What Bloggers Owe Montaigne
November 12, 2010 | by Sarah Bakewell
The weekend newspapers are full of them. Our computer screens are full of them. They go by different names—columns, opinion pieces, diaries, blogs—but personal essays are alive and well in the twenty-first century. They flourish just as they did in James Thurber’s and E. B. White’s twentieth-century New York, or in the nineteenth-century London of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. There seems no end to the appeal of the essayist’s basic idea: that you can write spontaneously and ramblingly about yourself and your interests, and that the world will love you for it.
No end—but there was a beginning. The essay tradition blossomed in English-speaking countries only after being invented by a sixteenth-century Frenchman, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. His contemporary, the English writer Francis Bacon, also used the title Essays, but his were well-organized intellectual inquiries. While Bacon was assembling his thoughts neatly, the self-avowedly lazy nobleman and winegrower Montaigne was letting his run riot on the other side of the Channel. In his Essais (“Attempts”), published in 1580 and later expanded into larger editions, he wrote as if he were chatting to his readers: just two friends, whiling away an afternoon in conversation.
Without hesitation or combing through the classics (maybe later), I nominate Montaigne, essays published in 1580, as likeliest candidate for 'first among urbloggers.' Montaigne's invention, the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, is the made-for-blogging genre, just as aphorisms are for tweeting.
Fast forwarding to the Enlightenment, salons and London Coffee House culture, writers there would have taken to blogging like second nature and put us all to shame.