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What Bloggers Owe Montaigne

November 12, 2010 | by

The weekend newspapers are full of them. Our computer screens are full of them. They go by different names—columns, opinion pieces, diaries, blogs—but personal essays are alive and well in the twenty-first century. They flourish just as they did in James Thurber’s and E. B. White’s twentieth-century New York, or in the nineteenth-century London of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. There seems no end to the appeal of the essayist’s basic idea: that you can write spontaneously and ramblingly about yourself and your interests, and that the world will love you for it.

No end—but there was a beginning. The essay tradition blossomed in English-speaking countries only after being invented by a sixteenth-century Frenchman, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. His contemporary, the English writer Francis Bacon, also used the title Essays, but his were well-organized intellectual inquiries. While Bacon was assembling his thoughts neatly, the self-avowedly lazy nobleman and winegrower Montaigne was letting his run riot on the other side of the Channel. In his Essais (“Attempts”), published in 1580 and later expanded into larger editions, he wrote as if he were chatting to his readers: just two friends, whiling away an afternoon in conversation.

Montaigne raised questions rather than giving answers. He wrote about whatever caught his eye: war, psychology, animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, vanity, glory, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt. Most of all, he wrote about himself and was amazed at the variety he found within. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he said. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” His writing followed the same wayward path.

In doing this, he rejected almost every literary virtue the French were to hold dear for the next few hundred years: clarity, rigour, beauty, and elegance. Yet his rebellious style gave him immense appeal to British, Irish and American authors. For more than 450 years, they took inspiration from Montaigne and his meandering charms.

One of the first was William Shakespeare. A whole monologue of The Tempest—that in which Gonzalo conjures up an ideal society in a state of nature—seems cribbed from John Florio’s translation of the Essais, published in 1603 but circulated earlier in manuscript. “No kind of traffic / Would I admit,” says Gonzalo; “no name of magistrate; / Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, / And use of service, none.” Florio’s Montaigne talks about a state with “no kind of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches or of povertie.” It was not just the words that sounded similar: Shakespeare and Montaigne both held up an attractive dream of an innocent utopia, while clearly doubting its practicability.

It’s possible that Shakespeare also borrowed a little of Montaigne’s character when working on Hamlet. Like the prince, Montaigne thought too much and was haunted by his own inconsistency and indecisiveness. “We are, I know not how, double within ourselves,” he wrote. “We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game.” He even observed that brooding on all the consequences of actions makes it impossible to do anything—exactly Hamlet’s problem.

While French literature became ever more poised and formal, seventeenth-century England produced a series of oddballs very like Montaigne, often paying him explicit tribute: writers such as Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy ran about “like a ranging spaniel, that barks at every bird he sees,” or Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote in tangled prose about doctors, gardens, burial urns, and imaginary libraries. In subsequent centuries, more and more English writers belonged to what the critic Walter Pater called “the true family of Montaigne.” They had “that intimacy, that modern subjectivity, which may be called the Montaignesque element in literature.” You can see it in Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and even the pompously classical Samuel Johnson, whose Rambler essays have the most Montaignesque title imaginable.

The rambliest of all was the Anglo-Irishman Laurence Sterne, whose digressive novel Tristram Shandy several times mentions the Essays—which seems positively well-ordered by comparison. Tristram’s supposed plot vanishes, and all its elements appear out of order, with the Author’s Preface turning up in chapter 20 of volume 3. The rest is governed by whim and play. “Have I not promised the world a chapter of knots?” Sterne asks at one point; “two chapters upon the right and the wrong end of a woman? a chapter upon whiskers? a chapter upon wishes?—a chapter of noses?—No, I have done that:—a chapter upon my uncle Toby’s modesty: to say nothing of a chapter upon chapters, which I will finish before I sleep.” The knots unravel and the wishes remain unfulfilled; we never reach any destination, for limitless distractions intrude along the way. As Montaigne remarked about his own year traveling in Italy, no one could have said he failed to follow an itinerary, for he only had one simple plan: to keep moving and to see interesting things. So long as he was doing this, he was adhering closely to the program.

