Portrait of Michel de Montaigne (Wikimedia Commons)

The essays of Montaigne aren’t the easiest sell in the twenty-first century. The French nobleman wrote 107 of them, all composed in the final decades of the sixteenth century, totaling nearly nine hundred pages in the bulky English edition resting right now on my kitchen table. Most of them are rambling and digressive, nearly all of them full of obscure historical and philosophical allusions that would try the attention span of even a moderately-online citizen. Who wants to read about Emperor Conrad III and the duke of Bavaria? Who gives a rip what Count Guido Rangone did at the city of Reggio? Why does it matter if Montaigne agrees with Chrysippus or disagrees with Antisthenes? Who cares?

Even Montaigne’s most famously contemporary quality—his relentless focus on himself—turns out to be mostly false advertising. In his oft-quoted introductory note to the reader, he says, “I am myself the matter of my book,” but then you read the first essay and it’s not about Montaigne at all. It’s about war and princes and emperors. He barely says “I” the whole essay. Flip through The Complete Essays, and you’ll see the use of “I” increase, sure, but you’ll still see more proper nouns—Socrates and Lucretius, Seneca and Cicero, the Spartans and the Ottomans and the Chalcidians—than first-person pronouns. Lots of quotes, fewer personal anecdotes. “We can never doubt for an instant that his book was himself,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her wonderful essay on Montaigne. But twenty-first-century readers may doubt this quite a bit.

And yet: I’d like to make a case here for the meaningful pleasures of reading Montaigne. What makes him worth reading, despite his endless allusions and inability to stay on topic, is the quality of his thinking. In every one of his essays, he tries to make sense of not just himself but of all of us human beings—our minds and our quirks and our faults and our inconsistencies. And he realizes that the best way to make sense of us is to realize that we don’t really make sense. “Truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object,” he notes in that first essay. “It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him.”

The key pronoun in Montaigne’s work, then, is not “I” but “we.” In one of his early essays, for example, he reflects on the “commonest of human errors,” our propensity to ignore the present while “gaping after future things.” See if your own mental habits ever fall under Montaigne’s observation here (because I know mine do): “We are never at home, we are always beyond. Fear, desire, hope, project us toward the future and steal from us the feeling and consideration of what is, to busy us with what will be, even when we shall no longer be.” In my worst stretches as a parent and a spouse, I’m always beyond, even when I’m at home—lost in my own petty and private fears, desires, and hopes. Of course, massive global and societal fears project us into the future, too. In this turbulent and foreboding decade, who hasn’t occupied themselves with what will be at the expense of feeling and considering what is?

This is Montaigne’s great gift, his ability to arrive at truths that transcend the barriers of time and translation to help us better understand ourselves. In his best essays—I’d recommend the ones related to education, “Of Pedantry,” “Of the Education of Children,” “Of the Art of Discussion”—these perceptive and seemingly off-the-cuff moments can come in bunches, leaving your fingers tired with underlining. At other times, you may find yourself nearly lulled to sleep, trying to keep an eye open for the good stuff. The good stuff always reappears, though, if you have the patience (admittedly, a very un-twenty-first-century quality) to stick with him. One second you’re fighting the urge to skim as Montaigne talks about Caesar and Cyrus and some battle in Germany, but then suddenly he’s saying that “we shall never heap enough insults on the unruliness of our mind,” and now you’re nodding in agreement. Maybe even smiling.

He sees the limits and contradictions of his own mind, and thus knows that his capacity for self-awareness—and ours, too—will always be incomplete.


Unlike many of the essayists who’ve trailed in his wake over the centuries, Montaigne aims to discover and explore his own opinions, rather than telling his readers what their opinions should be. At one point, he even makes this function of the essays explicit: “I offer them as what I believe, not what is to be believed. I aim here only at revealing myself, who will perhaps be different tomorrow, if I learn something new which changes me.” And, in fact, his mind does change over the decades in which the essays are written. Seeing how the essays expand in scope and perspective is another one of the hard-won pleasures of reading his big book.

