From the Latin, “to test”, the personal essay is of the invention of Montaigne. For how will one know if an idea can hold its own weight, let alone the weight of others, if it is not tested? The free-floating, extemporaneous progression provides both the reader and the writer with examples and extrapolations of the content matter at hand. It reveals to the writer the marketable ore within his mind. Upon reviewing, he discovers his own thinking as if experienced by a third party. To write stream-of-consciousness is to pour the mind onto the page for all to see, uncovered and naked. Intellectually exposed, the relevance of the words are made more real, more relatable. From theory to practice, the philosophical inheritance of the West provides a framework for the basis of a considered life: thinking and acting.
Montaigne’s warning at the start of his Essays makes the reader acutely aware of the subject matter of the writings: Montaigne himself. To continue in reading is to know the full breadth of his self-exploration and arguable egotism.
To distill all of human experience to its base components is to find two building blocks: situation and response. The Essays of Montaigne, of varied subjects, convey to the reader situations of his lifetime and his true response. Rather than ascending the luminescent staircase of theoretical extension, Montaigne provides an account of practical action; what actually occurred.
In personal application, the essay is a performance of extemporaneous thought. It is a trail of breadcrumbs connected only through maintained focus on a singular, though often meandering, theme of thought. This poses a question: to edit or not to edit? If in conversation, the edit is only available within seconds of speech, while in writing the edit is always available. Which works will be left as they are, and which will undergo constant revision? In a world with ease of access to publishing, who is the audience and which is the medium through which to share the thought? Is the thought not meaningful enough in and of itself for value to be found in the object of writing only?