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The Core Curriculum

Core Readings: Lit Hum Instructor Joanna Stalnaker reads Montaigne

1590 CE
Date is approximate
Relates to: 


Joanna Stalnaker, professor of French Literature at Columbia, reads selections from Montaigne’s Essays.

When the French nobleman, philosopher and court official Michel de Montaigne published his biographical Essais around 1590, he unwittingly invented a genre of writing that has become ubiquitous in the modern era.

To “essay,” in French, originally meant to “test” or “try” in the scientific, or empirical, sense. And in more than a hundred amusing and often enlightening short chapters, Montaigne proceeded to “test” his own experience of, and judgments about, a wide variety of topics — from the nature of friendship and conversation to the questionable wisdom of wearing clothes and regretting mistakes.

Writing at a time of religious war and strict orthodoxy — when even men of philosophy chased after objective certainties — Montaigne suggested another way.

In her readings, Stalnaker shows Montaigne feeling his way toward the Essays’ working hypothesis: that virtue for most will be acquired gradually, if at all, through a process of trial and error.



ON DEMOCRITUS & HERICLITUS. “Judgment is a tool to use on all subjects and comes in everywhere. Therefore in the tests (essais) that I make of it here, I use every sort of occasion.”

ON PRACTICE. “My trade and art is living. He who forbids me to speak about it according to my sense, experience and practice let him order the architect to speak of buildings not according to himself but according to his neighbor.”

OF REPENTANCE. “Others form man; I tell of him and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again.”

OF EXPERIENCE. “Would you like an example? It tells me that it is for my own good that I have the stone; that buildings of my age must naturally suffer some leakage.”

OF EXPERIENCE. “The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern.”

(27 mins) 

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