Writing about oneself

I’m reading along in Montaigne’s Complete Essays and continuing to enjoy it. There are three “books” in this volume, and I recently began the second one. The essays are on a whole range of topics, many of them related to philosophy, quite a few on warfare and politics, and many on how best to live one’s life. Even when the subject is one that I am not terribly interested in, Montaigne usually manages to give some bit of wisdom or to say something revealing about himself that keeps me engaged. And in his best essays, he’s wise, insightful, and amusing.

I was first turned on to Montaigne in college when I took a Senior Seminar in the personal essay, and my professor was a Montaigne devotee. I remember admiring Montaigne’s essays at the time, but mostly I was caught up in my professor’s enthusiasm, wanting to like the things he liked because I had so much respect for his opinions. I dipped into Montaigne in later years, although I never got all the way through the essays. I continued to admire him, but the complete essays require a level of devotion I didn’t have at the time.

This time around, I’m committed to reading the entire book, and I’m seeing that he’s an excellent companion. It’s not so much the specific things he says, which I will probably forget anyway, but it’s his attitude — his honesty and his energy — that I admire. He’s not afraid to talk about either his weaknesses or his strengths openly, and I think it takes courage to do both. He’s also not afraid to write at length about himself. He openly acknowledges that he finds himself interesting and that the whole purpose of the essays is to figure out who he is.

In the essay I just finished, “On Practice,” he discusses writing about himself, and it makes me realize that not only would he be an excellent blogger were he living today, but he would have no patience with those who accuse bloggers of useless self-absorption. He finds being absorbed in himself highly valuable, in fact, and not only useful for himself but potentially useful for others:

The lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else. Meanwhile I am not spoiling anything: I am only using what is mine. And if I play the fool it is at my own expense and does no harm to anybody.

So, in other words, if you get annoyed with those who write about themselves, what’s your problem? It’s not hurting you. And he says it’s not easy either:

It is a thorny undertaking — more than it looks — to follow so roaming a course as that of our mind’s, to penetrate its dark depths and its inner recesses, to pick out and pin down the innumerable characteristics of its emotions.

To those who complain that talking about oneself can lead to boasting and presumption, he argues that just because some people do it badly doesn’t mean nobody should do it:

My belief is that it is wrong to condemn wine because many get drunk on it. You can abuse things only if they are good. I believe that prohibition applies only to the popular abuse. It is a bridle made to curb calves; it is not used as a bridle by the Saints, who can be heard talking loudly about themselves, nor by philosophers nor by theologians; nor by me though I am neither one nor the other.

And finally, he argues that writing and talking about oneself is valuable because it’s valuable to understand ourselves:

I hold that we must show wisdom in judging ourselves, and, equally, good faith in witnessing to ourselves, high and low indifferently. If I seemed to myself to be good or wise — or nearly so — I would sing it out at the top of my voice. To say you are worse than you are is not modest but foolish. According to Aristotle, to prize yourself at less than you are worth is weak and faint-hearted. No virtue is helped by falsehood; and the truth can never go wrong.

So, if you have ever felt uncertain or self-conscious or foolish for writing about yourself, Montaigne says don’t! If you are learning something about yourself, then what you’re doing is good.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

11 responses to “Writing about oneself

  1. You know Montaigne is not a favourite of mine, but you do him marvellous service here, Dorothy! I swear I can hear him applauding from the afterlife!

  2. How I love Montaigne! I think you are right that he would be a mighty fine blogger if he were alive today. I like how he takes the “know thyself” adage and turns it into something both serious and amusing, personal and universal. You know, it was reading Montaigne that lead me to Emerson. Perhaps Emerson is in your future somewhere? :)

  3. Oh man, thank you for reminding me how much I love Montaigne. I haven’t dipped into him too much since college, but getting these tantalizing tastes of his style inspires me to pick the essays up again!

  4. verbivore

    I think Montaigne gets away with these kinds of statements precisely because his own writing was so practical and introspective. Even when he writes about his strengths, it’s because he’s interested in working out how something came to be or how that strength might be useful in his life or someone else’s.

    I’m also still plodding through the essays, slowly slowly, but the cool thing with Montaigne is that when I finally finish I’ll probably just turn the book over and start again.

  5. I don’t recall ever studying essays in school, though I’ve certainly enjoyed what little I’ve read on my own. Every time I read one of your posts I’m all set to pull out a book of essays and dive in, but you know how that goes. Does Montaigne usually write about more abstract subjects? I know there are some of his essays in the Lopate book, which sits patiently by my bedside–must get to it soon…

  6. I love Montaigne. As thinkers /teachers go, we could do worse as writers needing inspiration.

  7. Thanks Litlove! I’m happy to blog about the best bits so you can get some Montaigne without having to actually read any of his essays!

    Stefanie — you’re right that he takes the “know thyself” idea in an entirely new direction. He talks about that directly in this essay, arguing that what he’s doing is something nobody else has ever done before. I’m not entirely sure about Emerson … perhaps he feels too much like Hobgoblin’s guy. But I’m happy to learn about him from both of you!

    Bardiac — indeed :)

    Emily — Montaigne can be irresistible, I think. He’s someone whose company I like staying in. And since the essays are short, he’s easy to read in small bits and to get through slowly, over lots of time.

    Verbivore — yes, I never get annoyed when Montaigne writes about his strengths, when I might with someone else. He’s just so committed to honesty that you feel he has to be equally open about strengths as well as weaknesses. And he inspires trust that he can do both well. I love the idea of starting Montaigne over again!

    Danielle — I studied essays mostly in this one class and only ran across a few elsewhere. Montaigne is usually pretty concrete, although he might veer into the abstract now and then. He’s interesting because he likes to write about a lot of traditional subjects such as warfare and education and how to live a good life, but he often has a new twist on those things.

    becca — you’re right; he’s a great inspiration!

  8. Montaigne must have kept some terrific journals, or perhaps the essays were like a journal to him? Though I wouldn’t put those things on my blog, I do write a lot of things about myself in my journal to work them out, like M. seemed to do from the excerpts you shared.

  9. zhiv

    This is one of the best posts ever–I was just checking in to see if I already mentioned that. Guess not–too bad.

    I see that Amateur Reader is referencing it into the larger (and a bit fancier) discussion of litblogs/bookblogs. AR’s point is clear, but the backstory confuses me. Which one are we?

    This was a virtually perfect post, especially coming after the essay discussion we had earlier in the week.

  10. Debby — I think the essays were his journal, and that’s exactly what he does with them — he works things out as he goes along. That makes the essays so much fun to read because I love following people’s thought processes as they figure things out. That’s why I love essays so much, I think — they are about process.

    Zhiv — well, thank you, as always! Your comments are inspiring — thank you! As for book and lit blogs, we are supposedly book blogs because … let’s see … we allow comments and encourage conversation and don’t write much about the publishing industry news. At least I think that’s it. The whole thing is quite silly.

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