Complete Essays Montaigne Sparknotes 1984

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592)

Michel de Montaigne is widely appreciated as one of the most important figures in the late French Renaissance, both for his literary innovations as well as for his contributions to philosophy.  As a writer, he is credited with having developed a new form of literary expression, the essay, a brief and admittedly incomplete treatment of a topic germane to human life that blends philosophical insights with historical anecdotes and autobiographical details, all unapologetically presented from the author’s own personal perspective.  As a philosopher, he is best known for his skepticism, which profoundly influenced major figures in the history of philosophy such as Descartes and Pascal.

All of his literary and philosophical work is contained in his Essays, which he began to write in 1572 and first published in 1580 in the form of two books.  Over the next twelve years leading up to his death, he made additions to the first two books and completed a third, bringing the work to a length of about one thousand pages.  While Montaigne made numerous additions to the books over the years, he never deleted or removed any material previously published, in an effort to represent accurately the changes that he underwent both as a thinker and as a person over the twenty years during which he wrote.  These additions add to the unsystematic character of the books, which Montaigne himself claimed included many contradictions.  It is no doubt due to the unsystematic nature of the Essays that Montaigne received relatively little attention from Anglo-American philosophers in the twentieth century.  Nonetheless, in recent years he has been held out by many as an important figure in the history of philosophy not only for his skepticism, but also for his treatment of topics such as the self, moral relativism, politics, and the nature of philosophy.

Table of Contents

  1. Life
  2. The Philosophical Project of the Essays
  3. Skepticism
  4. Relativism
  5. Moral and Political Philosophy
  6. Influence
  7. References and Further Reading
    1. Selected editions of Montaigne’s Essays in French and English
    2. Secondary Sources

1. Life

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born at the Château Montaigne, located thirty miles east of Bordeaux, in 1533.  His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a wealthy merchant of wine and fish whose grandfather had purchased in 1477 what was then known as the Montaigne estate.  Montaigne’s mother, Antoinette de Loupes de Villeneuve, came from a  wealthy marrano family that had settled in Toulouse at the end of the 15th century.  Montaigne describes Eyquem as “the best father that ever was,” and mentions him often in the Essays.  Montaigne’s mother, on the other hand, is almost totally absent from her son’s book.  Amidst the turbulent religious atmosphere of sixteenth century France, Eyquem and his wife raised their children Catholic.  Michel, the eldest of eight children, remained a member of the Catholic Church his entire life, though three of his siblings became Protestants.

Eyquem, who had become enamored of novel pedagogical methods that he had discovered as a soldier in Italy, directed Montaigne’s unusual education.  As an infant, Montaigne was sent to live with a poor family in a nearby village so as to cultivate in him a natural devotion to “that class of men that needs our help.”  When Montaigne returned as a young child to live at the château, Eyquem arranged that Michel awake every morning to music.  He then hired a German tutor to teach Montaigne to speak Latin as his native tongue.  Members of the household were forbidden to speak to the young Michel in any language other than Latin, and, as a result, Montaigne reports that he was six years old before he learned any French.  It was at this time that Eyquem sent Montaigne to attend the prestigious Collège de Guyenne, where he studied under the Scottish humanist George Buchanan.

The details of Montaigne’s life between his departure from the Collège at age thirteen and his appointment as a Bordeaux magistrate in his early twenties are largely unknown.  He is thought to have studied the law, perhaps at Toulouse.  In any case, by 1557 he had begun his career as a magistrate, first in the Cour des Aides de Périgueux, a court with sovereign jurisdiction in the region over cases concerning taxation, and later in the Bordeaux Parlement, one of the eight parlements that together composed the highest court of justice in France.  There he encountered Etienne La Boétie, with whom he formed an intense friendship that lasted until La Boétie’s sudden death in 1563.  Years later, the bond he shared with La Boétie would inspire one of Montaigne’s best-known essays, “Of Friendship.”  Two years after La Boétie’s death Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne.  His relationship with his wife seems to have been amiable but cool; it lacked the spiritual and intellectual connection that Montaigne had shared with La Boétie.  Their marriage produced six children, but only one survived infancy: a daughter named Léonor.