“In taking up his pen,” wrote the great essayist William Hazlitt of Montaigne, “he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind.” He wrote about things as they are, not things as they should be—and this included himself. He communicated his being on the page, as it changed from moment to moment; we can all recognize parts of ourselves in the portrait.

In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson felt this shock of familiarity the first time he picked up Montaigne in his father’s library. “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke my thought and experience,” he wrote. “No book before or since was ever so much to me as that.” From Renaissance winegrower to nineteenth-century transcendentalist seems a big leap, yet Emerson could hardly tell where he ended and Montaigne began.

These days, the Montaignean willingness to follow thoughts where they lead, and to look for communication and reflections between people, emerges in Anglophone writers from Joan Didion to Jonathan Franzen, from Annie Dillard to David Sedaris. And it flourishes most of all online, where writers reflect on their experience with more brio and experimentalism than ever before.

Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. “Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,” he said. We are united in the very fact of our diversity, and “this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle.” His book is such a world, and when we look into it there is no end to the strangeness and familiarity we might see.

Sarah Bakewell is the author of How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Answers.



  1. night rpm | November 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks for the post. If we were to look outside of the European tradition, it seems evident that Sei Shonagon wrote in the same tradition, too. Many centuries prior to Montaigne, to boot. With a “bloggier” temperament than Montaigne. =)

  2. ricardo | November 12, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    the Montaigne essay about friendship is one of the most wonderful tring ever written.

  3. Cecile Alduy | November 13, 2010 at 3:23 am

    I take some issue with your description of Montaigne as spontaneously rambling about any topic that met his eyes, or even, for that matter about himself.
    The ESsais might give the impression of following the straem of consciousness of the author, but they are carefully crafted. More, Montaigne spent his lifetime going over each of them over and over again, adding and editing here and there, and never organized them by date or composition, nor by any resemblance of a chronological order. Any edition of Montaigne will says as much: his Essays are known also for the process of rewriting and sedimentation of thought that blogging does not allow.
    While bloggers do write by the occasion, on what is “news”, and rarely go back to a blog 5 years old, Montaigne considered himself a writer and philosopher in the more traditional sense of crafting pieces of writing that took the shape of circuitous (but often staged and following more profound order) thoughts.

  4. Kevin Faulkner | November 13, 2010 at 5:01 am

    ‘Tangled prose’ is rather a vague description of Sir Thomas Browne’s ornate, florid and baroque prose. In fact he’s often considered to be one of the greatest masters of early modern English prose, capable of writing in a variety of styles depending upon his subject-matter. His style and range of interests are in fact far greater than Montaigne’s being a scientist as well as literary figure. When he was once compared to Montaigne Browne protested that he had ‘scarcely read two or three leaves of Montaigne and scarcely ever since’. I suspect the author of this piece has scarcely ever read more than two or three leaves of Browne either otherwise they would no use such a thinly-veiled remark of unfamiliarity.

  5. Sarah Bakewell | November 13, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Cecile Alduy – thank you very much for some fascinating thoughts. I agree that his “spontaneity” is partly a deliberate rhetorical effect, and also that Montaigne went back to his work constantly, inserting material within the text and disrupting any feeling of chronological development. A blogger doesn’t do that, and in that respect resembles a diarist more than an essayist.

    In linking Montaigne to blogging (a connection I’m not the first to make), I was thinking rather of how a blogger responds to new ideas and events, reflecting on them, interpreting them, giving them a personal twist – then adding them to a collection of writings with some sort of unified identity. That kind of blogger is, I think, more essayist than diarist.

    Montaigne similarly adds reflections, anecdotes and examples as they come to him. He inserts them in appropriate places but does not seem to worry about making them consistent with what comes before or after. Crucially – and I think this is where he resembles a blogger more than the usual kind of literary craftsman – he ADDS material constantly, but almost never takes it away. (The major exception is his decision to remove the treatise and sonnets by La Boetie.) Thus he accumulates, but he does not really tinker and edit.

    I really appreciate your points though, and (as usual) can see a lot to agree with in both sides of this debate!

  6. night rpm | November 13, 2010 at 10:44 am

    I do agree with most of Sarah’s thoughts on Montaigne, but have to say, calling Browne’s prose “tangled” is bizarre. Sure, his sentences are long, but the way they are cantilevered and layered, they are the exact opposite of tangled.

