Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, June 02, 2014

MONTAIGNE: Of Experience (Books and Knowing Thyself)

Of all the selections in the Great Books Series this may be the best example for reading books and talking about them with other people. Reading Montaigne is like having a one-sided conversation with another living person. Even though we can’t speak back to him we can “listen” to him by reading what he has to say. And his writing has a very conversational tone. We soon get to know him on a personal level; much better than most of the other authors in the GB series. So who is this Renaissance Frenchman and what does he have to say to modern Americans? Plenty.
Montaigne quotes liberally from the classics throughout this essay. But he begins with his own opinion, not a classical quote. Montaigne believes that “There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge.” He agrees with Aristotle that man by nature desires to know. And he agrees with Aristotle that reason is a good teacher. But Montaigne also believes we should do whatever it takes to become wise. Reason can only carry us so far: “We try all ways that can lead us to knowledge; where reason fails us, we use experience, which is a weaker and less dignified means.” Montaigne admits that personal experience is “a weaker and less dignified means” of getting at the truth. Reason would be better. But because we’re weak creatures we should use every means at our disposal. We need all the help we can get. That includes using both reason and personal experience as guides. Montaigne also suggests a couple of other helpful guides for good living: (1) read good books and (2) follow the Greek proverb to “know thyself.”
Reading good books may seem like an obvious path to wisdom. But it isn’t. Plenty of people who’ve read lots of books aren’t wise. In fact, the opposite may be true. It’s like the old saying; they don't have the common sense God gave a goose. And the more they read the worse it gets. Montaigne noted this phenomenon too. He believes “It is evident from experience that too many interpretations disperse the truth and shatter it.” Some folks have read so many books that by now they’re not even sure what they think any more. Good teachers and good writers make things clearer. Montaigne says “Aristotle wrote to be understood; if he did not succeed, still less will another man…” Reading Aristotle is one thing. Reading books about Aristotle is a quite different thing. Montaigne thinks reading Aristotle himself is better.
And that’s where Montaigne’s advice to “know thyself” comes into play. He says “It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject…” It’s better to read Aristotle and think hard about what he’s trying to tell me; rather than read commentaries about what someone else thinks Aristotle means. According to Montaigne “The world is swarming with commentaries; of authors there is a great scarcity.” Scholars may need to find out what other scholars are writing. But most of us have our hands full just trying to see how Great Books fit into our own lives. This is where Montaigne gets very personal and very honest. He admits that “I study myself more than any other subject…” We may think Montaigne’s life was special. Not true, says Montaigne. Every life is worth examining; especially if it’s your own. Montaigne says “The life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own; an emperor’s or an ordinary man’s, it is still a life subject to all human accidents. Let us only listen: we tell ourselves what we most need.” No one else can do it for us. We must decide for ourselves when to read books and when to “read” our own lives. Not every Great Book will appeal to every reader. But every life is worth examining, especially when it’s your own. To each his own, or, as Montaigne says, “for every foot its own shoe.”


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