Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

The Advent of Personality and the
Beginning of the Essay
Montaigne and Bacon

[O]f all authors Montaigne is one of the least destructible. You could as
well dissipate a fog by flinging hand-grenades into it. For Montaigne
is a fog, a gas, a fluid, insidious element. He does not reason, he
insinuates, charms, and influences; or if he reasons, you must be
prepared for his having some other design upon you than to convince
you by his argument. It is hardly too much to say that Montaigne is
the most essential author to know if we would understand the course
of French thought during the last three hundred years.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Pensées of Pascal”

IT ALL STARTED WITH MONTAIGNE, although a broken lineage may be traced back to his beloved Seneca, as well as perhaps to Plutarch, and even to Plato. The essay as we know it takes its origin and its texture, if not entirely its direction, from Michel de Montaigne’s publication of Essais in 1580. Montaigne penned his “attempts” or “trials”—the respected Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs described the chosen term essays as an “arrogant courtesy”—in seclusion from the horrible scenes then transpiring in his great country. The first edition of Essais consisted of books I and II, that of 1588 adding the third and final one. Not until the first posthumous edition, seven years later, did the Essais attain completion: 107 essays of varying length, most of the titles of which begin with the tiny but pregnant preposition “of.” Appropriately enough, these essays are as self-conscious as their author, and also self-referential. As he states in the long “Of Vanity,”

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