Subject: Thinking and Writing – Montaigne’s Essays
Event: Montaigne begins writing essays, 1571
The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words. –William H. Gass
On this day in 1571 in Bordeaux, France, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne sat down to write. It was his 38th birthday, and he had just retired from public life, where he held a seat in the Bordeaux parliament. What Montaigne wrote that day and what he would write for the next twenty years influenced countless future thinkers and writers.
Montaigne wrote essays, but he wasn’t just writing essays, he was inventing the genre. He called his compositions “essais” from the French verb “essayer” meaning “to try.” An essay, therefore, is an “attempt” or a “trial” where the writer attempts to address a question and figure it out (1). Unlike the concept we have today of beginning an essay with a thesis – a statement of belief – the original idea of the essay was instead to begin with a question. The attempt to answer this question in writing then becomes the process by which a writer explores his or her thinking, getting ideas down on paper so that they can be examined. The act of writing, then, becomes the act of forming ideas and exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks. In this sense, the essay becomes a form of metacognition, — thinking about your own thinking. The abstract thoughts of a writer are transformed into visible words on paper. This allows writers to see what they know and what they don’t know. By further rumination, examination, and revision of those thoughts, they can crystallize their thoughts, making them more clear to themselves and to an audience.
Montaigne’s essays were intensely personal. He wrote about sleep, smells, idleness, anger, repentance, and thumbs, but his main subject was always himself. By expressing and exploring ideas about himself in writing, he discovered that he not only understood himself better but also understood his own thoughts and his own thoughts about the world.
For example, in the following excerpt from his essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” notice how Montaigne explores the idea of inconsistent human behavior by honestly confronting his own character and actions:
For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. (2)
Montaigne reminds us of the power of writing not just as a way of expressing what we know, but also of discovering what we know by getting our thinking down on paper. When we write, therefore, we aren’t just learning how to write, we are writing to learn.
Read the four quotations below, noting how each of the writers vividly illustrates the connection between thinking and writing:
Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper. They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable. -R.D. Walshe
Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate. Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. -Dennis Sparks
Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn. Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser
Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea. -Paul Graham
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What kind of essays did Montaigne write, and what can we learn from him about the power of writing?
Challenge – Thinking in Ink: What is a question that you have about some aspect of universal human experience, such as anger, happiness, love, lying, or marriage? Select a universal human theme and form a question about that theme that you do not have a definitive answer to. Explore that question in a personal essay by writing about different ways the question might be answered and by answering it based on your own memory, observations, and experiences. Don’t commit yourself to supporting a single thesis; instead, try to truly explore your own ideas in writing to see what new thinking emerges.
1-”Michel de Montaigne.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2-Montaigne, Michel de. “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” Quotidiana.org.