Though I don’t know

A Reading Note

Much of Montaigne’s essays deal with the form of the essay itself, and, in particular, with the way his essays—his attempts—are always tentative:

If my mind could gain firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

Bakewell, How to Live, page 36

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off—though I don’t know.

Bakewell, How to Live, page 43

Bakewell comments, “That final coda—‘though I don’t know’—is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote.” We might now identify that kind of writing as a hedge and feel inclined to strike it. But perhaps we should resist that urge: maybe instead of presenting confidence even when we don’t feel it we should welcome honesty. Let’s reward those who can admit their ignorance rather than those who can convincingly bluff.

Related books

How to Live

Sarah Bakewell

Bakewell brilliantly extracts principles for living from Montaigne’s life and letters; this is a biography which is transparent about its purpose.