In 1570 Montaigne sold his office in the Parlement, and retreated to his château, where in 1571 he announced his retirement from public life.  Less than a year later he began to write his Essays.  Retirement did not mean isolation, however.  Montaigne made many trips to court in Paris between 1570 and 1580, and it seems that at some point between 1572 and 1576 he attempted to mediate between the ultra-conservative Catholic Henri de Guise and the Protestant Henri, king of Navarre.  Nonetheless, he devoted a great deal of time to writing, and in 1580 published the first two books of his Essays.

Soon thereafter Montaigne departed on a trip to Rome via Germany and Switzerland.  Montaigne recorded the trip in the Journal de Voyage, which was published for the first time in the 18th century, not having been intended for publication by Montaigne himself.   Among the reasons for his trip were his hope of finding relief from his kidney stones in the mineral baths of Germany, his desire to see Rome, and his general love of travel.  The trip lasted about fifteen months, and would have lasted longer had he not been called back to Bordeaux in 1581 to serve as mayor.

Montaigne’s first two-year term as mayor was mostly uneventful.  His second term was much busier, as the death of the Duke of Anjou made the Protestant Henri de Navarre heir to the French throne.  This resulted in a three-way conflict between the reigning Catholic King Henri III, Henri de Guise, leader of the conservative Catholic League, and Henri de Navarre.  Bordeaux, which remained Catholic during the religious wars that engulfed France for most of the 16th century, found itself in close proximity to Navarre’s Protestant forces in southwest France.  As a mayor loyal to the king, Montaigne worked successfully to keep the peace among the interested parties, protecting the city from seizure by the League while also maintaining diplomatic relations with Navarre.   As a moderate Catholic, he was well-regarded by both the king and Navarre, and after his tenure as mayor Montaigne continued to serve as a diplomatic link between the two parties, at one point in 1588 traveling to Paris on a secret diplomatic mission for Navarre.

In 1588, Montaigne published the fifth edition of the Essays, including a third book with material he had produced in the previous two years.  It is a copy of this fifth edition (known as the “Bordeaux Copy”), including the marginalia penned by Montaigne himself in the years leading up to his death, which in the eyes of most scholars constitutes the definitive text of the Essays today.  The majority of the last three years of his life were spent at the château.  When Navarre succeeded Henri III as king of France in 1589, he invited Montaigne to join him at court, but Montaigne was too ill to travel.  His body was failing him, and he died less than two years later, on September 13, 1592.

2. The Philosophical Project of the Essays

All of Montaigne’s philosophical reflections are found in his Essays.  To contemporary readers, the term “essay” denotes a particular literary genre.  But when Montaigne gives the title Essays to his books (from now on called "the book"), he does not intend to designate the literary genre of the work so much as to refer to the spirit in which it is written and the nature of the project out of which it emerges.  The term is taken from the French verb “essayer,” which  Montaigne employs in a variety of senses throughout his Essays, where it carries such meanings as “to attempt,” “to test,” “to exercise,” and “to experiment.”  Each of these expressions captures an aspect of Montaigne’s project in the Essays.  To translate the title of his book as “Attempts” would capture the modesty of Montaigne’s essays, while to translate it as “Tests” would reflect the fact that he takes himself to be testing his judgment.  “Exercises” would communicate the sense in which essaying is a way of working on oneself, while “Experiments” would convey the exploratory spirit of the book.

The Essays is a decidedly unsystematic work.  The text itself is composed of 107 chapters or essays on a wide range of topics, including - to name a few -  knowledge, education, love, the body, death, politics, the nature and power of custom, and the colonization of the New World.  There rarely seems to be any explicit connection between one chapter and the next.  Moreover, chapter titles are often only tangentially related to their contents.  The lack of logical progression from one chapter to the next creates a sense of disorder that is compounded by Montaigne’s style, which can be described as deliberately nonchalant.  Montaigne intersperses reportage of historical anecdotes and autobiographical remarks throughout the book, and most essays include a number of digressions.  In some cases the digressions seem to be due to Montaigne’s stream-of-consciousness style,  while in others they are the result of his habit of inserting additions (sometimes just a sentence or two, other times a number of paragraphs) into essays years after they were first written.  Finally, the nature of Montaigne’s project itself contributes to the disorderly style of his book.  Part of that project, he tells us at the outset, is to paint a portrait of himself in words, and for Montaigne, this task is complicated by the conception he has of the nature of the self.  In “Of repentance,” for example, he announces that while others try to form man, he simply tells of a particular man, one who is constantly changing:

