Montaigne on Judgment

Published: December 9, 2019

"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.  If it is a subject I do not understand at all, even on that I essay my judgment, sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.  And this acknowledgment that I cannot cross over is a token of its action, indeed one of those it is most proud of.  Sometimes in a vain and nonexistent subject I try (j’essaye) to see if [my judgment] will find the wherewithal to give it body, prop it up, and support it. Sometimes I lead it to a noble and well-worn subject in which it has nothing original to discover, the road being so beaten that it can only walk in others’ footsteps.  There it plays its part by choosing the way that seems best to it, and of a thousand paths it says that this one or that was the most wisely chosen. 

I take the first subject that chance offers. They are all equally good to me. And I never plan to develop them completely. For I do not see the whole of anything, nor do those who promise to show It to us. Of a hundred members and faces that each thing has, I take one, sometimes only to lick it, sometimes to brush the surface, sometimes to pinch it to the bone. I give it a stab, not as wide but as deep as I know how. And most often I like to take them from some unaccustomed point of view.

I would venture to treat some matter thoroughly, if I knew myself less well. Scattering a word here, there another, samples separate from their context, dispersed, without a plan and without a promise, I am not bound to make something of them or to adhere to them myself without varying when I please and giving myself up to doubt and uncertainty and my ruling quality, which is ignorance.” 

Photo of Michel de Montaigne.
Who is Michel de Montaigne?

The French thinker, humanist and statesman Michel Eyquem de Montaigne is best remembered for his Essays, an introspective collection of loosely-structured reflections meant to present as detailed and accurate a portrait of its author as possible. Strikingly modern in their conception of the self and its relationship to the outside world, while also concerned with social and political events such as the Wars of Religion, his writings are viewed as formative to various disciplines and fields of thought, including autobiography and metaphysics.

See his Essays, as part of the Lit Hum syllabus.

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