Montaigne, the Godfather of blogging

Michel-de-montaigne
 

I am reading Sarah Bakewell's marvellous 'How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer'. She uses Montaigne's essays as the basis for a biography and also to extract a number of lessons, such as 'Don't worry about death', 'Be convivial' and (my favourite) 'Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted'.

Montaigne seems to me to have many of the characteristics in his writing which today we associate with good bloggers. Although, as Bakewell points out, every generation finds their own interpretation of Montaigne, so this is really more a reflection of my interests than perhaps some truth about him, so for instance William Deresiewicz uses Montaigne to justify his anti-social network rant.

I'm not the first person to link Montaigne to blogging, via Lorcan Dempsey I found this piece by Andrew Sullivan called 'Why I blog' in which he says:

"Montaigne was living his skepticism, daring to show how a writer evolves, changes his mind, learns new things, shifts perspectives, grows older—and that this, far from being something that needs to be hidden behind a veneer of unchanging authority, can become a virtue, a new way of looking at the pretensions of authorship and text and truth. Montaigne, for good measure, also peppered his essays with myriads of what bloggers would call external links"

For me Montaigne shows the way for good bloggers through the following practices:

  • Honesty – you really can't blog if you've got a hidden agenda. People have too much choice and so what you are after is some form of connection and this comes from people having good ideas, but also from connecting to them as an individual.
  • Openness – as Sullivan points out in the quote above, one of the endearing qualities of Montaigne was his willingness to think out in the open. This is what bloggers do well, they put forward ideas, take criticism and comments, and develop those ideas partly in conjunction with their readers. They don't work quietly for three years and then release a finished masterpiece (this is a good way of working for some writing, maybe novels, but not for blogs).
  • Relaxed style – Montaigne really developed that chatty, informal style which is a lot harder than he makes it look. This is definitely the style that works best in blogs, because, to reiterate the point, part of what makes a good blog is a connection to the author.
  • An element of the personal – Montaigne's essays are famously rambling and rarely connected to the title. This approach doesn't always work in blogs, which tend to be shorter posts focused on a particular point, but what does carry over is the way he brought in personal elements to back up and reinforce wider points, which a good blogger does without making it a boring shopping list.
  • Reflective and questioning – good bloggers (and when I say a good blogger, I probably mean 'bloggers I like reading') seem to me to adopt Montaigne's reflective approach, questioning themselves, and others. One of the delights of blogging is that it has no commercial masters to please and so bloggers tend to dig around a story, analyse it in detail and question every aspect of it (unlike many journalists who accept the PR from a company to fill space).
  • Playfulness – I like bloggers who toy with ideas, mess around with media and inject some playfulness into their posts. Blogs liberate us from the considerations of many formal publications and I like people who embrace this.
  • Owning a vineyard – oh, okay that one doesn't apply.

3 Comments

  1. Phil Greaney says:

    Good post – we can learn a lot from Montaigne (his essay on not fearing death is inspirational; as is Hazlitt’s)
    So, if Montaigne is the Godfather of blogging, can we call Rochefoucauld the Grandfather of micro-blogging? Here’s a favourite, in theme:
    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/109082.Fran_ois_de_La_Rochefoucauld

  2. Martin says:

    I don’t know Hazlitt’s essay, will give it a read. I suppose Wilde would challenge Rochefoucauld for that title. Neither of them really give enough info on what they had for breakfast to qualify though;)

  3. Nice post, thanks for sharing. The suggestion that Montaigne was the first blogger is thought-provoking. He was certainly a major beneficiary of the printing press, both for assembling his library, and publishing his works: works that were, for the first time, produced in the expectation that they would be read silently and privately, rather than while chained to desk in some monastery library. Perhaps he was the first writer per se.
    One other thing: unless you read Montaigne in the original French, the “nice chatty style” you refer to is the work of a translator, who perhaps should get a little credit for that…

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