I cannot keep my subject still.  It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.  I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it.  I do not portray being: I portray passing….  I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.  This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects.  So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. (F 610)

Given Montaigne’s expression of this conception of the self as a fragmented and ever-changing entity, it should come as no surprise that we find contradictions throughout the Essays.  Indeed, one of the apparent contradictions in Montaigne’s thought concerns his view of the self.  While on the one hand he expresses the conception of the self outlined in the passage above, in the very same essay - as if to illustrate the principle articulated above - he asserts that his self is unified by his judgment, which has remained essentially the same his entire life.  Such apparent contradictions, in addition to Montaigne’s style and the structure that he gives his book, complicate the task of reading and have understandably led to diverse interpretations of its contents.

The stated purposes of Montaigne’s essays are almost as diverse as their contents.  In addition to the pursuit of self-knowledge, Montaigne also identifies the cultivation of his judgment and the presentation of a new ethical and philosophical figure to the reading public as fundamental goals of his project. There are two components to Montaigne’s pursuit of self-knowledge.  The first is the attempt to understand the human condition in general.  This involves reflecting on the beliefs, values, and behavior of human beings as represented both in literary, historical, and philosophical texts, and in his own experience.  The second is to understand himself as a particular human being.  This involves recording and reflecting upon his own idiosyncratic tastes, habits, and dispositions.  Thus in the Essays one finds a great deal of historical and autobiographical content, some of which seems arbitrary and insignificant.  Yet for Montaigne, there is no detail that is insignificant when it comes to understanding ourselves: “each particle, each occupation, of a man betrays and reveals him just as well as any other” (F 220).

A second aim of essaying himself is to cultivate his judgment.  For Montaigne, “judgment” refers to all of our intellectual faculties as well as to the particular acts of the intellect; in effect, it denotes the interpretive lens through which we view the world.  In essaying himself, he aims to cultivate his judgment in a number of discrete but related ways.  First, he aims to transform customary or habitual judgments into reflective judgments by calling them into question.  In a well-known passage from “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law,” Montaigne discusses how habit “puts to sleep the eye of our judgment.”  To “wake up” his judgment from its habitual slumber, Montaigne must call into question those beliefs, values, and judgments that ordinarily go unquestioned.  By doing so, he is able to determine whether or not they are justifiable, and so whether to take full ownership of them or to abandon them.  In this sense we can talk of Montaigne essaying, or testing, his judgment.  We find clear examples of this in essays such as “Of drunkenness” and “Of the resemblance of children to their fathers,” where he tests his pre-reflective attitudes toward drunkenness and doctors, respectively.  Another aspect of the cultivation of judgment has to do with exercising it through simple practice.  Thus Montaigne writes that in composing his essays, he is presenting his judgment with opportunities to exercise itself:

Judgment is a tool to use on all subjects, and comes in everywhere.  Therefore in the tests (essais) that I make of it here, I use every sort of occasion.  If it is a subject I do not understand at all, even on that I essay my judgment, sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.  And this acknowledgment that I cannot cross over is a token of its action, indeed one of those it is most proud of.  Sometimes in a vain and nonexistent subject I try (j’essaye) to see if [my judgment] will find the wherewithal to give it body, prop it up, and support it.  Sometimes I lead it to a noble and well-worn subject in which it has nothing original to discover, the road being so beaten that it can only walk in others’ footsteps.  There it plays its part by choosing the way that seems best to it, and of a thousand paths it says that this one or that was the most wisely chosen.  (F 219)

