Montaigne raised questions rather than giving answers. He wrote about whatever caught his eye: war, psychology, animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, vanity, glory, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt.
Most of all, he wrote about himself, and was amazed at the variety he found within...
“In taking up his pen,” wrote the great essayist William Hazlitt of Montaigne, “he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” He wrote about things as they are, not things as they should beand this included himself. He communicated his being on the page, as it changed from moment to moment; we can all recognize parts of ourselves in the portrait.
In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson felt this shock of familiarity the first time he picked up Montaigne in his father’s library. “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thought and experience,” he wrote. “No book before or since was ever so much to me as that.” From Renaissance winegrower to nineteenth-century transcendentalist seems a big leap, yet Emerson could hardly tell where he ended and Montaigne began.
These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before.Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago.
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