I did not have the opportunity in college to study philosophy or learn about philosophers and therefore had little interest in the subject. This recently changed after I discovered a small book titled “Montaigne” written by Stephan Zweig — it captured the essence of Michel de Montaigne's life and accomplishments.

Montaigne is 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.

 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: "Ambition is not a vice of little people," "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."  

Montaigne was meant to be a philosopher. He was born in France on Feb. 28, 1533, and his father assured that he was raised in the most caring and careful manner. As a child he was awakened by the sound of light and agreeable music. Around his bed, flute and string players waited for the signal to play a soft melody to draw the sleeping child from his dreams. He learned Latin, without suffering the rod or shedding a tear, before beginning French, thanks to the German teacher whom his father had placed near him, and who never addressed him except in the language of Virgil and Cicero. The study of Greek took precedence.

At 6 years of age young Montaigne went to the College of Guienne at Bordeaux, where he had as preceptors the most eminent scholars of the 16th century. At 13 he passed through all the classes, and as he was destined for the law, left school to study that science. He was then about 14, but these early years of his life are involved in obscurity.

The next information that we have is that in 1554 he received the appointment of councillor in the Parliament of Bordeaux; in 1559 he was at Bar-le-Duc with the court of Francis II, and in the year following he was present at Rouen to witness the declaration of the majority of Charles IX.

Montaigne did not begin writing until he was almost 50 years old. They were free-floating pieces with simple titles including “Of Friendship,” “Of Cannibals,” “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes,” “Of Names,” “Of Smells,” “Of Cruelty,” “Of Diversions,” “Of Experience” and others. Altogether there were 107 such essays. Some occupy a page or two, others run much longer, up to a thousand pages.

All of his literary and philosophical work is contained in his essays, which he began to write in 1572, and first published in 1580 in the form of two books. Over the next 12 years, leading up to his death in 1592, he made additions to the first two books and completed a third, bringing the work to a length of about 1,000 pages. As time has gone by, his admirers have increased exponentially, as has proof of his genius.

Anyone with an interest in philosophy would be well-advised to start with Montaigne.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, will touch on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.