What I’m Reading: Drawn From Life: Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne

Drawn From LIfe is a collection of essays by Michel de Montaigne, a wealthy Frenchman in the 16th century. He was a key early figure in the French Enlightenment and one of the best-educated men of his age. His father decided that Michel’s native language should be Latin, so he forbade anybody from speaking French with his son from the ages of three to six. He went so far as to hire a German tutor who spoke no French to ensure the rule wasn’t broken. Thus, young Michel had an ease with Latin that allowed him to build up a huge store of knowledge and anecdotes.

Indeed, it’s the anecdotes that make this book. Each essay is on a different theme related to human experience–“On Cowardice,” “On Wearing Clothes,” “On Drunkenness,” “On Restraining Your Will,” and so forth–and sometimes Montaigne reaches a firm conclusion, though just as often he ends the essay with a “on the one hand, on the other hand”-type of conclusion. But throughout, he draws on little stories from Greek or Roman history, as well as the news of his own day, or the experiences of the exceedingly wide range of his friends and acquaintances. These illustrations of his points are often more entertaining than whatever larger lesson he’s trying to show us.

The book is a selection of Montaigne’s essays, but a fairly limited one, as it’s just under 200 pages, and unabridged collections run to over 1,300 pages. I believe the editor has chosen the most beloved essays or the ones that might be most of interest to a modern reader. I think my favorite essay is “On the Cannibals,” when he discusses the customs of a newly discovered tribe in the French colonies in the Americas. (Montaigne never provides a very satisfactory explanation of where precisely this is, but according to Wikipedia it’s the Tupinambá people in Brazil.) Apparently he had the chance to interview a member of the tribe who visited France in the 1570s, and learned that their two highest societal values are fighting in battle without fear and honoring their wives. He discusses various instances of cannibalism he knows of among people who’ve been trapped by catastrophes without food for long periods of time. But of course, the Tupinambas are different, as they eat the hearts and other organs of enemy warriors after winning a battle. Montaigne’s conclusion is that their warrior ethos is not that different from many Europeans, and that in many ways, their valor and honor of their women is preferable to the lack of morality often found in his own country.

In his own day, Montaigne’s essays were pioneering, another step in the Enlightenment toward a modern conception of self. Today, they come across more as interesting historical artifacts. Still, his endless succession of fascinating historical tidbits in itself makes a read of these essays worthwhile.

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