    But Kevin F., simmer down a bit. =)

  7. Sarah Bakewell | November 13, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Thanks night rpm (and thanks for the very intruiging Sei Shonagon thought). “Tangled” was not meant to be an insult. I’d have thought my love for elaborate and baroque prose, including Browne’s, was apparent. Just to make it clear what’s under discussion, though, here’s a sentence from Browne’s Hydriotaphia (Urne Buriall):

    “Though if Adam were made out of an extract of the Earth, all parts might challenge a restitution, yet few have returned their bones farre lower then they might receive them; not affecting the graves of Giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with lesse then their owne depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them; Even such as hope to rise again, would not be content with centrall interrment, or so desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which happy contrivance hath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto view some parts, which they never beheld themselves.”

    It’s beautiful. It’s thrilling. It’s layered. It’s labyrinthine. It’s tangled.

  8. night rpm | November 13, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Hi, Sarah, this post definitely convinced me to read your book – out to the bookstore today!

    But your quote basically proved that Browne’s prose is indeed the OPPOSITE of tangled. =) I don’t know which dictionary you use, but I figure most dictionaries connote “tangled” as something confused and jumbled, disorderly. Even just a casual read through the sentence you quote betrays the finely calibrated and modulated nature of Browne’s prose. There’s a fastidious logic and order to how it’s layered, the exact opposite of tangled.

    Beautiful? Yes. Thrilling? Yes. Layered? Yes. Labyrinthine? Yes. Tangled? Umm, no. =)

  9. Kevin Faulkner | November 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Well that’s alright then, apols. I just encounter many derogatory statements about Browne,often American, one recently claimed he was a health care provider who studied witchcraft intensely and unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile science to religion! The schism had hardly begun until Newton. ‘Labyrinthine’ is perhaps a kinder, appropriate description of his prose, ‘tangled’ just comes a shade close to muddled; there is however usually a coherent, orgainised thread to his thoughts,but just not always instantly apparent. In many ways Browne is the English Montaigne in his self-portrayal and analysis, digressions and discourse.His ‘Religio Medici’ spawned innumerable English publication confessionals entitled ‘Religio’ this and that, throughout the 17th c. Montaigne probably was his mentor in confessional discourse as he read French even though he denied reading him much..
    I just think he’s not taken very seriously, perhaps because of his non-sectarian stance. Apols once more.

  10. Sarah Bakewell | November 13, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Kevin – oh good, I’m so glad you feel better about it. I really do love Browne and I agree with you that he should be taken more seriously – and certainly read a lot more.
    And night rpm – I also take your point about logic and layers. But by tangled, I meant something more like “convoluted” or “tied up in knots”. But knots have an order to them – in fact, I guess, the more elaborate the knot, the more order they need to have.
    Thanks both – and three cheers for Sir Thomas!

  11. Kevin Faulkner | November 13, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    But perhaps you are right to use the term ‘tangled’ Sarah to describe Browne as a contemporary once made an anagram describing him as –
    ‘Ter bonus, cordatus Brouneus’ (three corded/knotted Dr. Browne) from the re-arranged letters of ‘Doctor Thomas Brouneues!’

    On Thanksgiving day i intend to post on Browne and America.

  12. Sarah Bakewell | November 14, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Hi Kevin – that anagram is wonderful, and I will look out for your Browne and America post. Where will it be?

  13. Jorg | November 15, 2010 at 11:17 am

    No credit to Andrew Sullivan? He’s been saying this about Montaigne for like ten years.

  14. Chris | November 16, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I enjoyed this article, Sarah, and look forward to reading “How to Live”. Thanks.

  15. Kevin Faulkner | November 16, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    The precise quote by Browne and Montaigne is –

    ‘In a peece of myne published long ago the learned Annotator/commentator hath paralleled many passages with other of Mountaignes essays, whereas to deale clearly, when I penned that peece I had never read 3 leaves of that Author & scarce more ever since.

    I still believe that while Browne may often induce a tangle (Dictionary def. a confused mass) in his reader’s mind he himself invariably follows a highly organized path in his own mind, which the reader is not always privy to, but with effort can be discerned! His commonplace note-books are however very tangled. Piece on Browne and America on my blog next week Sarah. I too really enjoyed reading your piece on Montaigne and discussing it and semantics. Good luck with the book!

