Great Ideas Collection: De Montaigne

In the thirteenth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Michel De Montaigne’s ‘On Friendship’. 

Deemed one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, Michel De Montaigne is known for popularising the essay as a literary genre. There are several books containing his various essays on numerous topics. This particular book in the Great Ideas Collection includes his essays: On Friendship; That it is Madness to Judge the True and the False from our own Capacities; On the Art of Conversation; On Idleness; On the Affection of Fathers for their Children; On Moderation; and That We Should not be Deemed Happy till After our death.

For all of his essays, De Montaigne considers ideas from great thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero in order to inform his own views and opinions. His overall aim in writing is to exercise his own judgement. “It is not my concern to tell the world how to behave (plenty of others do that) but how I behave in it.” He has a very humanist approach, which studies the whole person and their uniqueness with a perspective which emphasises the value of relationships and different cultures.

In the titular essay On Friendship, De Montaigne discusses what he feels is the most important relationship for humans to have. “There seems to be nothing for which Nature has better prepared us than for fellowship – and Aristotle says that good lawgivers have shown more concern for friendship than for justice.”

He maintains that friendships are more important to a person that any other relationship, like family or marriage. “The love of friends is a universal warmth, temperate moreover and smooth, a warmth which is constant and at rest, all gentleness and evenness, having nothing sharp nor keen.” For De Montaigne, friendship is a requirement of life; however, he feels that a truly loving friendship that allows a person to be their selves and pushes them towards progression is a very rare occurrence indeed.

Being yourself within relationships and being strong in your beliefs is a theme that carries on through the next two essays: That it is Madness to Judge the True and the False from Our Own Capacities, and On the Art of Conversation.  “Just as our mind is strengthened by contact with vigorous and well-ordered minds, so too it is impossible to overstate how much it loses and deteriorates by the continuous commerce and contact we have with mean and ailing ones.” In these essays, De Montaigne places importance on the friendships and people we surround ourselves with in order to help our minds thrive.

These and the other essays that feature in this book seem to form an unstructured how-to-guide for life. For example, a person needs to have goals, for “when the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost”; we need to learn by others, as “we do not improve the man we hang: we improve others by him”; and that we need to keep everything in moderation, “there is no pleasure, however proper, which does not become a matter of reproach when excessive and intemperate.”

Although he is writing for himself, De Montaigne is suggesting ways in which a person should live their lives and how they should conduct themselves in order to be deemed clever, likable, and successful.

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