The Greatest Amateur

“The prototype of the amateur, perhaps the greatest amateur the world has known, is Michel de Montaigne. During a sun-salty, wave-sandy, glorious summer, once in Maine, I read Les Essais in the excellent and convenient Villey-Saulnier edition, all one hundred and seven chapters. This huge collection of ‘essays’ — Montaigne introduced that term — has often been attacked for its lack of professionalism and even of seriousness. Indeed, it is neither philosophy, nor fiction, neither an autobiography nor a mere collection of anecdotes, not a guide to better living or wiser dying, but it is a little bit of all that and more. It resembles an ocean from which all manner of things can be drawn forth: a gleaming pearl, a dead fish. It is a book that can teach those most who do not need learn; but dolts will always complain that it lacks organization and cannot be fitted into any category of literature. Whatever went into that book had to pass through the prism of one character, one temperament; it is the self of Montaigne that remains the only element of order in that vast collection of memories, experiences, quotations. Many readers find, in fact, the copious quotations, mostly from the Latin, an impediment. Owing to a curious quirk of his education, Montaigne’s first language was Latin, not French. He had been, during the first six years of his life, in the hands of a German pedagogue, ignorant of French, who only talked Latin at, to, and with the growing child, something that presumably could happen only during the Renaissance.” (Erwin Chargaff, 1986, Serious Questions)