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examples of noble living, copying them into his paperbooks and even adorning the walls of his library with them. This method of loose accumulation has left its ttaces in quite a number of the essays in the first volume. The selection was determined at the outset by a consistent adherence to the Stoical maxims of Seneca, whose influence also contributed to the detached sententiousness of the form. The spell of the Roman moralist was broken, however, when Montaigne read Plutarch in the translation of Amyot. The rigid ethical standard melted before the benign humanity of the sage of Chaeronea. Montaigne's eyes were opened to the prospect of a subtler psychology, an ampler and more flexible view of human character, and to the possibilities of a more sinuous and refined method of treating moral themes. He never wearies of speaking of his debt to Plutarch. But once emancipated, he goes even beyond Plutarch. When his essays appeared before the public, they contained elements which were altogether novel in literature, features which affected his contemporaries as merely bizarre. The loose, digressive, apparently artless structure, sometimes carried to a point of wanton extravagance, naturally resulted in the bewilderment of readers accustomed to classical standards of propriety. Too much admiration has been lavished in later generations upon a virtue in which Montaigne has been surpassed by inferior writers.
A really important aspect of his originality was the extent and manner of his reference to his personal habits and characteristics. Never had an author been so garrulously confidential with his public and so fully turned his art into a confessional. Yet it is a mistake of emphasis which fails to penetrate further into the essence of this originality than to see in it a challenging assertion of the writer's egotism. Montaigne's
significance is best appreciated through a perception
of strangers and of the larger world are on him. The object which in the end Montaigne proposed to himself was the representation of "a life ordinary and without lustre.” Instead of drawing a portrait of himself for
pusterity to admire or gape at, he painted the features of a man whom others might recognize as a human being like themselves, actuated by their own motives and responding to temptation with the same mixture of weakness and resolution as themselves. The change from Stoicism to an indulgent Epicureanism which is sometimes looked upon as the moral deterioration of Montaigne's old age, is in reality but the index of a changed attitude toward his writing, the proof of an increasing literary honesty. In his earlier work, with the moral consciousness vivid, he thinks of human nature as it ought to be, or as it is found in its ideal manifestations. Later he descends to the level of human nature as it works in the average, and, describing it faithfully, he leaves the moral at the mercy of the individual reader. In the end he comes to view himself
an epitome of human kind; the egoist has completely transcended himself. It is therefore not in the fact of self-portraiture, but in the motive, and in the almost impartial attitude toward his subject that Montaigne's real singularity appears.
This attitude had certain important consequences for his literary art. As an experimenter Montaigne was descriptive rather than philosophic, occupied with facts rather than with principles and dogmas, with particular and individual occurrences rather than with generalizations. He professed to understand only what he observed at a given moment; he recorded only what he felt and thought under given circumstances. This, however, was only the delicate artifice by which he dispelled the suspicion of doctrinal tendency. He was no common author, no sober wiseacre who wrote books to impress others with his superior wisdom. He wrote as a gentleman might to his friends. He would indeed have adopted the epistolary mode if the death of Etienne
de la Boétie had not deprived him of the only friend to whom he could frankly unbosom himself. The idea of a fictitious correspondent was abhorrent to his straightforward instincts. If he prided himself on anything it was on his freedom from literary vanity. His design was only to set down the individual observations and unconstrained reflections as they presented themselves to his mind; the form might be left to take care of itself. This
may have been a pose which Montaigne, tongue in cheek, was pleased to assume. But this explains the concreteness, the abundance of familiar and homely illustration, the candid self-exposure verging on self-abandonment, the freedom of speculation and boldness of opinion, the fanciful transition from thought to thought, the frankness and even rudeness of the idiom. All these qualities make the animation and charm of Montaigne and, as he desired, they win his readers to him as a man, not as the author of a book.
The happy art by which Montaigne, holding up the mirror to himself, produced a portrait of nature, was of a subtlety and difficulty to elude imitation. Generally it might be said even to have failed of appreciation. What his contemporaries chiefly saw in the essays
a trend of thought, an open-eyed skepticism shrewdly examining the commonly received notions of human nature, disturbing a secure mental repose, and directly or indirectly provoking a revision of standards and values. So far did the philosopher in Montaigne overshadow the man of letters that it was deemed a pious task by one of his intellectual followers to give his thought a systematic arrangement. Pierre Char
. ron's treatise "De la Sagesse”, honest book that it is, is but Montaigne methodized. The influence which
. he exerted immediately on English writers was through
the impact of his fresh thoughts, treaceable in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, as well as in Bacon and Burton and Sir Thomas Browne. The elaborate imitation of his method is, before the Restoration, confined to less notable writers like Sir William Cornwallis, in whom, however, the process of self-analysis is carried on with such complacency and edifying tendency as to produce a result quite different from that of his model.
More than by Montaigne the course of English essay. writing during the seventeenth century was determined by Sir Francis Bacon, and though most pedigrees trace his genesis also to Montaigne, there is no strong ground for such an association. Bacon was an originator of the essay almost as much as the other, borrowing the name but giving it the meaning more commonly attached to it, to signify "dispersed meditations” or, as he puts it in the edition of 1612, "brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously.” The similarity between their essays is what might be expected from the employment of a common groundwork or starting point, but they proceed in their development by independent and totally different literary routes and arrive at remotely separated goals.
Bacon's essays, like Montaigne's have their source in the aphoristic fashions of that time. The Englishman set an even higher value than his predecessor on the disciplinary virtue of a pointed sentence, especially when it proceeded from one who had acquired weight in the counsels of the world. One of his latest literary occupations was to compile a book of apothegms or notable sayings of great men, a work which, as he thought, had never been performed with sufficient judg