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Philosophical Haiku

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

by Terence Green

Turn your gaze inward
Observe your own finite self
Behold – feeble man.

Michel de Montaigne

For much of Montaigne’s life, it was highly fashionable for Protestants and Catholics to kill each other. For a man of delicate sensibilities like Montaigne, the Wars of Religion were altogether distasteful, not to mention just plain inconvenient. Luckily for a man of delicate sensibilities, Montaigne was the heir to a decent fortune, a considerable estate, and a delightful château, and so in 1571 he locked himself away in it and turned his attention to something much more pleasant – namely, himself. For the next ten years, while the men of God dedicated themselves to merciless slaughter, Montaigne sat quietly alone in candid contemplation of all manner of very human foibles. On one of the beams of his study he had engraved the words of the Roman poet Terence, Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto (“I am a man; I consider nothing human alien to me”), and with this in mind he proceeded to give an unnervingly frank account of himself. At the end of his decade of reflection, he emerged with the Essays that would ensure his lasting fame. He wrote about sadness, idleness, liars and prognosticators; he considered names, war horses, ancient customs, and the vanity of words; he reflected on cannibals, pedants, crying and solitude; and he spoke of anger, smells, three good women, and thumbs. Few were the corners of human experience into which his torch did not shine. In his Essays, he created a style of writing much imitated ever since, conversing directly and pleasantly to the reader – so much so you feel as if you’re listening to an old friend. A profound admirer of the Stoics and Epicureans, it was as a sceptic that he felt most at home, famously asking himself, ‘Que sais-je?’ (‘What do I know?’). He might have answered, with respect to humanity, a great deal.

© Dr Terence Green 2016

Terence is a peripatetic (though not Peripatetic) writer, historian and lecturer. He holds a PhD in the history of political thought from Columbia University, NYC, and lives with his wife and their dog in Wellington, NZ. He blogs at hardlysurprised.blogspot.co.nz.

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