The Essayist

Sitting next to my reading chair are a few books that never change, and one of them is Michel Montaigne’s famous The Complete Works (Everyman’s Library). He is, by most accounts, the one to whom many point to explain the nature of the personal essay, my favorite genre to read. Montaigne was, above all, self-reflective and honest in his self-reflective writings about himself. He is eminently quotable and a model of how to write essays, and for that reason I was thrilled to see the new study of Montaigne by Saul Frampton: When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life.

Montaigne was an upper class gentleman, but also managed a vineyard and was chosen for a political position. He suffered immensely with stones, traveled some, and spent much of his time in his tower (literal, physical, round) reading, writing, revising and reflecting on himself — not in a Descartes kind of way, and not in a Bacon kind of way, but in a kind of honest, somewhat skeptical, self-exploratory kind of way. I’ve never read Montaigne all at once or from beginning to end. Instead, I’ve dipped into various essays, usually an hour or so at a time — maybe reading him for a week or so, but never extensively.

Do you read essays? Who is your favorite essayist? (Mine is Joseph Epstein.) Have you read Montaigne?

But Frampton has the guy mastered, and he reveals that exploring life through the lens of experience yields a different kind of knowledge. Perhaps the most seminal idea developed here is proxemics: that is, Montaigne believed to know a person one had to be with that person, and that presence shapes us — so whoever is present is an influence. Thus: “… if you value a friend, you should meet with them; if you are fond of your children, eat with them; if there is someone you love, stand close to them, be near to them” (12). Montaigne’s every essay and every word helps us in understanding the Western tradition of friendship.

Montaigne was a man of deep loves, and his most famous relationship was with Etienne de La Boétie. (Yes, Frampton explore the obligatory “was this homosexual or not?” and comes away without any resolution, and neither does he make anything of this.) Here’s a famous line from Montaigne: when asked why he loved Etienne he said “because it was him; because it was me.”  This famous friend died young, and gave to Montaigne his library and it was this library that was used by Montaigne.

The book has some noble chps, not the least of which is the one of his love for La Boétie but his chp on military and the change in how war was fought was most enlightening, but studies on Montaigne’s preoccupation with dying was also a great read. As were sections on the limitations of human knowledge, made famous in the line of Montaigne that is in the title Frampton used for the book.

I read this book during our recent trip to Israel, and couldn’t wait to get home to read another essay. Mission accomplished.

Montaigne’s heart was buried in his local church; his body in another church in Bordeaux. That’s weird. That guy spent his life keeping the two together.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.soulation.org Dale Fincher

    I look forward to exploring Montaigne. This line resonates with our work as a different kind of apologetics and evangelism (in giving, and receiving: “exploring life through the lens of experience yields a different kind of knowledge. Perhaps the most seminal idea developed here is proxemics: that is, Montaigne believed to know a person one had to be with that person, and that presence shapes us — so whoever is present is an influence.”

  • http://mwerickson.wordpress.com Matt Erickson

    This calls me back to one of your posts earlier this week on Alan Jacobs. Jacobs led my Senior Seminar in college on the concept of the personal essay and it was a great, and challenging, experience. Holding only to the current era, I am a big fan of Wendell Berry and Alan Jacobs as essayists.

  • Kyle

    I love to read essays and short stories, pretty much the only thing I read besides theological works. But George Saunders is one of my favorites.

  • Nathan C

    My favorite essayist would be Borges, in particular “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal.” Though, I admit to never having read Montaigne and acknowledge that the line between Borges’ essays and his fiction can at times be alarmingly thin.

  • http://cartermcneese.wordpress.com cm1165

    I am going to have to go with Emerson as my favorite.

    If one wants to understand the American Experiment, one should read Emerson.


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