In November 1619 René Descartes retired into a 'stove' in order to reflect on the foundations of our knowledge of ourselves and the world. From his meditations he produced the bloodless certainty of the cogito: 'I think therefore I am.' The rest is intellectual history.
In 1571 Michel de Montaigne, suffering increasingly from melancholy, retired to the library tower on his estate in the Périgord, and began to write his Essays. He was 38. From the windows he could see over his estates and check if his men were shirking their work. Inscribed on the walls and beams of his tower room were about sixty maxims in Greek and Latin taken from the philosophers. He replaced and augmented them as his moods and his reading led him. In this room Montaigne produced three significantly different editions of his endlessly growing essays. By his death in 1592 he had scrawled in the margins of his copy of the most recent edition a significant set of further revisions, which were printed in a modified form in 1595. He insisted that he only augmented his Essays and did not correct them (this is not quite true), on the grounds that each state of his book represented a state of himself: 'My first edition dates from 1580: I have long since grown old but not one inch wiser. "I" now and "I" then are certainly twain, but which "I" was better?'
LRB 6 November 2003 | PDF Download