“And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? In moulding this figure upon myself, I have been so often constrained to temper and compose myself in a right posture, that the copy is truly taken, and has in some sort formed itself; painting myself for others, I represent myself in a better colouring than my own natural complexion. I have no more made my book than my book has made me: ’tis a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life, and whose business is not designed for others, as that of all other books is.”
— Michel de Montaigne
Today’s Writer’s Almanac reports the birthday of Michel de Montaigne, the literary creator of relatively short, written personal observations that he called “essays”:
It’s the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, born in Périgueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner. Montaigne went off to college and became a lawyer, but his father died when Montaigne was 38 years old. And so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. And it was there that he began to write. He wrote short pieces on various topics, and he called them “essays,” because the French word “essai” means attempt.
He lived at a time when religious civil wars were breaking out all over the country — Protestants and Catholics killing each other. The Black Plague was ravaging the peasants in his neighborhood; he once saw men digging their own graves and then lying down to die in them. Still, while he occasionally wrote about big subjects like hatred and death, he also wrote about the most ordinary things, like his gardening or the way radishes affected his digestion. He wrote about sadness, idleness, liars, fear, smell, prayer, cannibals, and thumbs, among other things.
Michel de Montaigne wrote, “The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.”
Many modern bloggers follow the same model, offering personal observations on faith, politics (modern cannibalism) and people digging their own graves, mixed with gardening tips and cat-blogging, which de Montaigne also invented: “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she isn’t amusing herself with me more than I am with her?”