The third fundamental goal of essaying himself is to present his unorthodox way of living and thinking to the reading public of 16th century France.  He often remarks his intense desire to make himself and his unusual ways known to others.  Living in a time of war and intolerance, in which men were concerned above all with honor and their appearance in the public sphere, Montaigne presents his own way of life as an attractive alternative.  While he supports the monarchy and the Catholic Church, his support is measured and he is decidedly tolerant of other views and other ways of life (see, for example, “Of Cato the Younger”).  He vehemently opposes the violent and cruel behavior of many of the supporters of the Catholic cause, and recognizes the humanity of those who oppose them.  Espousing an openness antithetical to contemporary conventions, he openly declares his faults and failures, both moral and intellectual.  Finally, he emphasizes the values of private life and the fact that the true test of one’s character is how one behaves in private, not how one behaves in public.  In other words, Montaigne challenges the martial virtues of the day that he believes have led to cruelty, hypocrisy, and war, by presenting himself as an example of the virtues of gentleness, openness, and compromise.

Just as Montaigne presents his ways of life in the ethical and political spheres as alternatives to the ways common among his contemporaries, so he presents his ways of behaving in the intellectual sphere as alternatives to the common ways of thinking found among the learned.  He consistently challenges the Aristotelian authority that governed the universities of his day, emphasizing the particular over the universal, the concrete over the abstract, and experience over reason.  Rejecting the form as well as the content of academic philosophy, he abandons the rigid style of the medieval quaestio for the meandering and disordered style of the essay.  Moreover, he devalues the faculty of memory, so cultivated by renaissance orators and educators, and places good judgment in its stead as the most important intellectual faculty.  Finally, Montaigne emphasizes the personal nature of philosophy, and the value of self-knowledge over metaphysics.  His concern is always with the present, the concrete, and the human.

Rather than discursively arguing for the value of his ways of being, both moral and intellectual, Montaigne simply presents them to his readers:

These are my humors and my opinions; I offer them as what I believe, not what is to be believed.  I aim here only at revealing myself, who will perhaps be different tomorrow, if I learn something new which changes me.  I have no authority to be believed, nor do I want it, feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others. (F 108)

Yet while he disavows authority, he admits that he presents this portrait of himself in the hopes that others may learn from it (“Of practice”).  Thus the end of essaying himself is simultaneously private and public.  Montaigne desires to know himself, and to cultivate his judgment, and yet at the same time he seeks to offer his ways of life as salutary alternatives to those around him.

3. Skepticism

Montaigne is perhaps best known among philosophers for his skepticism.  Just what exactly his skepticism amounts to has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate.  Given the fact that he undoubtedly draws inspiration for his skepticism from his studies of the ancients, the tendency has been for scholars to locate him in one of the ancient skeptical traditions.  While some interpret him as a modern Pyrrhonist, others have emphasized what they take to be the influence of the Academics.  Still other scholars have argued that while there are clearly skeptical moments in his thought, characterizing Montaigne as a skeptic fails to capture the nature of Montaigne’s philosophical orientation.  Each of these readings captures an aspect of Montaigne’s thought, and consideration of the virtues of each of them in turn provides us with a fairly comprehensive view of Montaigne’s relation to the various philosophical positions that we tend to identify as “skeptical.”

The Pyrrhonian skeptics, according to Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism, use skeptical arguments to bring about what they call equipollence between opposing beliefs.  Once they recognize two mutually exclusive and equipollent arguments for and against a certain belief, they have no choice but to suspend judgment.  This suspension of judgment, they say, is followed by tranquility, or peace of mind, which is the goal of their philosophical inquiry.

In “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne expresses great admiration for the Pyrrhonists and their ability to maintain the freedom of their judgment by avoiding commitment to any particular theoretical position.  We find him employing the skeptical tropes introduced by Sextus in order to arrive at equipollence and then the suspension of judgment concerning a number of theoretical issues, from the nature of the divine to the veracity of perception.  In other essays, such as the very first essay of his book, ”By diverse means we arrive at the same end,” Montaigne employs skeptical arguments to bring about the suspension of judgment concerning practical matters, such as whether the best way to obtain mercy is by submission or defiance.  Introducing historical examples that speak for each of the two positions, he concludes that “truly man is a marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object.  It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment on him” (F 5).   We cannot arrive at any certain conclusion regarding practical matters any more than we can regarding theoretical matters.

