Emerson Finds Montaigne

…[S]ince the personal regard which I entertain for Montaigne my be unduly great, I will, under the shield of the prince of egotists, offer, as an apology for electing him as the representative of skepticism, a world or two to explain how my love began and grew for this admirable gossip.

A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the essays remained to me from my father’ library, when a boy.  It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes.  I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.  It seemed to me as if I myself had written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.  It happened, when in Paris, in 1833, that, in the cemetery of Pere la Chaise, I came to a tomb of Auguste Collignon, who died in 1830, aged sixty-eight years, and who, said the monument, “lived to do right, and had formed himself to virtue on the Essays of Montaigne.”  Some years later, I became acquainted with an accomplished English poet, John Sterling; and, in prosecuting my correspondence, I found that, from a love of Montaigne, he had made a pilgrimage to his château, still standing…and, had copied from the walls of his library the inscriptions which Montaigne had written there.

“I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.”  My life has been punctuated by books:  Plato, in high school; Plotinus and Schopenhauer and Santayana, in college; Kant and Austin, in graduate school; Wittgenstein and Frege, in my first years at Auburn; Marcel and Montaigne, in recent days.  Who knows what book will speak to him?  Or when?  But some books do speak so sincerely to our thought and experience that we cannot help but believe those books written by us–for how else could they have so undeniably been written for us?

Often when we read, the book says to us, “Your concern is not mine.  My hour has not yet come.”  But then, later, the book’s hour does come, and it reveals itself on time:  emerging from a pile of books knocked over in the corner of the study; called forth by some phrase in another book; mentioned repeatedly in conversation:  and then we read, we drink deep; the good wine was kept until now.  I simply cannot say with what delight and wonder I read Philosophical Investigations when I found I could read it, when its hour had come.  The thrill of the Preface to Foundations of Arithmetic had me running, more or less, up and down the department hallway, trying to get anyone whose office door was open to listen to me as I read passages from it aloud.  When I read Frege’s Three Principles, I had the feeling of great doors flung open suddenly–something I desperately wanted to understand was opened to me, even if it was not yet mine.  I think too of littler things:  the comic marvel of Austin’s footnotes; the incisive charm of Sellars’ occasional metaphilosophical pronouncements (“The landscape of philosophy is not only not a desert, it is not even a flatland”); and so on.  The many and varied pleasures of philosophical reading.

Emerson lived with Montaigne’s essays.  He did not just read them.  Our lives are read within our favorite books; the books are not read within our lives.  The covers of our favorite books enclose us.  Our lives are bound by our reading.

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