  16. Randy W | November 17, 2010 at 12:27 am

    What a pleasant exchange all the way around. How refreshing. I too will check out your book Sarah.

  17. Alaine Grant | November 17, 2010 at 6:24 am

    I haven’t read the whole article yet…had to save it days ago and just now reading the comments I timidly put myself out here to say: I’ve been thinking to start ‘a blog that’s more than a blog’ and now, I’m inspired to find out more about Montaigne and Sarah’s book. I like the idea of not needing to link pieces/essays/themes and re-editing over time. That and a near stream-of-consciousness is very much how I write and ruminate! Thanks to the Daily Dish for leading me here.
    Alaine G

  18. Sarah Bakewell | November 17, 2010 at 7:09 am

    Thanks everyone – I’ve been enjoying this discussion too, especially the chance to talk about Browne. I’ll look out for your post Kevin!

    And Jorg – thanks for making the very just point about Andrew Sullivan. It was mainly him I was thinking of when I said, in reply to Cecile Alduy, that others had made the Montaigne/blogging connection before. He makes it brilliantly here – a wonderful article on blogging, in the Atlantic Monthly a couple of years ago:

  19. Jose | November 22, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    Hello Sarah,

    A friend of mine sent me your article and I found it amazing. It’s a long tima I knew Montaigne and now I started my blog, this essay of yours ”blossoms” my thoughts.

    I am finishing a tranlation to post in my blog linking here, if you don’t mind, obviously. I hope you’ll like it.

    Regards. And please, excuse my english.


  20. Lucy | May 24, 2011 at 6:09 am

    Hi Sarah,
    I’m reading your book and Montaigne’s Essays at the same time. I’m having a wonderful time with both!
    I loved this text and would like to translate it into Portuguese to post it on my blog (with due credits, of course). How do I get the permission for that?

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  22. Klavolt | January 11, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    “George Tedworth”

  23. Jason Stoneking | March 2, 2015 at 9:22 am

    As an American essayist greatly influenced by Montaigne, I very much enjoyed your thoughts here. Recently I did a public performance in Montaigne’s honor on the Pont Neuf in Paris, to celebrate his birthday. It might be something you’d get a kick out of:

20 Pingbacks

  1. […] at The Paris Review, what we bloggers owe to Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell. I must say that I have long been grateful to Montaigne for the word essay, […]

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  4. […] is a fascinating article about the French literary origins of blogging, and proves once again that nothing is as new as we think it […]

  5. […] that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave […]

  6. […] the Paris Review last fall, Bakewell dubbed Montaigne a “16th-century blogger,” as a pioneer of […]

  7. […] keep running across Michel de Montaigne in conversation lately. Awhile back, it was in this Paris Review article that gives Montaigne credit for inventing the art of blogging. This week, it was with Lisa, who is […]

  8. […] me back to the master himself, Montaigne.  In rereading Montaigne’s essays, I get exactly what Bakewell means when she refers to his  “rebellious style” and tags him as the […]

  9. […] created more than four centuries ago.” Blackwell’s piece, appropriately, was titled “What Bloggers Owe Montaigne.” (I reviewed her Montaigne book, How to Live, last […]

  10. […] What Blog­gers Owe Mon­taigne Novem­ber 12, 2010 | by Sarah Bakewell Reprint from the Paris Review […]

  11. […] seems fitting, then, to begin with Montaigne. Sixteenth century French aristocrat, inventor of the essay, the first blogger, an introverted politician, a moderate man in an age of extremism, cheerful […]

  12. […] that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of […]

  13. […] vécu à notre époque, il aurait été carnetier — blogueur, si vous préférez ce terme.Certains soutiennent que Montaigne est le précurseur de tous les carnetiers, celui qui a, en quelque sorte, […]

  14. […] bay by circumstances” (p. 159) as a central theme in this novel. Stylistically, he uses the Montaignean technique of being willing to follow thoughts where they lead. A final Montaigne trademark: he raises more […]

  15. […] Sarah Blackwell, ‘What Bloggers Owe Montaigne’. The Paris Review. […]

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