Michel de Montaigne and his love for books
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a philosopher known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) lived in castle Montaigne which he inherited from his grandfather. There, he established his great private library in which he spent most of his life.
The library contained philosophical, historical and religious knowledge. His interest in classical knowledge was suggested to him already in his youth. Latin was the first foreign language that he learned. At the age of 7 or 8 he had read Ovid's Metamorphoses and at the age of 16 the edition by Virgil and not only knew the Aeneid but also the works of Plato, Seneca and others.
He was so keen on these books that he withdrew from his 13 year career as a judge to dedicate himself fully to philosophy and book knowledge.
In one of his essays Montaigne wrote about the three most important relationships which man can have on earth: with friends, with women and with books. In his view friendship is a rare occurrence and the beauty of women decays with time, books however are always available.
"The dealing with books is secure and will always be available …. it consoles in old age and in solitude. It frees me from the burden of boredom and idleness and from unwanted company. It distracts from pain, as long as the pain is not too hard."
To Montaigne, books were the source of the knowledge that mankind had left as marks throughout history. To learn from that body of thought, to absorb it and by doing that, stirring one's own thoughts and following those thoughts was the reason for studying these books.
Montaigne's approach was to question the rationality-based themes of classic philosophy by subjecting people and animals to critical scrutiny. To him, people were foolish beings that only partly used rationality. The rest of human behaviour was based on unbridled emotion like outbursts or hysteria.
Whereas animals relied strongly on their instincts, living largely in unison with nature. He challenged the purely rationality-based theses of philosophy as to him, humans were made of more than just rationality.
Unfounded trust in rationality is the source of idiocy and inadequacy.
Caused by his long philosophical self-studies and further ecomenical writings he became convinced that life should not solely be based on rationality, since humans were not purely rational beings, otherwise they would not react partly irrational, partly foolhardy or hysterical. Humans were also loaded with emotions, leading to a constant battle for balance between rationality and emotions.
In other words, we humans presume completeness, even superiority, which we could never reach with these differing characteristics. We rather become subject to hybris, which will - as we have learned from Ovid's metamorphoses - lead us to fall.
Yet recognising that we as humans are imperfect was the liberating approach granting relief from the mess of human existence.
Unifying these two thoughts - on the one hand striving for knowledge via books and on the other hand recognising man's imperfection - Montaigne is out to learn to what extent that knowledge is of use to man.
Is a person, like Marcus Terentiues Varro, who assembled a library for Julius Caesar and who authored 600 works himself as well as 25 works on the latin language, or a person like Aristotle, who created the foundations of logic in his nicomachean ethics, happier on earth or a better person than someone who never came into contact with philosophy or other teachings?
Montaigne examines this approach and concluded that one would have to decide between book knowledge and life knowledge.
Among book knowledge he counted logic, grammar, literature, Latin and Greek while counting among life knowledge insights and knowledge that helps one to live a good life, being happy and acting in an ethical way.
Montaigne criticised that people were too often questioned about their book knowledge, which was prematurely rated as qualitatively high or in the eyes of others, low. This esteem is often confused with life knowledge, which by no means is a default setting.
We are constantly working on cramming our minds with knowledge but our minds remain free of conscience.
Here the question needs to be asked to look for better, life-necessary knowledge for oneself and not seeking qualitatively higher knowledge.
Wisdom does not require a special vocabulary nor a syntax. Likewise language need not employ blinkered, hard-to-understand incomprehensible words to be regarded as a high language or as high art.
Montaigne compares this with bogus money. Incomprehensibility offers incomparable cover for blandness. Scholars employ this stylistic device to distract from the hollowness and meaninglessness of their works. And human stupidity all too willingly accepts this as a valid currency. Why? Is that caused by the education of society, the book-learning?
According to Montaigne there is no reason for scholars to use words that cannot be used in everyday language. Writing in an easy-to-understand language requires courage, because all too often one is labelled as trivial, not sufficiently profound.
Montaigne said that he reads books that cheer him up, that give him the feeling of being of value while he abstains from reading books that he failed to understand upon reading a second or third time.
My love for reading books is limitless, learning about the world and the language of another person, capturing that person's worldview. I encountered books, too, that I found hard disclosing to me, giving up reading them after repeated attempts. I always regretted having to resort to secondary literature to be able to disclose the content of a book.
When I came across this approach by Montaigne during my philosophy researches I knew I had to write an article about this as I think that part of being human is having a certain lightness which may be mirrored in the language used.
While reading, I dive into the author's world. A whole new world opens to the reader, devoting to the author's work. One can adopt this world, refuse it, scrutinise it or agree with it wholeheartedly. But there's one thing all approaches have in common, they give food for thought and for understanding. They inspire us to better comprehend events and things happening in this world.
What is feigned and what is behind it? How does language affect us and what does this learned knowledge offer us? This way I attempt to implement learned knowledge in order to incorporate it into my life's journey.
If we as humans only employ rationality we will quickly become arrogant and presume to be superior to the rest of creation. The force of emotions that overwhelms us, which we must learn to tame - among this counts also the attempt to gain life knowledge by switching-on reflected emotions and instincts (the inner voice) - this helps to remain ground-based on facts and in this way, appreciating life in its entirety.
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