Michel de Montaigne’s well-known book of Essays was composed as “an exercise in self-knowledge carried out for more than twenty years in Montaigne’s private library… The library was a place of solitude as well as a place of knowledge…” (Ophir, 1991, 163). The author’s library has been compared to a scientific laboratory or observatory of the late sixteenth or seventeenth century (Ophir, 163). But, instead of studying stars and planets, or animals, plants and other living forms on earth, the author studied himself. According to Montaigne, “I am myself the subject of my book; it is not reasonable to expect you to waste your leisure on a matter so frivolous and empty” (Liukkonen, 2008).
However, Montaigne’s Essays is not a diary that the reader would find uninteresting to peruse. Rather, the author discusses various subjects, for example, fear, solitude, sleep, human judgment, prayers and war-horses, etc., with reference to himself (De Montaigne, 2006). It is the author’s claim or an underlying assumption of his prose that nothing can be understood without reference to oneself. If I am the author, for example, I must write about how the subject in question has personally affected me or how I came to know what I am writing about. So, if I am writing about war horses, I must inform my reader how I came to learn about such horses, if not describe to the reader what I feel riding a horse, as Montaigne does in the following passage from Essays:
I do not willingly alight when I am once on horseback, for it is the place where, whether
well or sick, I find myself most at ease. Plato recommends it for health, as also Pliny says
it is good for the stomach and the joints… (De Montaigne)
With his knowledge gathered from various sources, Montaigne does not claim to have learned everything by experiencing it himself. In effect, the author is stating (in the above passage): ‘Here is what I have experienced, and this is what wise persons have said about horse riding.’ Montaigne has not conducted scientific experiments to figure out that Plato and Pliny are correct. The author is merely regurgitating what his self has consumed of knowledge that has been produced by others, in addition to knowledge that his self has experienced by way of his feelings. What is more, Montaigne believes that experiences are useful to put into words for the reason that they allow us to reach the truth. According to the author:
There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to
it; where reason is wanting, we therein employ experience… which is a means much more
weak and cheap; but truth is so great a thing that we ought not to disdain any mediation that
will guide us to it. Reason has so many forms that we know not to which to take;
experience has no fewer; the consequence we would draw from the comparison of events is
unsure, by reason they are always unlike… (De Montaigne)
In other words, Montaigne considers it important to relate one’s experiences, even if modern-day authors would shy away from it, imagining that this approach is not scholarly enough. Storey (2007) writes that Descartes’ writing is in many ways a quintessence of Montaigne (6). Descartes had developed the philosophical technique of “methodological doubt,” according to which one must doubt everything that can be doubted, and refuse to accept anything as having been known unless it is established with certainty. As there is no certainty in any matter available to human understanding or perception, the philosopher doubts the things he sees and experiences. He even doubts his good old belief in God’s greatness. After all, Descartes is concerned with a sense of having no knowledge whatsoever, given that his human understanding and perceptions have failed to meet the criteria of being certain or foolproof (Albl, 2009, 20-21). Still, the philosopher’s most famous statement remains as the following: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The philosopher is permitted by reason only to believe in his own thoughts – or doubts, as in the case of Descartes (Albl, 21). In a similar way, Montaigne’s prose has been composed with the assumption that gathered knowledge must be made to engage with the self before it is appropriately reproduced. Also according to the author:
Did I know myself less, I might perhaps venture to handle something or other to the
bottom, and to be deceived in my own inability; but sprinkling here one word and there
another, patterns cut from several pieces and scattered without design and without engaging
myself too far, I am not responsible for them, or obliged to keep close to my subject,
without varying at my own liberty and pleasure, and giving up myself to doubt and
uncertainty, and to my own governing method, ignorance. (De Montaigne)
Thus, the author claims that it is virtually impossible to know a subject unless one has had direct experience with it, if only in imagination. Moreover, knowledge produced through self-engagement with the subject is closer to the truth. So, it is unreasonable to discuss toleration, for example, without discussing self-interest. To put it another way, it is actually impossible to understand the rights of other people without understanding one’s own (Levine, 1999). With this argument, political leaders who read Montaigne must wear the shoes of their followers so as to know what it feels for them to value their rights. As the author states, “I do not value myself upon any other account than because I know my own value” (De Montaigne). If the author does not know his value, he is dependent on others to inform him about it. Even so, others are not expected to understand how an individual’s rights are essential to him or her. As human rights are connected to human worth, an individual who knows him- or herself best is expected to make him- or herself understood in order to ensure that his or her rights are protected. Without essential knowledge of self, therefore, one may neither fulfill his or her needs as he or she must, nor express him- or herself well enough for others to support him or her in the fulfillment of basic human needs, including the need to live as a free human being.