If there are equipollent arguments for and against any practical course of action, however, we might wonder how Montaigne is to avoid the practical paralysis that would seem to follow from the suspension of judgment.  Here Sextus tells us that Pyrrhonists do not suffer from practical paralysis because they allow themselves to be guided by the way things seem to them, all the while withholding assent regarding the veracity of these appearances.  Thus Pyrrhonists are guided by passive acceptance of what Sextus calls the “fourfold observances”: guidance by nature, necessitation by feelings, the handing down of laws and customs, and the teaching of kinds of expertise.  The Pyrrhonist, then, having no reason to oppose what seems evident to her, will seek food when hungry, avoid pain, abide by local customs, and consult experts when necessary – all without holding any theoretical opinions or beliefs.

In certain cases, Montaigne seems to abide by the fourfold observances himself.  At one point in ”Apology for Raymond Sebond,” for instance, he seems to suggest that his allegiance to the Catholic Church is due to the fact that he was raised Catholic and Catholicism is the traditional religion of his country.  In other words, it appears that his behavior is the result of adherence to the fourfold observances of Sextus.  This has led some scholars, most notably Richard Popkin, to interpret him as a skeptical fideist who is arguing that because we have no reasons to abandon our customary beliefs and practices, we should remain loyal to them.  Indeed, Catholics would employ this argument in the Counter-Reformation movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  (Nonetheless, the Essays would also come to be placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in the late seventeenth century, where it would remain for nearly two hundred years.)

Yet, for all the affinities between Montaigne and the Pyrrhonists, he does not always suspend judgment, and he does not take tranquility to be the goal of his philosophical inquiry.  Thus Montaigne at times appears to have more in common with the Academic Skeptics than with the Pyrrhonists.  For the Academics, at certain points in the history of their school, seem to have allowed for admitting that some judgments are more probable or justified than others, thereby permitting themselves to make judgments, albeit with a clear sense of their fallibility.  Another hallmark of Academic Skepticism was the strategy of dialectically assuming the premises of their interlocutors in order to show that they lead to conclusions at odds with the interlocutors’ beliefs.  Montaigne seems to employ this argumentative strategy in the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” There Montaigne dialectically accepts the premises of Sebond’s critics in order to reveal the presumption and confusion involved in their objections to Sebond’s project.  For example, Montaigne shows that according to the understanding of knowledge held by Sebond’s secular critics, there can be no knowledge.  This is not the dogmatic conclusion that it has appeared to be to some scholars, since Montaigne’s conclusion is founded upon a premise that he himself clearly rejects.  If we understand knowledge as Sebond’s critics do, then there can be no knowledge.  But there is no reason why we must accept their notion of knowledge in the first place.  In this way, just as the Academic Skeptics argued that their Stoic opponents ought to suspend judgment, given the Stoic principles to which they subscribe, so Montaigne shows that Sebond’s secular critics must suspend judgment, given the epistemological principles that they claim to espouse.

While many scholars, then, justifiably speak of Montaigne as a modern skeptic in one sense or another, there are others who emphasize aspects of his thought that separate him from the skeptical tradition.  Such scholars point out that many interpretations of Montaigne as a fundamentally skeptical philosopher tend to focus on “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Montaigne’s most skeptical essay.  When we take a broader view of the Essays as a whole, we find that Montaigne’s employment of skeptical tropes is fairly limited and that for Montaigne, strengthening his judgment – one of his avowed goals in the Essays – does not amount to learning how to eliminate his beliefs.  While working on his judgment often involves setting opinions against each other, it also often culminates in a judgment regarding the truth of these opinions.  Thus Ann Hartle, for instance, has argued that Montaigne’s thought is best understood as dialectical.  In a similar vein, Hugo Friedrich has pointed out that Montaigne’s skepticism is not fundamentally destructive.  According to Friedrich, in cataloguing the diversity of human opinions and practices Montaigne does not wish to eliminate our beliefs but rather to display the fullness of reality.