We learn the details of Montaigne’s actual life only in glimpses, but these glimpses offer more evidence of his vividly imperfect humanity. We’re informed that he has a “monstrously deficient” memory, that he considers himself an overly-trusting pushover, that he’s embarrassed to pee in front of others and is ashamed to undress even in front of doctors. His stomach can handle “anything that is offered”—except for beer. In matters of love and lovemaking, he has “often lacked luck, but also sometimes enterprise.” And, more generally, he notes that the course of his life has been “harmed and blemished” by “stupid bashfulness.” It’s hard to imagine most other philosophical authorities sharing these details. But they make us—or some of us, at least—fall for him as a writer, not just in spite of his faults but also because of them.

In theory, one might take Montaigne’s best moments—his most entertainingly self-aware passages, his wisest insights and pithy observations (“Only the fools are certain and assured”), even his most compelling historical references and ancient quotations—and put them all into one perfect and digestible package. Rather than requiring readers to wade through a giant and sometimes wearying volume looking for nuggets, there’d be a lightweight and accessible alternative, something anyone could read and immediately recognize Montaigne’s charms. Which brings me, at last, to a slender green edition of Montaigne’s work recently published by Pushkin Press, entitled What Do I Know?: Essential Essays.

As someone who’s attempted to persuade several classes of first-year college students to recognize Montaigne’s charms, mostly without success, I had high hopes for this book. It’s less than two hundred pages, and the cover feels nice. It offers a new translation by David Coward—I’ve been quoting the Donald Frame translation of The Complete Essays—and has an introduction by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Yiyun Li. Her introductory essay is a moving and vulnerable reflection on the role Montaigne’s work has played in various stages of her life, after she formed a daily habit of reading the essays as a “brief reprieve from a life overcrowded with the responsibilities of being a mother, a wife, a writer, and a professor.” As she notes near the end of her introduction, “Montaigne will always be among the writers I reread. His words provide one of the best anchors for one’s everchanging mind.”

The back cover of What Do I Know? features Montaigne’s famous statement about being the subject of his own book, but the essays included in this edition aren’t very personal. Even a section labeled “Montaigne on Montaigne” is long on kings and philosophers and short on Montaigne himself. Puzzlingly, the book leaves out his most narrative-driven essay, “Of Practice,” which describes his near-death experience after getting run over by a horse and losing consciousness during the middle of a civil war. (Montaigne uses the experience to argue that dying is actually pretty painless and then defends the “thorny undertaking” of studying himself in his writing, tracking “a movement so wandering as that of our mind.”) However, the book does include his famous essay on cannibals, where Montaigne notes, in classic Montaigne fashion, that it would sadden him if “we should judge their wickedness severely and be blind to our own.” Overall, though, these essential essays, while having their share of highlightable passages, don’t seem very essential at all.

What Do I Know? doesn’t provide any note explaining who chose the essays and how they decided what to include, but length seems to have been the key criterion: most are under ten pages. (“Of Cannibals,” the longest essay included, is twenty.) Which means the book leaves out the great and very long essays written in the latter years of Montaigne’s writing life. It also means that the book, strangely, leaves out the source of its title.

“What do I know?” (“Que sçay-je?”), Montaigne’s self-proclaimed motto, comes from the longest and possibly most perplexing essay he ever wrote, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” which is well over a hundred pages long and which largely ignores or forgets his stated project of defending the work of the now-forgotten Sebond. The essay famously advocates for skepticism towards our (inevitably imperfect) understanding of the world, a stance that we might benefit from in our own confusing and polarized times. Montaigne asks himself what he really knows, rather than what he thinks he knows. An excerpt from this essay would’ve been nice in a book named after its most famous line.

Ultimately, this new collection of Montaigne’s work feels less like a well-chosen greatest hits album and more like a hastily conceived playlist. Anyone with an interest in experiencing Montaigne’s refreshing mix of insight and imperfection—the “we” and the “I”—would be better off seeking out the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s complete works (which is somehow priced nearly the same as this tiny new collection). You don’t have to read the whole thing. Just dip into it, as Yiyun Li describes doing, for ten minutes or half an hour at a time. And maybe, like Li, you’ll find Montaigne to be “among the best conversational partners one could dream of: always available, often entertaining, never predictable.” You may even discover that these centuries-old essays have something valuable to say about our own times—and our own minds.

What Do I Know? 
Essential Essays

Michel de Montaigne 
Pushkin Press
$19 | 256 pp.

Burke Nixon is a senior lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a first-year writing course called Making Sense of Ourselves: The Art of the Personal Essay.

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