In 1580, a Gascon named Michel de Montaigne published a book of essays, a new literary form, each instance of which expresses one person's thoughts about one topic. Although the titles announce a range of subjects from coaches to cannibals, Montaigne says in his preface, "It is myself I paint. . . . Myself am the matter of my book."
The preceding one-hundred volatile years had witnessed the discovery of new continents and the split of the European church. In the upheaval, the notion of authority naturally lost ground to the idea that a man's opinion might be interesting or useful apart from any question of proving its validity. "These are my own particular opinions and fancies," says the essayist in "On the Education of Children," "and I deliver them as only what I myself believe, and not for what I myself believe, and not for what is to be believed by others. I have no other end in this writing, but only to discover myself, who, also, shall, peradventure, be another thing tomorrow, if I chance to meet any new instruction to change me. I have no authority to be believed, neither do I desire it, being too conscious of my own inerudition to be able to instruct others." Four-hundred thirty years later, this new attitude reigns in tweeting, the texter's admonition to "Rule the Air," and, yes, blogs such as this one.
But Montaigne's modesty goes a little too far. He allows the possibility of being instructed himself; why not admit that he might instruct others? The claims of inerudition are misleading as well; he could speak Latin fluently when he was six, and his essays contain frequent quotations from and allusions to classical authors. Michel de Montaigne was definitely smarter than a fifth grader, which twenty-first century Americans apparently are not. If any comment with an eighth of the eloquence and learning shown by Montaigne showed up on facebook, on a political ad, or in the university newspaper (not to mention official university documents), I would acknowledge a degree of authority in what I read and would consider allowing myself to be instructed.
True to the purpose of the form, though, Montaigne often wanders through seemingly random thoughts about each topic, frequently dropping a gem for the reader to stop and consider from different angles. He finds, for instance, that while we talk of people smelling good or bad, we mostly want others to smell like nothing. (Yes, I know, this from a sixteenth-century European.) Elsewhere he notes that at a time of victory we often experience sorrow for the various costs of battle, that seemingly blind fortune often gives us something better than we would have chosen for ourselves, and that using the words of an intelligent person makes the speaker no more wise than wearing the other's clothes would.
In Essay 19, Montaigne defends the classic notion that to study philosophy is to learn to die. By the exercise of the mind, he points out, we rehearse for the breakdown and eventual loss of the body. Philosophy also teaches us the uselessness of fearing death: "To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago." He adds to these classical arguments, though, by noting that the Christian religion, which he professes, teaches us to despise death because it is but a gateway to our reward. Montaigne's Christian stoicism on this issue is inspiring. But surely neither servile fear nor disdain can alone be the proper response to death. While the Christian looks forward to the new life in the Divine Presence, is death not still an enemy? The last enemy, according to Paul. Did not Jesus weep at the grave of Lazarus, knowing full well that He was about to raise him back to life? Does not every death of a Christian, now enjoying the face of Jesus, still remind us of the corruption that our race brought on this world by our sin? Our response to death must surely be one of mixed emotions: joy and hope in the future reward, yet discomfort and penitence in the face of the curse.
In "Of Pedantry," Montaigne says that reading is useless if it only results in the ability to quote; any parrot can do that. Only that reading benefits that reaches inside a person and changes him for the better. Has my reading plan changed me inside for the better? I pray so. Has your reading of this blog made you better, dear reader? I would like to say, "I have no authority to be believed, neither do I desire it, being too conscious of my own inerudition to be able to instruct others." But then I would only be quoting.