News and Tribune

April 14, 2014

CUMMINS: Great writers have something to say

Local columnist

— Those of us in the writing racket strive to do the best we can. It’s hard for most of us to connect words on paper or on smartphones that make any sense at all. I prefer paper, because smartphones are tricky. I tried to text once and have no idea where it went, but words on paper last forever. Most writers also read the stuff other writer’s write. This makes writing easier; you simply read something good and then write down what that person said. Change a few words and you don’t have to use your brain as much. Writing something original wears you out.

When people learned to read and write, it gave them something to do other than hunt and gather food. People such as Plato were bored until they began writing philosophies. It wasn’t until the smartphone when man stopped hunting and gathering and began talking incessantly. But when we’re talking, we’re not reading and learning from the great minds who had something to say about the absurdities of the human condition.

 Michel de Montaigne, known as the “father” of the essay, was born in 1533 and lived in Bordeaux, France, until his death in 1592. Born into the privileged class, he had the best tutors money could buy. Without a television and game things, he learned languages and read the classics including Plato, Seneca, Cicero, Plutarch and many others. Although a teenager, he had no interest in pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.

Doing what he wanted to do for 22 years during his later years, each day Montaigne climbed up to the library in a tower in his chateau to think, read and write. It was before telephones began ringing that would disturb his trend of thought. He then wrote and published three long volumes of essays. According to scholars, Shakespeare, an admirer and his contemporary, read some of his essays. Wonder what the scholars will say about the power of blogging as it replaces works like Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn and other classics? But we must understand 530 years ago, writers had time to reflect and think. What else could you do at Stratford-On-Avon or Bordeaux, drink wine and make merry?

Montaigne wrote, “The greatest thing in all the world is for a man to know how to be his own,” and he was interested in observing the behavior of human beings and reflecting on the complexity of the human condition. Trying to understand the nature of man obsessed him as he observed, “Every man has within him the whole form of human nature.” That is what Montaigne tried to do, explain the nature of man, and along with it, examine what made his own self tick.  

In the introduction to the volumes of essays, the author pointed out that Montaigne’s “exploration of the human record left him with a low opinion of men and even a lower opinion of women except in all matters pertaining to sex.” This hasn’t changed in five centuries, except that women are now gaining more power and getting closer to doing what they want to do, move into a White House.

Montaigne thought that men are not only endlessly changing, but are fundamentally irrational in their thinking, in their behavior and in their way of living. Men played politics back then, too. He wrote, “But to establish a better state of things in place of what he has destroyed — many a man has failed in his endeavors to do that.”

His essays covered the scope of the human condition, everything from idleness, untruthfulness and the power of the imagination to moderation, experience and aging. He wrote about the education of children, using good judgment and preparing to die well. His later essays revealed a more favorable view of the “common” man in comparison to the aristocracy. To make a point, he quoted passages from the classics as if he had remembered everything he ever read. He was witty: “I believe that man was made by the Gods to toy and play with,” and “It has happened to me more than once that I forgot the ‘password’ three hours ago ….” Oh, my God, forgot a password in 1580?

Montaigne believed that one’s purpose in life is, “to live well and die well.” His motto — “What do I know?” He asked, “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, or I with her?”

He’d be surprised the human race has learned squat since 1592.  

— Contact Terry Cummins at