I have always found it difficult to convey my more complex thoughts to others. In 1998, after five years of writing training manuals and conducting numerous training sessions, the word ‘essay’ kept buzzing around my head space. I wanted to write essays and maybe even novels, and felt that a university education would provide the requisite discipline and technical skills. At forty-eight years of age, I found myself enrolled in an Arts degree, wearing berets and brightly-coloured scarves.
In the early days of a new-found love of learning, I blossomed in the company of similar minds, many of them mature-aged students like myself. One, we’ll call her Karen, was more interesting because she was erudite, wrote fabulously and poetically and seemed exotic and aloof. She knew a lot more about the history of writing and the technique of writing, so we became friends.
One day, as we scoured a local bookshop for cheap source material to feed the incessant quotes that first-year Arts students love to sprinkle through their assignments, she showed me a worn copy of the essays of Michel de Montaigne. She told me that, if I wanted to write essays, Montaigne was the guy. I bought the book and occasionally made reference to it in the pretentious style that I adopted to get my A and B grades. I never really read it, but I became fascinated with the stories around Montaigne: his growing up in Gascony, learning Latin and Greek; his training as a lawyer and ascent to the highest nobility in France; and his subsequent self-confinement, in order to explore his own consciousness through the medium of writing – his Essais (or ‘attempts’).
His own influences seem to have come from his rich father, his Sephardic Jewish mother, his German tutor, and classical writers such as the Greek/Roman philosopher Plutarch. His father dictated an upbringing that was far from cosseted. The young Michel was surrounded by people who only spoke to him in Latin, making that his first language. He had music, deliberately and continuously, played wherever he went. He was encouraged to read widely, to romp, to play games, to be with all and sundry – not just his own class. He probably read Plutarch’s 78 essays – Moralia – in the original Greek. Montaigne thus became well-equipped to influence those around him during the time he allotted to the external world. His decision to become a recluse is best explained by a sign near his desk:
‘In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.’
For most of the next ten years, he devoted himself to researching – his personal library contained over 1,000 books – and writing. Towards the end of this time, a kidney disease caused him to travel in search of relief from pain. Travel was cut short when, in 1581, he found that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. His four years in that office involved much mediation between Catholics and Protestants as this was the time of the French Wars of Religion. The latter years of his life involved the revision and publication of his Essais – several volumes – and he died at the age of fifty-nine.
Whilst perhaps the lowliest, I am not the first or last writer to be inspired by Montaigne. It is said that Shakespeare read his work and was influenced. Here’s a section from Montaigne’s Wikipedia entry:
… Montaigne’s influence is especially noticeable in “Hamlet” and “King Lear“, both in language and in the skepticism present in both plays. For an example, compare Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Rosencrantz, at Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, about line 240, with an earlier quote of Montaigne:1. “… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” 2. “Whether the events in our life are good or bad greatly depends on the way we perceive them.”
Of course, the wisdom of my favourite quote from Hamlet may just be a case of great minds thinking alike. I prefer to think that William Shakespeare and I were both inspired by the life and legends associated with Michel de Montaigne, and that many more will continue to ‘attempt’ to share their thoughts, whilst pondering Montaigne’s great maxim: Que sais-je? (What do I know). Now, I must get around to reading his works.