Montaigne and intellectual courage

I am steadily catching up on the Great Books of the Western World reading list. Today, I finished the last of the selections from Montaigne’s essays designed for July 2015 and will soon be finishing “Hamlet.” I have also already begun reading Locke’s “Second Essay” and Rousseau’s “Social Contract,” both of which I should be able to move through rather quickly as I have read both in whole in the past. With that said, I will keep my thoughts on Montaigne’s essays brief, as with each of the works as I struggle to catch up to my original reading plan.

This was my first serious engagement with Montaigne. I have read a few of his essays in the past, but never more than one in a row. He was one of the writers on this year’s list that I was very much looking forward to reading, given his influence and my relative ignorance of him. And, happily, I was not disappointed.

What stood out most to me about Montaigne and his essays is the intellectual courage he exhibits. This is, unfortunately, a virtue that is hard to come by in modern academics and intellectuals. Montaigne, unlike the rest of us, is willing to subject even his and his society’s most cherished values and ideas to the light of reason and honestly observe and document whether they are able to hold up. His exercises into an early and somewhat clunky version of the science of anthropology provide some very interesting insights which he then uses as means by which to examine the norms, expectations, and assumptions of his own society. This examination of the basic assumptions underlying his society demonstrates a great deal of intellectual fortitude on the part of Montaigne, and this is a characteristic well worth imitating.