For a long time now, I have been acquainted with the essays of Michel de Montaigne. In college, one of my professors, the learned and affable Justin A. Jackson of Hillsdale College, included a few of this man’s essays in the second semester of the Great Books prerequisite. Professor Jackson considered him to be the first truly modern author–if memory serves me right. (If memory has played me false, I tender my apologies to the astute professor.) The reason was Montaigne’s preoccupation with the self or rather himself, which created essays of a highly personal nature. Rather than establish himself as an authority, he writes these essays merely to put forth his subjective opinion.
Yet, Montaigne’s ability to adduce an unlimited amount of examples upon the subject of the essay astounds the reader. He has a mastery of the writers of Classical antiquity and a thorough knowledge of Medieval and Renaissance history in particular. In this regard, reading him is very similar to reading the works of St. Francis de Sales, who can allude to many anecdotes and scenes in history to explain spiritual truths better. Both men have the effect of making me wish that I had spent more time reading and less playing video games. It must have been a great help to Montaigne to have had his father teach him Latin as his first language rather than French! I rather wonder what effect it might have on a child to have Cicero, Virgil, and Julius Caesar as more accessible than the Berenstain Bears or similar children’s literature!