October 14, 2020 — Judging by the first paragraph, this short essay was written in early 2013. It makes a number of very bold claims that I ultimately did not keep — the second attempt through the essays ended rather quickly. What’s interesting about the piece now is my state of mind, which was quite angry and I’m not exactly sure what I was angry about. But I’m keeping it on the site as a matter of full record and have included some parenthetical observations and context.
Roughly two years ago, I set off on a journey through Montaigne‘s essays, recording my impressions day by day, essay by essay. Now, I’m going to retrace that same path. Why?
The first paragraph of the Montaigne’s first essay provides a clue:
The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when, vengeance in hand, they hold us at their mercy, is by submission to move them to commiseration and pity. However, audacity and steadfastness — entirely contrary means — have sometimes served to produce the same effect.
(I am not sure at all who offended me so much in 2013 that I was seeking some form of vengeance against him or her. Interesting side note — my first experience with the Old Town School of Folk Music happened right around this time with a Guitar 1 class and I have very fond memories of that. So, I have really no idea what’s in this time capsule.)
My first run through the Montaigne essays was my way of trying to move the world to commiserate with me. The project was all about building rapport and understanding through this great thinker. This time will be different. It will be audacious. Some passages may be angry. Most of all, it will be darker.
(I sort of understand my plan from this paragraph, but Montaigne is a very strange vehicle from which to express anger and darkness. He’s just not that type of writer.)
That’s because I know the lay of the land this time, I don’t need to seek out the light but can instead search for shadow. So I couldn’t get a book contract for my view of Montaigne the first time around? Well to hell with you, then, this version will stand on its own and build its own audience whether you want to buy it or not.
(Ok. It didn’t, but it’s an idea and I’m fine that I expressed it.)
This time through, I’m taking the hard edge of Stoicism. Montaigne wrote:
Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him.
This is wisdom about mankind and this man as well.
(I don’t know if this Montaigne criticism of his changing nature has anything to do with stoicism and, as I have pointed out numerous times in these essays, Montaigne does not ultimately come down in support of stoicism, he just takes from it what’s convenient and ignores the rest.)
So too it was of Montaigne, and this second journey through his essays will reveal a far less sunny character than the first series of essays described. There will be blood, as the last sentence of this essay foreshadows:
This slaughter went on to the last drop of blood that could be shed, and stopped only at unarmed people, old men, women and children, so that thirty thousand of them might be taken as slaves.
(It’s far easier to find passages like this early in the essays, where Montaigne takes on numerous martial subjects. Making this the pronounced focus of my second lap was a grave error.)