Michel de Montaigne is generally regarded as the inventor of the personal essay. But it has always seemed to me that few essays written since Montaigne have actually been modeled on the kind he wrote.
Montaigne wrote essays in order to examine the contents of his consciousness by following his trains of thought to wherever they led. Sometimes, they didn’t lead anywhere — which is often the case with trains of thought.
But the essay almost immediately became a vehicle of style, the substance of what was said increasingly subordinate to the manner in which it was said.
Not that Montaigne lacked style. His prose is as natural and unaffected as good plain talk. But his style was simply a reflection of his method: a plain and simple examination of what he thought about whatever.
He started out modestly enough by ruminating over favorite quotes from favorite authors. Two favorite quotes of mine I am sure would have met with his approval. The first is what Hamlet tells Horatio, that “there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And the other is attributed to Thomas Aquinas, that “all things run into mystery.”
I think these would have met with Montaigne’s approval because I think they pretty much sum up his outlook.
Much has been made of Montaigne’s skepticism, but I think the point of that skepticism is often missed or overlooked. Montaigne was profoundly doubtful that human reason was capable of figuring it all out. Montaigne’s Catholic piety was not feigned. I am sure he found the excesses of belief on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide in his time deplorable. But, like Erasmus, he was unwilling to take apart a structure of faith it had taken centuries to build simply because some individuals had come up with some new ideas and arguments.
Montaigne’s skepticism was deeply conservative. He would have agreed with Lord Falkland, that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”