by Mara Naselli
Montaigne's essays are famously voluminous. He didn't cut text; he added it. The book is a monster. He said so himself: “What are these Essays if not monstrosities and grotesques, botched together from a variety of limbs having no defined shape, with an order, sequence, and proportion which are purely fortuitous.”
Despite their prodigiousness, Montaigne's essays have enjoyed a popular reception in recent years. We love him for his genuineness, candor, and humility. We think of him as ahead of his time, the first blogger, just like us, trying to figure out how to live in the world. His introspection is a legitimation of our own. But what Montaigne was doing—writing about himself thinking about the world—was a radical rebellion that goes well beyond our own contemporary idiom of self and world. If we look at Montaigne within his historical context, his literary innovation is even more startling. His epistolary intimacy and authority isn't achieved through an elevation of what we now call the self. In fact, Montaigne's understanding of the self has a lot more in common with the Greek notion of the self than our own. For the Greeks the self was not an individual with unique qualities. Knowing oneself meant knowing one's place in the world, knowing how persons differ from gods. It meant knowing one's limits.
Montaigne lived on the cusp of epochal change. The limits that defined the European known world were dissolving in the age of discovery, and yet medieval ideas about how that world worked still dominated in Montaigne's lifetime. The sun, for example, moved around the earth. If you slept on a pile of gold, you would wake transformed into the body of a dragon. Storks lived only in free states. A balance of four basic fluids determined one's health. These beliefs organized a powerful and complicated environment into a divinely ordered whole. At the time, every creature, every detail of the natural world had symbolic meaning to be read as the Book of Nature, authored by God. To understand beasts and nature, to understand even one's own body was to understand God's will. Monsters and monstrosities, deformities of any kind were seen as punishments or omens.