Interpreting Montaigne as a skeptic, then, requires a good deal of qualification.  While he does suspend judgment concerning certain issues, and he does pit opinions and customs against one another in order to undermine customary ways of thinking and behaving, his skepticism is certainly not systematic.  He does not attempt to suspend judgment universally, and he does not hesitate to maintain metaphysical beliefs that he knows he cannot justify.  Thus the spirit of his skepticism is not characterized by principles such as “I suspend judgment,” or “Nothing can be known,” but rather, by his motto, the question “What do I know?”  Moreover, as Montaigne demonstrates, constantly essaying oneself does lead one to become more diffident of his or her judgment.  Montaigne’s remarks are almost always prefaced by acknowledgments of their fallibility: “I like these words, which soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions: ‘perhaps,’ ‘to some extent,’ ‘some,’ ‘they say,’ ‘I think,’ and the like” (F 788).  But it does not necessarily lead one to the epistemological anxiety or despair characteristic of modern forms of skepticism.  Rather than despairing at his ignorance and seeking to escape it at all costs, he wonders at it and takes it to be an essential part of the self-portrait that is his Essays.  Moreover, he considers the clear-sighted recognition of his ignorance an accomplishment insofar as it represents a victory over the presumption that he takes to be endemic to the human condition.

4. Relativism

One of the primary targets of Montaigne’s skeptical attack against presumption is ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s culture is superior to others and therefore is the standard against which all other cultures, and their moral beliefs and practices, should be measured.  This belief in the moral and cultural superiority of one’s own people, Montaigne finds, is widespread.  It seems to be the default belief of all human beings.  The first step toward undermining this prejudice is to display the sheer multiplicity of human beliefs and practices.  Thus, in essays such as “Of some ancient customs,” “Of Custom, and not easily changing an accepted law,” and “Apology for Raymond Sebond” Montaigne catalogues the variety of behaviors to be found in the world in order to draw attention to the contingency of his own cultural norms.  By reporting many customs that are direct inversions of contemporary European customs, he creates something like an inverted world for his readers, stunning their judgment by forcing them to question which way is up: here men urinate standing up and women do so sitting down; elsewhere it is the opposite.  Here incest is frowned upon; in other cultures it is the norm.  Here we bury our dead; there they eat them.  Here we believe in the immortality of the soul; in other societies such a belief is nonsense.

Montaigne is not terribly optimistic about reforming the prejudices of his contemporaries, for simply reminding them of the apparent contingency of their own practices in most cases will not be enough.  The power of custom over our habits and beliefs, he argues, is stronger than we tend to recognize.  Indeed, Montaigne devotes almost as much time in the Essays to discussing the power of custom to shape the way we see the world as he does to revealing the various customs that he has come across in his reading and his travels.  Custom, whether personal or social, puts to sleep the eye of our judgment, thereby tightening its grip over us, since its effects can only be diminished through deliberate and self-conscious questioning.  It begins to seem as if it is impossible to escape custom’s power over our judgment: “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in” (F 152).

Montaigne’s concern with custom and cultural diversity, combined with his rejection of ethnocentrism, has led many scholars to argue that Montaigne is a moral relativist, that is, that he holds that that there is no objective moral truth and that therefore moral values are simply expressions of conventions that enjoy widespread acceptance at a given time and place.  Yet Montaigne never explicitly expresses his commitment to moral relativism, and there are aspects of the Essays that seem to contradict such an interpretation, as other scholars have noted.

These other scholars are inclined to interpret Montaigne as committed to moral objectivism, or the theory that there is in fact objective moral truth, and they point to a number of aspects of the Essays that would support such an interpretation.  First, Montaigne does not hesitate to criticize the practices of other cultures.  For instance, in “Of cannibals,” after praising the virtues of the cannibals, he criticizes them for certain behaviors that he identifies as morally vicious.  For a relativist, such criticism would be unintelligible: if there is no objective moral truth, it makes little sense to criticize others for having failed to abide by it.  Rather, since there is no external standard by which to judge other cultures, the only logical course of action is to pass over them in silence. Then there are moments when Montaigne seems to refer to categorical duties, or moral obligations that are not contingent upon either our own preferences or cultural norms (see, for example, the conclusion of “Of cruelty”).  Finally, Montaigne sometimes seems to allude to the existence of objective moral truth, for instance in “Of some verses of Virgil” and “Of the useful and the honorable,” where he distinguishes between relative and absolute values.

