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Michel de Montaigne

The births of all things are weak and tender,
therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.

While Michel de Montaigne is not generally remembered as a poet, the lines above are quite poetic, even in translation. He was also a wonderful penner of epigrams. Epigrams have their ancestry in epitaphs the ancient Greeks etched on their tombstones; those epitaphs could could be as touching and moving as the best lines of poetry. So it doesn't seem like going out on a limb to include Montaigne with the poets. [By the way, we want to thank Keitha Milton for suggesting the epigram above to us.]

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) is considered the father of the modern essay and modern skepticism. His Essais ("Attempts") influenced René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Friedrich Nietzsche and perhaps William Shakespeare. If so, it's interesting that Shakespeare seemed to disappear in his writing, while Montaigne often digressed into personal anecdotes and ruminations, declaring, "I am myself the matter of my book." Whitman would soon echo him, in Leaves of Grass. Like Socrates, Montaigne was skeptical about human knowledge, including his own, asking "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?"). Montaigne examined the world through the lens of his own reason and today seems the most modern of the writers of the French Renaissance. His greatest strength as a writer may have been his ability to interweave intellectual knowledge with personal story-telling.

The clatter of arms drowns out the voice of law.
Nothing is so firmly believed as that which least is known.
Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.
To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it.
Obsession is the wellspring of genius and madness.
Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.
A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.
If you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.
If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because it was he, because it was I.
Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.
No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers to my own.
Our religion is made to eradicate vices, instead it encourages them, covers them, and nurtures them.
Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.
I have gathered a garland of other men’s flowers, and nothing is mine but the cord that binds them.
No man is a hero to his own valet.
The only thing certain is nothing is certain.
The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar.
There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
The way of the world is to make laws, but follow custom.
The thing I fear most is fear.
Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.
Marriage, a market which has nothing free but the entrance.
Let us give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do.
It is not death, it is dying that alarms me.
I speak others' minds only to speak my own the more.
I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.
He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.
He who is not very strong in memory should not meddle with lying.
Fashion is the science of appearances, and it inspires one with the desire to seem rather than to be.
Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.
Experience teaches that a strong memory is generally joined to a weak judgment.
Confidence in the goodness of another is good proof of one's own goodness.
Age imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face.
Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.
There is no fancy so frivolous and so extravagant that it does not seem to me quite suitable to the production of the human mind.

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