Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:
Montaigne’s “Essais,” in any of their stages—they went through three editions in his lifetime—are one of those classic books that benefit from being read irresponsibly. Sit down to read them thoroughly step by step, even in the great contemporary English translation, of 1603, by John Florio (whose renderings I’ve mostly been using), and you will be disappointed, since the “argument” of the essays is often less than fully baked, and the constant flow of classical tags and quotations is tedious. Open more or less at random, though, and dip in, and you will be stunned by the sudden epiphanies, the utterly modern sentences: “Super-celestial opinions and under-terrestrial manners are things that amongst us I have ever seen to be of singular accord,” he writes, giving as an example a philosopher who always pisses as he runs. Montaigne accepts, as no other writer had, that our inner lives are double, that all emotions are mixed, and that all conclusions are inconclusive. “In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure,” he writes in the essay called, tellingly, “We Taste Nothing Purely.” “There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . Painters are of opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh. Verily, before one or other be determined to express which, behold the pictures success; you are in doubt toward which one inclineth. And the extremity of laughing intermingles itself with tears.” Having two emotions at once is better than having one emotion repeatedly.
By giving life to this truth, Montaigne animates for the first time an inner human whose contradictions are identical with his conscience. “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself,” he writes, in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” In the writer’s soul, he maintained,
all contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.
Lists are the giveaways of writing.