Of course, unless the author knows him- or herself, as Montaigne encourages his readers to, he or she may be unable to engage with knowledge produced by others before producing his or her own books that help readers get closer to truth. By engaging with knowledge that he has gathered from books and through experience, Montaigne, for example, has composed his Essays to support readers in their search for truth. “‘If man does not know himself,’ Montaigne asks… ‘what can he know’” (Frame)? To put it another way, it is almost impossible even to learn about the world from books unless one has sought to know him- or herself. Before reading a Geography or History book, for instance, I should ask myself what I wish to gain from the book. If I know myself, I understand my needs, including my need to engage with the book in a way to fulfill my need of reading that book in particular. But, what if I am unable to fulfill whatever need I had in mind when I selected a book to read? Just as it is useful to know the limitations of others, including authors whose books we have read, Montaigne proposes that it is good to develop self-understanding, that is, to know one’s own weaknesses before striving for change. In fact, self-knowledge is the only formula for positive change, according to Montaigne (Bakewell, 2010).
At the same time, the author realizes that the mind, with which knowledge is gathered, can be misleading. Montaigne writes, “[A]s to the effects of the mind, there is no part of me, be it
what it will, with which I am satisfied…” (De Montaigne). He further refers to “[t]he uncertainty of my judgment…” (De Montaigne). Then again, the author believes that God must be thanked for everything, including the power of the mind to gather and engage with knowledge (De Montaigne). So, even if my mind misleads me, I am able to find out how others have perceived that which my mind has wrongly perceived or understood. It is for this reason that Montaigne does not only write about his own experiences but also knowledge produced by others. And, this is how scientific facts are learned as well – that is, with many people testing and retesting hypotheses, in case the original scientist’s observations are wrong because his or her mind had misled him at the time that he or she was seeking knowledge on a specific subject.
Undoubtedly, it is the same knowledge-gathering self that the following example relates to. Montaigne seems to have thought through such examples in order to describe the limitations of self even as it seeks knowledge. If, for example, I were the first person on earth to throw an object in the air, I might have thought that that object would continue its upward movement instead of being pulled down by the force of gravity. Hence, I would have made a wrong conclusion about the object of my perception. ‘I thought, therefore I was.’ All the same, I did not want to be led to a wrong conclusion by my mind. Why did my mind mislead me into thinking that the object thrown up in the air would continue its upward movement? Seeing as I did not, even for a moment, wish to be misled by my mind, and did not desire to be untruthful to myself, my sense of ‘I am’ is a falsehood given that this ‘I am’ is in my mind, and my mind can lead me to wrong conclusions. I can make mistakes, and therefore, the substance of my mind is not truly real either! Just as the mirage, which is there and not there at the same time, my mind is with me today a perception the knowledge of which may be furthered through greater understanding with the mind alone. Thus, my mind or ‘I’ learned with the help of my sight that an object thrown in the air must fall.
Then again, the only way to improve the self or lead the mind aright once it has misled itself is through greater knowledge. Even if my sight fails to inform me that an object in the air must fall, I can read about gravity if not ask people what they have seen. This is how Montaigne would approach the subject. More importantly, as the author suggests, this search for knowledge on the part of the self is the best that the self should do it for itself. In fact, the self cannot be complete without increasing knowledge.
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