Reading Montaigne 1.01 – By diverse means we arrive at the same end

Montaigne begins the main body of the essays with a brief meditation on the nature of mercy as seen in the dynamic interplay between vengeance and pity. Starting with a thought on the contradictory manner by which we might seek mercy from who seeks vengeance, or how we might “move them to commiseration and pity,” Montaigne notes the contradiction that “submission” sometimes has the desired effect, but so do the “contrary means” of “audacity and steadfastness.”

Reading Montaigne 1.00: To The Reader

While reading Montaigne intensely, it’s impossible not to take a moment to note the sheer complexity of the language machine that goes to work with this single letter. Think of Montaigne as a proto-blogger 1 and the brief reader’s note at the head of his collected essays exemplifies why. Montaigne writes:

This book was written in good faith reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive.

If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

  1. not the proto-blogger, as it’s rather more complicated than that; if it’s reasonable to compare Montaigne’s essays to blogging, it’s also reasonable to compare any number of earlier people putting pen to paper to write letters and journals with half—or more—of an eye toward publication []
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