Yet there is a strong sense in which all of the Essays are a form of what one 20th century author has dubbed “self-writing”: an ethical exercise to “strengthen and enlighten” Montaigne’s own judgement, as much as that of we readers: And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? I have no more made my book than my book has made me: it is a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life …
As for the seeming disorder of the product, and Montaigne’s frequent claims that he is playing the fool, this is arguably one more feature of the Essays that reflects his Socratic irony.
Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change.
Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.
Socrates consented serenely to taking hemlock, having been sentenced unjustly to death by the Athenians.
Cato stabbed himself to death after having meditated upon Socrates’ example, in order not to cede to Julius Caesar’s To achieve such “philosophic” constancy, Montaigne saw, requires a good deal more than book learning.
Indeed, everything about our passions and, above all, our imagination, speaks against achieving that perfect tranquillity the classical thinkers saw as the highest philosophical goal.
We discharge our hopes and fears, very often, on the wrong objects, Montaigne notes, in an observation that anticipates the thinking of Freud and modern psychology.
I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … French philosopher Jacques Rancière has recently argued that modernism began with the opening up of the mundane, private and ordinary to artistic treatment.
Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason that you should employ your leisure upon so frivolous and vain a subject. Modern art no longer restricts its subject matters to classical myths, biblical tales, the battles and dealings of Princes and prelates.