Customer Review

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Funny and Thoughtful, 28 July 2010
This review is from: The Complete Essays (Paperback)
Based on Montaigne's own life, observations and his readings of the Classics, this is a massive philosophical ramble covering every subject under the sun. Parts of it are great fun and he makes some interesting points but take the shorter volume if you want to stay with it.

This book comes in two flavours, `The Complete Essays' at 1,269 pages and `The Essays, A selection,' which is a mere 480 pages. You need to be very enthusiastic to tackle the longer work and the flavour and guts of Montaigne is readily obtainable from the shorter volume.

Written over a twenty-year period between 1572 and 1592, the Essays are a lopping ramble covering Montaigne's opinions on a vast range of subjects. Chapter headings include `On the resemblance of children to their fathers', `On the art of conversation,' `Observations on Julius Caesar's methods of waging war,' `On sadness,' `On liars,' `On vanity' and so on. Montaigne happily ignores the chapter heading and allows one idea to lead to another until finally coming back to his point. He had been brought up with Latin as his first language and freely quotes from the classics and antiquity but his wonky memory frequently lets him down so that he mis-quotes and mis-recalls. Nonetheless his use of examples from history to make his points is thrilling against the pedestrian nature of modern soft philosophy books.

Montaigne is an attractive character. He tries not to be vain or arrogant, recognizes his faults of poor memory, unsociability and disinterest in the ordinary run of life. He has retired from the French court to his estates in provincial Gascony in order to write these essays and seems surprised when they are a publishing hit. Not least because he talks mainly about himself, and this would have been unusual at the time. He is an educated and thoughtful man but with a streak of fun and sense of the absurd so that his writing is generally light and easy to read. There is much to be enjoyed here and many of his thoughts and observations are worth spending a moment or two to reflect on.

However, the book is not without several flaws. First, whilst human nature has not altered so much down the centuries, parts of this book are antique and of historical interest only - how to bring up children, for example, is a hoot. Secondly, Montaigne flip-flops around issues so that on the one hand he believes this but on the other hand something else. Partly this was to avoid church censorship but largely I felt it reflects a not very decisive mind. Finally, his rambling stops being amusing after a while and instead turns wearisome by the end.

This is not ideal as a book to read cover to cover. It's probably more fun to dip into at random from time-to-time and take from it what you can. To have 1,269 pages of mixed philosophy winking at you every evening can become a bit of a drag and I certainly enjoyed the first half far more than the second.

Montaigne was an inspiration for a number of other philosophers so worth a go if you are interested in that art. He is also deeply routed in French culture, so it's quite a practical thing for Francophiles.
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