Ellis Washington
On Montaigne: the father of psychological essays
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By Ellis Washington
October 18, 2014


A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.

~ Montaigne

Biography

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) was a giant of the French Renaissance, the cultural and artistic movement in France between the 15th and early 17th centuries, and one of the most important writers of that period celebrated for promoting the essay as a literary genre. He achieved notoriety for his natural talent to combine serious intellectual aspects of life with spontaneous narratives and biography. His magnum opus, Essais (translated literally as "Attempts" or "Trials") covers many of the classical essays and writing styles written in the Western canon. Although ironically during his lifetime Montaigne was better known as a statesman than as a writer, historically Montaigne had a strong influence on many other great writers and philosophers including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Albert Hirschman, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Eric Hoffer, Isaac Asimov, and even possibly on the later works of William Shakespeare (e.g., The Tempest Act 2, Scene 1, and Hamlet Act 2, Scene 1).

Montaigne popularized the technique in his essays as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales 200 years before – to wander into interesting tales and personal reflections which literary critics later viewed as contrary to proper essay style instead of what history has declared Montaigne's great contributions to the development of the essay and essay writing. His affirmation that, 'I am myself the matter of my book,' was regarded by those of his times as narcissistic, but he was a realist. Nevertheless, Montaigne is acknowledged as representing, possibly more than any other writer of his era, the zeitgeist of skepticism which began to develop during the Renaissance. He is best known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' (i.e., 'What do I know?'). More than any other writer of the Renaissance Montaigne is relatable to modern readers because he endeavored to observe the world through rational eyes of his own instincts and conclusions which he inherently trusted above his five sense (skepticism over empiricism). To this degree Montaigne was very subjective in his approach to obtaining and disseminating knowledge as opposed to conventional, objective writers of his generation. Like many literary non-fiction writers of today from my youth I have always found inspiration and a muse in the writings of Montaigne for indeed he has an enduring balance of intellectual gravitas and an entertaining biographical narrative.

Essais (Essays)

Montaigne is one of the world's great essayists and is best known for his work Essais (1580) a comprehensive group of small idiosyncratic treatments of different subjects, motivated by his love of the classics, especially the great Roman essayist from antiquity, Plutarch (46-120 A.D.). Montaigne's primary contribution was his prescient observations regarding humanity and human nature, particularly himself under the bluntest terms. Motivated by his deliberation on the lives and ideals of the prominent people of his time, he brilliantly reveals the boundless diversity and irrationality of human nature in all of his essays. He admits to having mental retention issues, yet has outstanding aptitude in resolving problems and reconciling conflicts without actually getting emotionally entangled himself. His contempt for the human lust of fame and fortune, and his efforts to separate himself from secular pursuits as inferior to spiritual efforts harkens to his longing for the afterlife which is a theme throughout his works. Known as a humanist and religious skeptic, he was not an atheist, but a Christian, yet he writes about his disgust of the religious battles and wars during his era. He understood that humans beings are finite and fallible creatures thus were not capable of reaching certainty or perfection in all things. The most extensive treatment of his essays, Apology for Raymond Sebond, is where we find his celebrated axiom, "What do I know?" Another major theme or idée fixe throughout his writings.

Montaigne was a big devotee of the family and marriage as societal structures essential for the nurturing and education of children, but did not believe in emotionalism and feelings of fervent love which he considered contrary to freedom. In one essay Montaigne wrote: "If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love." In education, he advocated real models and experience over the instruction of abstract information that has to be believed in and of itself. The Essais had an essential inspiration in shaping philosophy and conventional thinking in European literature and philosophy. Francis Bacon's Essays (1596), are commonly thought to be patterned after Montaigne's Essais which is further evidenced by Bacon in later essays citing Montaigne in his pantheon of great classical writers and philosophers.

Montaigne on Psychology and Education

Montaigne wasn't formally trained as a scientist, nevertheless he made many important developments in psychology through his essay writings and formalized and described his observations on these subjects. His ideas and philosophical thoughts addressed themes including among many other subjects – belief, inspiration, fear, happiness, classical education, child education, experience, philosophy, and human nature. Montaigne's observations have had an enduring effect on psychology and are over 400 years later a central aspect of the discipline and development of psychology.

His essays On the Education of Children, On Pedantry, and On Experience describe his opinions he held on child education from a psychological view where Montaigne deeply probed the inner depths of the conscious and subconscious mind of a young child over 300 years before the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung on human psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis and human nature. Montaigne's observations on child education conflicted with the customary educational methods of his generations. For example, Montaigne strongly disagreed with not only what was considered a good education, but how that education was disseminated to children. Typical education methods during Montaigne's time were dedicated to rote reading of the classics and knowledge absorbed through books taught by a stern schoolmaster or tutor who wasn't shy about coupling instruction with punishment if necessary. Montaigne found these educational methods of rote reading and memorization boring, ineffective and counterproductive to gaining true knowledge.

