to make claims about the nature of Man. “On Vanity” is one such interesting example of this gradual change, as Montaigne has aged significantly (in both age and health) and is on the verge of coming-to-terms with the Socratic notion focusing on eventual separation of the body from the soul. He has, by this essay, succeeded in removing himself as the subject of his claims and involving the whole of Man; this succession, preceded by an introduction which warns readers that “[he himself] is the subject of [his] book: it is not reasonable that [they] should employ [their] leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain,” no longer holds as a universal (“To The Reader,” lviv). Though his involvement with the habits, opinions, and nature of Man hinders his entire removal from speculation, his attempts to detach himself from the world have become evident in his obvious detachment from the essays: in one sense, “to study one man is in a sense to study them all” (“Introduction, xvii), and this originally Aristotelian case evolves significantly throughout his development.
In many ways it is “On Vanity” that concludes Montaigne’s search to better understand himself, because in comprehending himself, he indeed finds universals about Man in general. There is an obvious breakdown in the last two pages of this chapter, as he conveniently but cautiously shifts from “I” to “we” to “you” as he offers his advice-it is almost possible to feel his perceived distance from the world growing with each constructed sentence. His last section of this essay is carefully constructed around generalizations initiated by this change of “we” instead of “I,” and it is in this change of rhetoric that readers see his logic being altered. He says that “we are swept on downstream,” that “our self is an object full of dissatisfaction,” and that “we can see nothing but wretchedness and vanity;” these thoughts serve to solve his melancholic problems without getting emotionally involved, and in that manner, he does (1132). He continues his essay by following traditional Greek philosophical wisdom, evoking Socratic thought and interpreting it to modern mankind, in order to facilitate a set of universals. This is achieved by formatting his thoughts by way of advice: “Look back into your self; get to know yourself; hold on to your self” (1132). By addressing Man as one large species, Montaigne finds himself changing from speculation to pure advice, and the knowledge that he has gained throughout his work is reflected in this turn from spiritual quest to gained wisdom. He has finally reached the conclusion that Man is forever entangled in this quest, and he responds to Man as an outsider by saying that “Not one is as empty and needy as you, who embrace the universe; you are the seeker with no knowledge, the judge with no jurisdiction, and, when all is done, the jester of the farce” (1133). He has shifted his personal self-effacing nature onto the whole of mankind almost effortlessly.
Though Montaigne insists that his work was intended for no one except himself and his network of close personal friends, it is difficult to believe that such a collection of insightful essays could be so selfishly grounded. By establishing the self through the eyes of the world, Montaigne is able to communicate a personal philosophy whose roots lie in a combination and synergy of many influences. Though he was eternally focused on finding a clear and engaging insight into the minds of his contemporaries through the voices of the early Western thought, he never lost his sense of self as he fully transcended it. His words of speculation becomes words of wisdom, and he moves from feeling confused and curious about the difficult workings of his own character to a more satisfied, ultimately more realistic sense about the complex nature of mankind.