Montaigne. He has lessons for us all, I've found.
Some of the lessons are hard. He writes about everything, but most of all, he writes about himself. There is a painful clarity to his work - but that cliche term does nothing to properly explain what it is he accomplishes with his writing.
At thirty-three, Montaigne decided to retire to his home and write. He had vague ideas about writing a gentleman's book on warfare, and the first few essays reflect that. But, as he progressed, he kept going on little side journeys into his own thoughts and opinions. At first, Montaigne reigned himself in, struggling to stay true to the path he had decided for himself.
Happily for us, he failed.
He abandoned the idea of writing for gentlemen - though there are still slight evidences of this throughout the work. Instead, he decided to focus on the one thing he knew better than anybody else in the entire world - Montaigne. Who else could know more, or would bother to take as much time exploring this one man than the man himself? And why not explore his own mind - every day, he has to live and deal with the advantages and disadvantages, the habits and the thoughts, the opinions and the ironies of being Montaigne. Thus, he decided, it was worth exploring. In his view, there was nothing more important than understanding one's self. If you cannot understand yourself, how can you expect to understand anybody else?
There are moments of 'painful clarity', as I said above. Montaigne discusses (his) impotence, his imperfect marriage, the disappointments he has created in others, the times when he did not do what he should. But he also talks about how he can make himself a better person, and how, in a lot of ways, he is an admirable person. It is important to realise that Montaigne is not writing an apology for himself. He is putting himself on to paper, 'warts and all', and declaring it true. There is a point in one of the essays where he declares that he wouldn't want anyone to lie about the person he is, even if they flattered him or praised him. This is, in a nutshell, Montaigne's thinking. He is not concerned with being the greatest person ever known - he is concerned with understanding himself.
Four hundred years on, what is there to offer us, the modern reader, in Montaigne? An infinity of wisdom. Could I, in honesty, completely and unwaveringly disect myself for the consumption of both myself and others? I don't think so. I very much fear that the answer is no. And yet - why not? Is it shame? I don't think so, as I have nothing major to hide. Perhaps, then, it is simply the fear of unrealised ideas and thoughts. If I am unaware of myself, I cannot present it. Montaigne was and is aware of himself and thus manages to accurately describe the person that he is.
Montaigne's essays are invaluable not only for the man that they portray, but for the wisdom in what is spoken. Montaigne has thought about so many aspects of what it is to be a human and alive, and we can all learn from this. The topics he discusses go beyond mere 16th century issues, and deal with concepts, ideas and concerns that affect us now, and will affect us always. Absolutely essential reading.