Literary comment ‘The Complete Essays of Montaigne’


The Complete Essays of Montaigne



It is not a book review as I don’t have the literary capacity to be a critic of a classic like “The Complete Essays of Montaigne”. It remained a classic for almost Five hundred years. Periodically it has been translated by almost every generation from French to English. Here I can write why I liked it and why other people considered this book special and unique.

The book I possess is translated by Donald M. Frame. PDF versions are available freely. The book is big and it is not a “read and shelve it to Library Rack” type. It is to be on the bedside table forever.  

The form ‘Essay’ was started with this book by Montaigne. The meaning of an Essay as per Johnson’s Dictionary is “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece”. The term became popular only after Francis Bacon, the British philosopher and statesman, used it for his own collection of short pieces in 1597. This book was written for almost twenty years with as many as three additions during 1571-1595.

It is felt that Shakespeare should have read Montaigne’s essays and worked their insights into his plays. After Bacon, 18th-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson who was said to have got influenced by Montaigne wrote: “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience,” Emerson declared. “I know not anywhere a book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive”.

From New York Times: “He chose to write in French, rather than a more “durable” tongue. This is because the book was intended only “for a few men and for a few years.” Well, that plan backfired. Not only is “Essais” still in print, in many languages, more than five hundred years later, it is also now extolled as a source of wisdom for the contemporary world — or at least the English-speaking part of it.”

He has chosen about a hundred aspects of human life to write as essays. The essays reflect the common man’s experiences, perspectives and philosophies. The writer says “I am the matter of my book” and it is the same feeling with most of the readers. He was so truthful of himself to say “My first edition dates from 1580: I have long since grown old but not one inch wiser. 'I' now and 'I' then are certainly twain, but which 'I' was better?”. The revisions of the book show his changing personality with his age.

When one becomes a critic of oneself, then one cannot escape of being an ardent lover of this book. For an appreciation of style and taste of truthfulness, an excerpt from an essay is presented herewith.


Name of Essay: Of idleness

Just as we see that fallow land, if rich and fertile, teems with a hundred thousand kinds of wild and useless weeds, and that to see it to work we must subject it with certain seeds for our service; and as we see that the women, all alone, mere shapeless masses and lumps of flesh, but that to create a good and natural offspring they must be made fertile with a different kind of seed; so it is with minds. Unless you keep them busy and busy with definite subjects that will bridle and control them, they throw themselves in disorder hither and yon in the vague field of imagination.

And there is no mad or idle fancy that they do not bring forth in this agitation:

         Like a Sick man’s dreams, They form vain visions: HORACE

The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself: for as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere:

Lately, when I retired to my home, determined so far as possible to bother about nothing except spending the little life I have left in rest and seclusion, it seemed to me I could do my mind no greater favour than let it entertain itself in full idleness and stay and settle in itself, which I hoped it might do more easily now, having become weightier and riper with time. But I find that, on the contrary, like a runaway horse, it gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.


Mangalampalli Vallinath








  • Vallinath Mangalampalli

    A retired computer professional. I like writing off beat themes. Generally the characters are taken from average, middle class families. I have lot of interest in reading books about cosmos and western philosophers. I belong to Hyderabad, Telengana.

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