Sunday, December 26, 2004

Montaigne: All Substance, No Style

Montaigne's essay "Reflections Upon Cicero" proves that snarkiness was alive and well even in 1572. Even though Montaigne quotes Cicero often throughout his Essays, that does not stop him from taking Cicero and Pliny the Younger to task for being "overweeningly ambitious" and having the nerve--the nerve!--to publicly urge their contemporary historians to remember them in their chronicles. And if that wasn't enough, they each surpassed "all vulgarity of mind in people of such rank" and had the nerve--the nerve!--to publish letters they had written to friends and not only that but some of the letters they never even sent! But Montaigne will take them down a notch or two:

How becoming in two Roman consuls, sovereign governors of the commonwealth which was mistress of the world, to use their leisure to construct and nicely clap together some fair missive or other, in order to gain from it the reputation of having thoroughly mastered the language of their nanny!
Meow. Montaigne proceeds to compare Cicero and Pliny the Younger with Epicurus and Seneca who both published letters as well. The difference, however, is that Seneca and Epicurus published their letters so that their friends might live on in renown, not the letter writers. That's precisely what I would tell my friends if I ever publish our correspondence revealing things they might not want made public. "Relax," I'd tell them, "I did it so you'll be famous!" I'm sure that would make them all feel much better. Seneca and Epicurus are also better, declares Montaigne, because their letters have substance over style whereas Cicero and Pliny are all style and no substance. Montaigne believes that style is nothing but fluff, that the thing that is most important about writing is that there is substance first:
What I do know is that when I hear anyone lingering over the language of these Essays I would rather he held his peace: it is not a case of words being extolled but of meaning being devalued; it is all the more irritating for being oblique. I may be wrong but there are not many writers who put more matter in your grasp than I do and who, with such concern for this matter, scatter at least the seeds of it so thickly over their paper.
Somebody should have told Montaigne that it doesn't serve a writer well to insult his readers and follow it up with self-congratulations. But maybe that's just what writers of substance do. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Uncertainty of Our Judgment"