The source of Montaigne’s appeal to the English (and to me)

William Hazlitt managed to squeeze Montaigne, as well as Rabelais, into a piece called “On Old English Writers and Speakers.” He justified their inclusion thus: “But these we consider as in a great measure English, or as what the old French character inclined to, before it was corrupted by courts and academies of criticism.”

If they like the Essays’ style, English readers were even more charmed by its content. Montaigne’s preference for details over abstractions appealed to them; so did his distrust of scholars, his preference for moderation and comfort, and his desire for privacy – the “room behind the shop.” One other other hand, the English also had a taste for travel and exoticism, as did Montaigne. He could show unexpected bursts of radicalism in the very midst of quiet conservatism: so could they. Much of the time he was happier watching his cat play by the fireside – and so were the English.

Then there was his philosophy, if you could call it that. The English were not born philosophers; they did not like to speculate about being, truth, and the cosmos. When they picked up a book they wanted anecdotes, odd characters, witty sallies, and a touch of fantasy. As Virgina Woolf said a propos Sir Thomas Browne, one of many English authors who wrote in a Montaignean vein, “The English mind is naturally prone to take its ease and pleasure in the loosest whimsies and humors.” This is why William Hazlitt praised Montaigne in terms guaranteed to appeal to an unphilosophical nation:

In taking up his pen he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind, in its naked simplicity and force.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live

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One thought on “The source of Montaigne’s appeal to the English (and to me)

  1. There are plenty of English philosophers who could be named including Russell and Hobbes, as well as Sir Thomas Browne who was by all accounts extremely touchy about being compared to Montaigne, writing in his commonplace notebook-

    ‘In a piece of myne published long ago the learned Annotator/commentator hath paralleled many passages with other of Montaigne’s essays, whereas to deale clearly, when I penned that piece I had never read 3 leaves of that Author & scarce more ever since.

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