Montaigne understood that there were many ways to educate children, not one. Furthermore he didn't like the methods used to teach children particularly how teachers made students believe that what was taught was definitive and therefore unquestioned truth. These methods caused students to be mere passive learners of the tabula rasa school where for generations people thought babies came into the world as a blank slate, their minds uncritically recording whatever is written on them. Montaigne wanted students to use critical thinking skills to question everything they were taught. Using Montaigne's innovative educational methods and tactics students would become scholars in their own right. Why? Because they believed what they had been taught not by passive, uncritical rote learning, but because those ideas had germinated in the crucible of their own minds thus giving each student a unique, individual ownership in the knowledge they obtained as their personal possession that no one could ever take from them.

To effectively secure a foundational education Montaigne thought that the choice of a worthy tutor was essential for the student to become truly educated. Anticipating the Montessori methods by centuries, education by a tutor was to be done at the speed of the student not by formulaic grades we herd students in and out of in modern times whether they are ready to be moved on or not. Hearkening back to the Socratic dialectical methods of ancient Greece, Montaigne supposed that a tutor engage in dialogue with the student, allowing the student to exhibit their knowledge on a certain subject and guiding the student to go deeper and higher on each subject as his worldview expanded and matured. Using the dialectical framework of Socrates the tutor must always permit deliberations and arguments thus fostering an atmosphere in which students would be able to understand their errors and make improvements to them as the lessons progressed. Thus overtime, under Montaigne's theory of education the students essentially become autodidactic or self-taught.

Montaigne in modern times

Montaigne's opinions on child education endure and remain relevant in modern times whereby Montaigne's views and techniques on education are assimilated into modern education methods and theories of learning over hundreds of years. Like the Tour de Montaigne (the famous tower he locked himself in for 10 years with 1500 volumes of books prior to publishing his first work), this legendary writer, philosopher, and scholar went against the conventional education ideas of his time, encouraging instead individualized and personalized education using the Socratic method. He understood the importance of experience over formal learning through books and memorization. Eventually, Montaigne hypothesized that the result of education was to instill in a student how to have a prosperous life by engaging in a dynamic and socially fulfilling way of life.

Unlike many humanist writers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment like Hobbes, Voltaire, Rousseau, D'Alembert, and later Robespierre and the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who allowed a perverted idea of humanist reasoning to drive them to atheism, skepticism, and open hostility to religion, particularly Christianity, Montaigne, as evidenced in his celebrated essay Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580) not only pays homage to classical learning and humanist traditions in an enjoyable and conversational way, this work further emphasizes the necessity of Christian faith and divine revelation to struggle against the inherent limitations of human reason alone which I believe was the singular tragic flaw of humanism, the Renaissance, and the subsequent Enlightenment Age. Montaigne also believes that human reason over the natural instincts of animals is basically deceptive and a myth. Montaigne's psychological essays set the stage for the efforts of rationalists such as Descartes in the 1600s to institute a pioneering system of knowledge whose formation would be independent of the reliance on the five senses for obtaining knowledge (i.e., empiricism, championed by Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume), thus championing true critical thinking.

Montaigne and the LGBT Agenda (unisex bathrooms)

In the Progressive Era under the Progressive Revolution, society is essentially imprisoned under a regime of fear, ignorance, and intimidation where those who speak out against the Democrat Socialist Party and their progressive allies who control all of America's institutions – education, politics, judiciary, legislative, medicine, and even religion. For example, look at the recent case out of Austin, Texas where Houston's first openly lesbian, Mayor Annise Parker has retreated from the subpoenas the City of Houston issued to several area pastors, demanding the pastors submit the content of their sermons, speeches and private communications including emails and text messages with church members. Texas Senator Ted Cruz weighed in, strongly supporting the pastors' First Amendment religious liberty in their efforts to fight the subpoenas.

What is all this controversy about? It is liberal fascism on the march manifested in this radical leftist Mayor Annise Parker trying to chill the speech of Christians and Christian pastors regarding the controversy, stemming from ongoing litigation by Christian churches challenging the city's anti-discrimination Lesbian-Gay-Bi-sexual-Transgender ('LGBT') ordinance she is trying to force down the throats of the citizens of Houston who are adamantly against such an LGBT agenda mandating unisex bathrooms in schools and other public places.

Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Dr. Paul R. McHugh calls transgender a 'mental disorder.' Montaigne, whose writings have remained relevant since the 1580s and are still studied within literary studies, as literature and philosophy throughout the world, would not accept such an anti-rational, anti-family agenda to become law on both moral, civilizational, and natural law grounds and I concur.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 3, Chap. 66 – Philosophy; Chap. 77 – Reasoning; Vol. 25 – Montaigne.


Book Notice

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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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