French writer Michel (Eyquem) de Montaigne (1533-1592) is considered the pioneer of the modern essay. His works set the foundation for popularizing the essay form of writing, especially those that deal with philosophical and wisdom-related subjects.
Michel studied classical texts as a youth, and later became a French court official and lawyer. By 1571, he retired and began work on the Essais, or Essays in English, which were published together in 1580 and added to in 1588. Besides writing, Michel also served as a mediator on various disputes, and as the mayor of Bordeaux (a city in Southwestern France) from 1581 to 1585.
The Essays is a collection of essays covering a variety of topics, drawing upon the perspective of Michel’s own personal character, life, and observations. The Essays was fueled by Michel’s curiosity and interest in the world.
In the book, Michel observes and analyzes human nature, himself, society, and various philosophical topics on the human experience.
Once conform, once do what others do because they do it, and a kind of lethargy steals over all the finer senses of the soul.
There is nothing that Nature seems to have inclined us to as much as society.
I find no quality so easy to counterfeit as devotion
Men as often commend as undervalue me beyond reason
Truly, man is a spectacularly vain, diverse, and fluctuating subject. It is hard to establish a specific and uniform judgment on him.
There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and others.
I quote others in order to better express myself.
I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am in search of.
A person is bound to lose when he talks about himself; if he belittles himself, he is believed; if he praises himself, he isn’t believed.
I don’t care as much for what I am to others as I do for what I am to myself.
Wise men have more to learn of fools than fools do of wise men.
What he did by nature and accident, he cannot do by design.
[There is a] difference between memory and understanding
How many things are there that we regarded as articles of faith yesterday and that we tell as fables today?
Not being able to govern events, I govern myself, and apply myself to them if they will not apply themselves to me.
The strength of any plan depends on the time. Circumstances and things eternally shift and change.
When I play with my cat, who knows whether or not she is amusing herself with me more than I am with her?
The desire for riches is more sharpened by their use than by their need.
Pleasing all: a mark that can never be aimed at or hit.
One can say too much even on the best of subjects.
When we have got it, we want something else.
Desires increase as they are fulfilled.
[You can] become a fool by too much wisdom.
It’s better to be alone than in foolish and troublesome company.
I lay no great stress upon my opinions, or on those of others.
It seems to me that the nursing mother of most false opinions—both public and private—is the excessively high opinion one places on oneself.
Souls that are regular and strong of themselves are rare.
Judge by the eye of reason, and not from common report.
Extremity of philosophy is hurtful.
Intelligence is required to be able to know that a man knows not.
Every day, I hear fools say things that are not foolish.
No man continues to do unfavorable things for long except by his own fault.
Things seem greater by imagination than they are in effect.
In true education, anything that comes to us is good as a book: a page-boy’s prank, a servant’s blunder, a bit of table talk—they are all part of the curriculum.
A wise man sees as much as he ought to, not as much as he can.
There is no man who is so good that if he were to submit all his thoughts and actions to the law, he would not deserve to be hung ten times throughout his life.
The word is half his that speaks, and half his that hears it.
The most universal quality is diversity.
Wise people are foolish if they cannot adapt to foolish people.
Knowing a lot is often the cause of doubting more.
Meditation is a powerful and deep study to those who can effectively taste and employ themselves to it. I would rather fashion my soul than furnish it. There is no employment, either weaker or stronger, than that of entertaining one’s own thoughts according to as the soul is. The greatest people make it their whole business…
My trade and art is to live.
[His motto:] What do I know?
People who make it their business to analyze human actions do not find themselves as perplexed in anything as in making them seem consistent, and putting them in perspective with the same luster and reputation; for they so frequently and strangely contradict one another that it seems impossible they should come from one and the same person…
[Publilius Syrus wrote:] “A plan that cannot be modified is bad.”
It seems reasonable to form a judgment of a man based on his most usual methods of life; but, considering the natural instability of our manners and opinions, I have often thought that even the best writers have been a little wrong in so stubbornly attempting to make any constant and solidly drawn-together conclusion of us.
They choose a general air of a man, and according to that, they interpret all his actions, of which, if they cannot bend some [of those actions] to a uniformity with the rest, they attribute them to [a person’s use of] disguise…
Of the man you saw yesterday who was adventurous and brave, you must not think it strange to see him as great a coward the next day. Anger, necessity, company, wine, or the sound of the trumpet had roused his spirits. This is no valor formed and established by reason, but was accidentally created by such circumstances, and therefore it is no wonder if by contrary circumstances it appears quite another thing.
These readily changing variations and contradictions that so manifest in us have often made some believe that man has two souls, or two distinct powers that always accompany and incline us, one towards good and the other towards ill, according to their own nature and propensity; so abrupt a variety not being imaginable to flow from one and the same source.
For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own natural inclination, but moreover, I lose composure and I trouble myself by the instability of my own posture. And whoever looks 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, arrogant; chaste, lustful; chattering, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; gloomy, pleasant; lying, truthful; 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 changeableness and disagreement.
I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion...
One gallant action, therefore, ought not to conclude a man valiant. If a man were brave indeed, he would always be so, and upon all occasions. If it were a habit of valor and not a sally, it would render a man equally resolute in all accidents; the same alone as in company; and the same in lists as in a battle.
For, let them say what they will, there is not one valor for the pavement and another for the field; he would bear a sickness in his bed as bravely as a wound in the field, and no more fear death in his own house than at an assault. And we should not then see the same man charge into a breach with a brave assurance, and afterwards torment himself like a woman for the loss of a trial at law or the death of a child; when, being an infamous coward, he is firm in the necessities of poverty; when he shrinks at the sight of a barber’s razor, and rushes fearless upon the swords of the enemy, the action is commendable, not the man.
If we can get them, we should have wives, children, goods, and above all, health; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must be entirely dependent on them. We must reserve a back-shop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.
And in this we must for the most part entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no outside relationship or communication be admitted there; there to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, followers, or attendance, to the end that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them.
We have a mind pliable in itself that will be company, that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, and to receive and give. Let us not then fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable emptiness.
We have lived enough for others; let us at least live out the rest of our life for ourselves; let us now call in our thoughts and intentions to ourselves, and to our own ease and repose.
No man is free from speaking foolish things; but the worst thing is when a man painstakingly labors to say them.
[Terence Wrote]: “Truly he, with a great effort, will say mighty trifles.”
This does not concern me; mine slip from me with as little care as they are of little value, and it is the better for them. I would presently part with them for what they are worth, and neither buy nor sell them but as they weigh.