Montaigne, a French writer from the 16th century, is regarded as the father of the essay. His essays were quite compelling to read, but there were aspects of them that were rather dry and hard to understand. He published his works in two volumes, containing a total of 107 essays. A statesman, he gave up politics in order to write. He was somewhat of a skeptic, and is quoted famously as saying “What do I know?”. He remains very influential, and his engaging style has allowed him to endure the centuries.
A very compelling writer in many respects, Montaigne was famous for his pithy aphorisms, many of which have come down through the ages, such as “Saying is one thing and doing is another”. A relatively short work, the essay does not generally require a huge investment of time to read. This is one of the reasons the essay gained much popularity in the beginning. Montaigne also made many references to his own personal life, digressing into anecdotes and little stories that engaged the reader. For these reasons Montaigne’s essays were very compelling and have drawn in many readers.
The essays in Montaigne’s books were not related to each other. They were all completely separate entities, discussing many and various topics. Having no universal theme, they were just many individual discussions. It may be hard to find an ultimate purpose to his essays, but it is easy to read them individually. If they were all entwined and built up to a final conclusion, then they could not have been enjoyably read as separate little works. Considered very self-indulgent at the time, his frequent references to his own personal life seem charming and entertaining to modern readers. His aphorisms were clever, but they often occurred in the midst of very difficult and dry sentences. For example, in his essay That the Soul Expends Its Passions On False Objects, Where the True Are Wanting, there was a paragraph about how vision needs something to see, rather than to go off into infinity. Long and cumbersome, this sentence was unfortunately not the only one of its kind:
This But, in good earnest, as the arm when it is advanced to strike, if it miss the blow, and goes by the wind, it pains us; and as also, that, to make a pleasant prospect, the sight should not be lost and dilated in vague air, but have some bound and object to limit and circumscribe it at a reasonable distance.
This passage is admittedly hard to follow, and is not an example of the wonderful pithy style with which Montaigne has charmed so many.
Groundbreaking works of literature, the essays of Montaigne were a new genre that influenced very many people. Montaigne inserted anecdotes and little stories from his own life and the lives of many historical figures, prominent and obscure, that made his essays quite enjoyable. There were sections that were somewhat dry, but they were more than compensated for by the pithy aphorisms and interesting anecdotes that carried his works down through the ages.