Suffolk Humanists

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Michel de Montaigne

Posted by Margaret on Saturday, Mar 1, 2003

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

I’m fond of quoting the French humanist Michel de Montaigne. He died on the 13th September 1592, but his observations are as relevant today as when they were written.

At forty-two Montaigne had a medal struck with the words, Que sais-je?, meaning What do I know?. Hes best remembered today for his essays, where he examined what he did or didnt know, accepting that we cant know everything, while questioning everything. The essays were, in effect, his autobiography, but they didnt give an account of his life in chronological order I was born, I did this or that, etc. Instead, we get to know him through his thoughts, which are much more revealing than a conventional autobiography.

His portrait on the cover of my ageing copy of his essays, published in the late 50s, shows a bald man with a clear gaze, who looks as though hes thinking about what to write about the experience of being painted. His translator, J M Cohen, describes him as modest, truthful, humorous, and objective. Ive learned that he was fond of cats. He wrote, When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, or I with her?

Im most likely to quote Montaigne on death. He thought that one ought to accept that one day well die, and that we must make the most of life while we can. He was honest about mortality. We must use plain words, he wrote, and display such goodness or purity as we have at the bottom of the pot. He pointed out that well be remembered according to how weve lived: Wherever your life ends, there it is complete. The value of life lies not in its length, but in the use we make of it. This or that man may have lived many years, yet lived little. Pay good heed to that in your own life. Whether you have lived long enough depends upon yourself, not on the number of your years That was very sensible advice.

But Montaigne gave just as much attention in his essays to diverse subjects such as cannibals, or the custom of wearing clothes, or smells. He quoted the Roman playwright Plautus, who wrote; A woman smells most perfectly when she does not smell at all. The same might be said of men, methinks.

If Montaigne were alive today I think hed be an entertaining contributor to the Thought for the Day slot, and Id love to ask him to dinner.

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