June 12, 2018

12 June 1580 – Michel de Montaigne brings his essays to king and pope

I like to think of Michel de Montaigne as the first blogger. He didn’t write for fame or fortune, or for academic rewards or polemics, he didn’t write to convince the masses or to condemn his enemies, he wrote for an audience who he knew well, and who knew him well.

In those essays, of course, he does reveal opinions that may seem political or polemical.  And, as he pretends to have little pretension, it might seem strange that he takes his essays to the two most powerful people in the land, the pope and the king.  However, Montaigne was mayor of an important town, among other things, and as a dignitary he did get to meet with some powerful people.  Perhaps he had some messages for important people in there, but there were articles on everyday life that the king and pope could do nothing about.

Now, there are other claimants to the “first blogger” title.  Many ancient and renaissance philosophers wrote in a bloggy kind of way.  Socrates, however, was more like social media.  He asked questions, to elicit responses.  Marcus Aurelius wrote down his thoughts, but he was a stoic, belonging to a school of thought, and as an emperor his writings carried more weight from his title than from the strength of their content.  (His thoughts are interesting, but not quite as personal as those of Montaigne.)

The thing about Montaigne is that his audience were his peers and his superiors.  He wasn’t teaching down to anyone, so he had to work hard to present his opinion.  It wasn’t a starting point for debate either, his opinion was complete in itself.

This essay style continued with us in newspaper editorials, in other essayists, and it even seems to have influenced philosophers.  However, his original essays, and the purpose of them, seems lost to us.   The new essayists are wonderful comics, powerful polemicists, diverting columnists, but they seldom reveal themselves to their friends, or think deeply enough on a subject to really break new ground.

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