I wrote about philosophy a year or so ago after I had discovered a small book  titled “Montaigne” written by Stephan Zweig that captured the essence of Michel de Montaigne's life and accomplishments.  (Philosophy, or philosophia, from Latin via Greek, means love of wisdom.)

Montaigne was one of history's great thinkers, and despite the fact that his essays were written in the 16th century, they continue to be quoted and widely read.  Each of them provides guiding principles to enrich our lives. The format for his essays became a new form of literary expression, a brief and incomplete treatment of a topic germane to human life. His popularity has increased in recent years and Montaigne is now regarded by many as one of the most important figures in the history of philosophy.  

I was surprised that I knew so little about him or others for that matter. An example is something he wrote about retirement which he viewed as an opportunity to pursue a more solitary life in which a person's worth is not measured in paychecks, awards or promotions.  

"We have lived quite enough for others: let us live this tail-end of life for ourselves,"  Montaigne writes in his late 16th-century essay "On Solitude." "Withdraw into yourself, but first prepare yourself to welcome yourself there." Sound advice.  

Other of his quotes include,  “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears;” "My life has been full of misfortunes most of which never happened;" and "He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak."   

Montaigne was once on the verge of dying after an accident and found himself gasping for air, and attempting to pound on his chest to breathe. Fortunately, he recovered.  He later reflected that despite the trauma, he began to grow languid while feeling like he was being carried aloft on a magic carpet.  From this he found that learning to die is not necessary.  

He noted, "If you don't know how to die, don't worry; nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.  She will do the job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it."   

To continue my interest in philosophy, I am reading “Witcraft,” a lengthy, comprehensive and formidable book written by Jonathan Reé in 2019.  (The book derives its title from a 16th-century clergyman named Ralph Lever who, in arguing for setting aside Latin as the language of the educated and replacing it with English, wrote a book about logic and dialect that he also called “Witcraft.”)  

It is in direct contrast with Zweig’s book in terms of its complexity and contains a summary of the invention of philosophy and its early history covering the lives of such figures as Rene Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Stuart Mill, Jean-Paul Sartre, and David Hume. The book mentions “To Philosophize Is to Know How to Die” the famous Montaigne essay I mentioned earlier but that no one appears to have died more philosophically than David Hume.  Hume was generally regarded as one of the most important philosophers to write in English. Mr. Reé quotes James Boswell’s famous description of Hume on his deathbed, looking lean and ghastly, but nonetheless placid and cheerful, without the least belief in, or desire for, immortality.

The contents in many cases demand careful reading and interpretation and parts are often above my understanding.   There is so much to comprehend and despite the depth, there are some humorous anecdotes.  In the beginning chapters,  Reé includes tales of early Roman philosophers, and a few actually  showed little dignity or wisdom.  Chrysippus, for example, died of a fit of laughter brought on by one of his own jokes and Heraclitus tried to rid himself of disease by plastering himself in cow-dung and lying in the sun, only to be eaten by dogs who mistook him for a sausage.

I agree with Joseph Epstein in one of his essays found in his book “Gallimaufry”  that “traditional histories of philosophy tend to crush interest in the subject.  The nomenclature is often daunting. Juggling all those “isms” (materialism, naturalism, idealism and the rest), distinguishing among the various “ists” (absolutists, positivists, pragmatists and the others) does not get one any closer to answering the questions that are likely to have brought one to philosophy in the first place.”  

Reé does his best to make the most abstract and abstruse philosophy intelligible to those of us that lack background or previous exposure. He tries to interweave the lives and the thoughts of philosophers he writes about in a continuos and somewhat lively story.

Final Thoughts

 Looking ahead I found that Witcraft ends with Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein (an Austrian who spent much the better part of his adult life in England), and the schools of analytical philosophy that swept Cambridge and Oxford in the mid-20th century.  Someone intrepid will find Witcraft well worth the time and effort needed for reading.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.