“I speak my mind freely on all things, even on those which perhaps exceed my capacity and which I by no means hold to be within my jurisdiction. And so the opinion I give of them is to declare the measure of my sight, not the value of things.”—Michel de Montaigne, “Of Books,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (1958)
What a startling admission that Michel de Montaigne, born in this date in 1533, is making here. Look, people, he is saying, sometimes I talk through my hat. Keep that in mind the next time you hear me spout off.
Obviously, this loose kind of talk would never do on certain cable news shows, whether of the right or the left, where, if you are mistaken—even if you have not the slightest shred of authority to make a claim—the trick is to yell louder. In other words, it’s worse to be quietly right than loudly wrong. (If you say loud and obnoxious things often enough, people will lose count and eventually stop caring, anyway.)
No, Montaigne would never rake in the bucks in today’s media environment. But the principle of the uncertain self that he’s confessing here created an earthquake in philosophy and, even centuries later, psychology and science (the "measure of my sight" sounds like an early portent of relativity). That same principle underlay his creation of the essay genre. Maybe by writing it all down—puzzling it out—he could begin to solidify that uncertainty.
If you want a guide to the life of Montaigne—and a good-humored explanation of why he matters—you can start with Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. (French writers, I notice, inspire special kinds of such devotion. Another book along the same lines is How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton.)
Better yet, take one of his books down from the shelves and start reading at random. In his chapter on the great late-Renaissance Frenchman in Representative Men, Ralph Waldo Emerson labeled him “The Skeptic.” I prefer “The Charmer.” Anyone who freely owns up to the fact that he’s not always right—and tells you why—is liable to be much easier company than someone speaking at the highest decibel level while getting into your face.