Saturday, June 28, 2003

Michel de Montaigne - Experience

The thinking of Michel de Montaigne is a natural next step from the thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is said to have favored his thoughts.

Montaigne was very introspective, writing essays on the nature of man and truth from solely internal experiences. His idea was that he could best interpret people and the world by making assays into his own being. He lived as a French scholar in the Renaissance, attending law school at the age of 13, going on to lead a political life in France, before retiring and taking up an academic life of writing and studies. His essays written in his 40s are very self critical, self concious, and penetrating. He touts his own weaknesses and considers himself and man to be lowly.

In his essay XXI, on experience, he takes an interesting position, that is atypical of people with as many years experience as he had. He sees experience as a fall back for how to gain knowledge in absence of reasoning. The essay begins with the following, as translated to English by Charles Cotton:

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.

"Per varios usus artem experientia fecit, Exemplo monstrante viam,"

which is a means much more weak and cheap; but truth is no great 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..

His thoughts are encouraging to people impatient to grow in wisdom and knowledge. This is the irony. Such impatience seems to preclude attainment of sagacity and certainly erudition. These requirement discernment and a dedication to study. This is definately a Catch-22 (ref: Joseph Heller), deterring those impatient to achieve these values, from achieving them. This stymies the overzealous. Further, since this essay is based off of introspective assessment, it is most likely related to an impatience that Montaigne had himself.

This is an example of the complecity of the ideas that Montaigne implies in simple terms in his essays. These essays are thorough, readable, and thought provoking . They can be found at

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