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Lillian Chang

Michel de Montaigne

The Essays


The world is a place of chaos nowadays. At every turn of a corner, there is desolation triggered from humanity’s sidetracked views of what the world is about. With all this deception and superficiality, pureness in the human soul seems almost non-existent. Michel de Montaigne recognizes the essential need of this purity for the improvement of society in his Essays. Although the main topics he is focusing own are his own nature, own habits, and own opinions, he uses these personal vignettes to illustrate larger truths about man and his behaviors, his strengths and weaknesses. He subtly forces us to see the materialistic ideals that supposedly make us “happy” and dares us to see how it has tainted our minds and souls. Through his work he sets out to encourage man in the careful study of himself, in order to understand life and the world around him.

The meaning of purity in humans to Montaigne is expressed in his short note to the reader, “to live under the sweet liberty of Nature’s primal laws” (3). To have purity meant to have simplicity, to live contently with what Mother Nature has given us and as little artifice as possible. What does Montaigne mean by artifice? Artifice is the unnecessary “magnificence which drains away immediately from use or money” (334). In “On Coaches”, we see Montaigne’s frustration with society’s tendency to attempt to gain respect with “deeds of the purse-string” rather than true “deeds of virtue” (338). He asserts that this type of generosity doesn’t have any real influence because of the tainted intentions behind it. Montaigne urges us to see the limits of the mind that is shaped by shallowness and materialistic possessions.

He speaks with a harsh tone, “and against the ides of a universe which flows on while we are in it, how puny and stunted in the knowledge of the most inquisitive men” (341), trying to wake society out of he oblivion of artifice it has settled itself on to. In “To philosophize is to learn how to die” he compares the span of human lives to the span of mountains and rivers, as well as to insects whose lives lasts a single day. Carnal aspects influence even the general fear of death humans’ feel. “I truly believe that what frightens us more than death it self are those terrifying grimaces and preparation with which we surround it” (35). At times it seems as if he was writing in a state of frenzy because of human’s ignorance of the insignificance issues they deem to be significant when compared to the powers of nature. His frustrations make him scold us in the place of Mother Nature. “Why do you complain of me or of Destiny?? Do we do you wrong? Should you govern us or should we govern you?” (35). He struggles to let us see that purity lies in nature, and when we rid ourselves of materialistic bonds, our fear of death, which is a duty of nature to give us, will also fade, setting us free.

Montaigne begins his essay “That we taste nothing pure” with the statement “The imbecility of our condition is such that things cannot, in their natural simplicity and purity, fall into our use”. In where his “sophisticated” society fails however, Montaigne finds refuge in the native people of Brazil. In “On Cannibals”, he shows a more precise example of what he is proposing for his own society when he talks of “pureness”. He compares these natives, which he finds so amazing and pure, to “fruits wild when then are produced by Nature in her ordinary course” (82). He is hungry for knowledge at the society they live in, which is the society he believes to be ideal, “they are governed by the laws of nature” (83). The pure ignorance which they live, is what Montaigne urges his own society to have. To not know the meaning of fear in battle. To have a simple set of morals that involves only the necessity. He is able to defend these ’savages’ whom practice cannibalism

Throughout his writing, he constantly uses examples and quotes from other readings to give us a better view of the big picture.

He makes a plea to mankind to think of their

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