"My library is in the third story of a tower; on the first is my chapel, on the second a bedroom with ante-chambers, where I often lie to be alone; and above it there is a great wardrobe...Adjoining my library is a very neat little room, in which a fire can be laid in winter, and which is pleasantly lighted by a window." Montaigne, On Three Kinds of Relationships
From the start, Montaigne (1533-1592) shows his great love of writing about life and his ultimate pleasure: exercising his mind through the discussion of philosophy. He also loved to point out incongruity and excelled in making logical conclusions.
His honesty seems to be his most attractive quality as he addresses the horror and beauty of life. At times he seems to almost be a reporter describing experience, detached and unemotional. Then when he delves into friendship he shows a new depth of emotion.
"There is no action or thought of mine in which I do not miss him, as he would have missed me. For just as he infinitely surpassed me in every other talent and virtue, so did he also in the duties of friendship." ~Montaigne, On Friendship
Montaigne's writing is at times a history lesson. He draws from the writings of Ovid, Cicero, Horace, Socrates, Plato, Seneca, Virgil and Petrarch.
His topics are fascinating and get even more interesting when he talks about the custom of wearing clothes, the Platonic paradox or why churches use incense. He explores the power of the imagination, truth and error, friendship, why civilized man is at times no better than a savage in his actions and freely discusses his ideas about education.
I must say that when he discusses books, this topic overflows and ends up in other essays. So, while the chapter on books may seem short, you will still find some excellent quotes later on while reading about the three kinds of relationships or "On Physiognomy," which seems to be more about the plague and death being inevitable and how philosophers contemplate death as a life-long exercise.
I learned a great deal about Socrates and how the Athenians felt when he died and that swans sing when they die. It all seems unrelated, but somehow Montaigne casually introduces topic after topic with great intellectual flair. Finally we happen upon his survival when captured by a band of horsemen. Then, we understand why he has titled this chapter "Physiognomy," because he is saved by the kind look on his face and his firmness of speech.
We also learn about his beautiful library. Later he discusses topics of interest like how Emperors built huge arenas that could be filled with deep water filled with sea monsters. These topics all seem related to his love of research.
While he discusses history at length and loves to add in quotes, he is also a keen observer of human nature. He sees life so clearly and freely says what most people fear will offend. Like that when we find a fault in other people, it might be a fault in our character or how strong we have to be to handle being criticized and why there are remarkable proofs of friendship when someone gives constructive criticism. Of course, many would not agree with this, although our friends do see us rather clearly.
"One must learn to endure what one cannot avoid," becomes more relevant near the end when Montaigne faces his own death. He discusses life so casually and even tells us about what he loves to eat and still doesn't enjoy. Life's simple pleasures are still of utmost importance even when he is suffering greatly with illness.
My blinds had turned golden in the early morning when I finished reading this book. I had the longing to sit by a fireplace and read another book by Montaigne. While it took three days to read the essays, this book almost ended too soon. Reading the essays was like discovering a long lost friend or a book through which we can live vicariously in another time and place.
~The Rebecca Review