What Do I Know? by Michel de Montaigne

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Translated by David Coward

Review by Karen Langley

The essay as a form of writing has existed for centuries, and one of its pre-eminent practitioners was the French author Michel de Montaigne. His full title was Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne and he lived from 1533-1592. Known during his lifetime more as a statesman than an author, he’s now considered one of the foremost philosophers of the French renaissance and is credited with popularising the essay form as a separate literary genre.

Montaigne was a prolific author with a digressive style, which wasn’t necessarily appreciated at the time. Happy to pontificate on just about any subject he could, he declared that he was himself the subject matter of his book, a statement considered perhaps a little narcissistic by his peers. However, he’s apparently now best known for his rather cynical remark, What do I know? which has been taken for the title of this selection of his works.

The number of essays written by Montaigne runs to 107, originally published in three volumes – a lot of pages to digest, and so there are a good many smaller collections of his works which give an easier introduction to his style. This new choice of his essays from Pushkin Press, translated by  David Coward and with a foreword by Yiyun Li, comes in a handsome cloth-covered hardback edition, and it certainly reveals the breadth of Montaigne’s thought. 

What Do I Know? is split into three sections, Montaigne on Montaigne, On the Pursuit of Reason, and On Governance and Governors. The essays vary in length from a few pages to several and range far and wide by topic. On Sorrow, for example, is a short piece exploring human reactions to differing circumstances and how we feel sorrow at the most unexpected things; On Fear considers the effects of panic and terror on us, and how it can be impossible to deal rationally with these emotions; and On Drunkenness muses on whether inspiration comes from losing control of one’s senses!

In the judgement I make of the lives of others, I always take particular note of the manner of their ending. Among the principal concerns that I have for my own is the hope that I will die well, which is to say patiently and without fuss.

On Our Lease of Life was a particularly interesting essay, arguing as it does that we leave it too long before we allow people to take part in specific parts of life; Montaigne acknowledges that we never know how long we will live so in effect we should make hay while the sun shines, and allow younger people to take part in significant public affairs. He’s strong on the inequality between peoples too, and most interestingly discusses this in both terms of male and female. 

… there is no passion more catching nor more persuasive than fear, nor any that spreads so fast…

Montaigne has a particular style of writing wherein he postulates something and then provides examples; his essays are laced with quotations and observations from the great writers – from Lucretius to Cicero, Horace to Juvenal, his knowledge of the classics is immense and it seems there’s always a classical philosopher to back him up. But Montaigne is writing on a human scale, and his thoughts are always approachable and relatable. He questions the established ways of thinking and his essays are always a refreshing read.

I’ve encountered a number of Montaigne’s essays via other collections, and this one seems to me to be an excellent selection, providing a good overview of the great man’s work and thought. The translation is modern and clear, though there is no notation provided. The introduction by Yiyun Li is moving, as she relates how Montaigne became something of a lynchpin throughout her life, with his essays providing essential support at difficult times (whether raising children or enduring the pandemic lockdowns). 

Often meandering, and usually very personal, the essays of Montaigne read in a strikingly modern way, showing just what an innovative author he was. After all of these centuries, he still has much to offer a twenty-first century reader looking for ways to negotiate everyday life. And if you’re keen to explore the works of this great writer and thinker, What Do I Know is the perfect place to start.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and enjoys reading about the wisdom of others.

Michel de Montaigne, What Do I Know? (Pushkin Press, 2023). 978-1782278818. 190pp, hardback.

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5 comments

  1. Love Montaigne – as you say, he sounds remarkably modern and would probably have been a copious blogger

    1. I think he definitely would have loved blogging – he was so prolific and it would have given him such a great platform!!

  2. How very interesting to read a set of essays on different human emotions! But those are universal things, I think, so I can see why his work touched a chord as you read.

    1. Indeed Margot – he’s a very human author and his themes are ones which are always relevant. A really fascinating writer!

  3. Some of his essays were assigned reading for me and I was struck by how contemporary they felt (perhaps also in comparison to other books from that time). But even if I’d not read and enjoyed some, the intro by Yiyun Li (one of my MRE Must Read Everything authors) would have sold me on the idea of reading this collection.

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