If you were to hand Montaigne a quill, a wax tablet and an order to intellectually inspire, this philosophical French writer from the 1500s would craft you a convincing explanation for why you don’t need shoes, compare a king to a deformed “child monster” or write you an essay about thumbs. His ability to assign intellectual appreciation to absolutely anything influenced the work of many, from Descartes to Shakespeare, while forming the foundations of the essay genre and setting its prestige in stone. He’s one of the most influential writers history has seen, and yet most people have never heard his name.
So, thumbs. I couldn’t help but grin as I turned to the page, expecting nothing more than a mind-meandering muse. I was pleasantly shocked to see a short introduction to their cultural history – shocked in fact that one even exists. He writes about barbarian kings who, when making an agreement, would join right hands, twist each other’s thumbs until blood appeared, prick and then mutually suck them, and about knights who would chop off their own thumbs or those of their children in order to avoid being sent to war. At the age of 60, Montaigne could support himself on a table using only his thumbs; I’m assuming this to be the explanation for his peculiar fascination.
Montaigne was rather self-cynical towards his work, describing his writings as nothing but “grotesque and monstrous pieces of patchwork, put together without any certain figure, or any order, connection, or proportion but what is accidental.” I’ll admit that glancing down the contents page is rather like glancing through an Argos catalogue, only without the worry of whether the item you want is out-of-stock – these essays have survived half a millennia, they’re not going anywhere fast. And yet there’s beauty in this chaos. There’s the chance of inspiring an exciting and thought-provoking collision between word and thought and the world around us in which he explores, and besides, uniformity is ugly and far from unpredictable. When I pick up his book, I’m helpless in its hands – I have no idea where I’ll end up, but that’s all part of the fun. For all I know, I’ll be reading about the therapeutic qualities of mayonnaise, although since Montaigne was writing during the 1500s and mayonnaise wasn’t invented until 1756 I’d say this would be highly unlikely.
Although a book of his may seem like one giant, multi-coloured patchwork addressing a multitude of topics, almost too many to absorb, you’ll find that within each ‘patch’ there’s an essay seamlessly bound. If not by his astonishing ability to alliterate – “friendship is cultivated by pleasure, profit, public or private necessity” – bringing the words from the book bouncing to life in the mouth, then it’s his swift style of swinging from one fact to another that sews the seams of his sentences together.
Self-indulgent? His work is said to be “brimming over with self-searchings,” as many of his essays explore his own emotions: his sorrow, his fear and his anger, lathered with personal anecdotes and drenched in personal judgement. But surely it is this self-searching that gives us readers the confidence to search inside ourselves, tempting us to glance down to our feet to question the purpose of shoes, to look at our thumbs with newly found appreciation – to question the world we live in?
“We say some works stink of oil and the lamp by reason of a certain roughness that laborious handling imprints … the solicitude of doing well, and a certain striving and contending of a mind too far strained and over bent upon its undertaking breaks the chain of thought and hinders its progress, as is the case with water, which, being pressed by its force and quantity, hardly passes out of the neck of a full bottle when just opened.” Montaigne’s essays are carefully crafted. The chain of thought never breaks. They don’t stink of oil and the lamp, they smell of inquisitive speculation and curiosity for the world, and if an essay of his were a drink to quench the thirst for curiosity as he describes, well, I can quite confidently say that it would taste pretty good.
Here are some interesting things about uninteresting topics Montaigne could teach you:
“Emperor Geta based the distribution of his courses on the first letters of the dishes’ names: they served together those that began with M, mutton, mackerel, mallard, mushrooms…”
“There are some countries where it is the custom for children to kill their fathers, and others where the fathers kill their children, to avoid their being something sometimes an impediment to their designs.”
“… the king of Mexico changed his clothes four times a day, and never put them on more … as also neither pot, dish, nor other utensil of his kitchen or table was ever served in twice.”
Finally, here are some quotes I particularly enjoy for their philosophical qualities merging with poetry:
“A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.”
“A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.”
“It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.”