Thus Montaigne’s position regarding moral relativism remains the subject of scholarly dispute.  What is not a matter of dispute, however, is that Montaigne was keenly interested in undermining his readers’ thoughtless attitudes towards members of cultures different from their own, and that his account of the force of custom along with his critique of ethnocentrism had an impact on important later thinkers (see below).

5. Moral and Political Philosophy

Morally and politically, Montaigne has often been interpreted as a forerunner of modern liberalism.  This is due to his presentation of himself as a lover a freedom who is tolerant of difference and who wishes to maintain a rather robust distinction between the private and public spheres.  The question of the extent to which he is trying to transform the political values of his contemporaries, as well as the question of the extent to which Montaigne takes his position to be founded upon metaphysical principles, are both subjects of debate.  Some read him as writing the Essays with primarily political intentions, and among those who subscribe to such a reading, there is disagreement as to the nature of his argument.  On the one hand, some scholars argue that Montaigne’s political prescriptions are grounded on a theory of human nature combined with skepticism concerning the possibility of obtaining knowledge of transcendent truth.  On the other hand, some interpret Montaigne in a more postmodern vein, arguing that he is not so much making an argument on the basis of truth claims as he is simply changing the subject, diverting the attention of his readers away from the realm of the transcendent and its categorical obligations to the temporal realm and its private pleasures.  Still others hold that politics does not occupy the central place in the Essays that some might think, and that the political content of the Essays is neither dogmatic nor rhetorical, but rather is part and parcel of his fundamental project of seeking self-knowledge for himself and inspiring that same desire in others.  On this interpretation, Montaigne’s political project is much more modest.  He is simply offering a new moral and political figure to be considered, inviting readers to reflect for themselves on their own beliefs and practices in an effort to act as a Socratic gadfly to the slumbering French body politic.  While it must be left to the reader to decide the extent to which a full-fledged political doctrine can be discovered in the Essays, as well as whether Montaigne is attempting to exert direct influence over his readers, it is nonetheless possible to identify a number of attitudes, values, and commitments that are central both to Montaigne’s moral and political thought and to modern liberalism.

First and foremost is Montaigne’s commitment to tolerance.  Always amazed at the diversity of the forms of life that exist in the world, Montaigne consistently remarks his tolerant attitude toward those whose ways of life or fundamental beliefs and values differ from his own; he is not threatened by such disagreements, and he does not view those who are different as in need of correction:

I do not share that common error of judging another by myself.  I easily believe that another man may have qualities different from mine. Because I feel myself tied down to one form, I do not oblige everybody else to espouse it, as all others do. I believe in and conceive a thousand contrary ways of life (façons de vie); and in contrast with the common run of men, I more easily admit difference than resemblance between us. I am as ready as you please to acquit another man from sharing my conditions and principles. I consider him simply in himself, without relation to others; I mold him to his own model. (F 169)

While radical skepticism does not in and of itself entail a tolerant attitude towards others, it seems that Montaigne’s more modest skepticism, if combined with a commitment to an objective moral order the nature of which he cannot demonstrate, might explain his unwillingness to condemn those who are different.

Montaigne’s commitment to toleration of difference produces a fairly robust distinction between the private and public spheres in his thought.  When discussing his tenure as mayor in “Of husbanding your will,” for example, he insists that there is a clear distinction to be made between Montaigne the mayor and Montaigne himself.  He performs his office dutifully, but he does not identify himself with his public persona or his role as citizen, and he believes that there are limits to what may be expected from him by the state.  Similarly, he makes a sharp distinction between true friendship and the sort of acquaintances produced by working relationships.  While he believes he owes everything to his friends and he expects the same in return, from those with whom he is bound by some professional relationship, he expects nothing but the competent performance of their offices.  Their religion or their sexual habits, for example, are no concern of his (see “Of friendship”).

In part, Montaigne’s tolerance and his commitment to the separation of the private and public spheres are the products of his attitude towards happiness.  Aristotelianism and Christianity, the two dominant intellectual forces of Montaigne’s time, emphasize the objective character of human happiness, the core content of which is fundamentally the same for all members of the human species.  These conceptions of happiness each rest on the notion of a universal human nature.  Montaigne, so impressed by the diversity that he finds among human beings, speaks of happiness in terms of a subjective state of mind, a type of satisfaction which differs from particular human being to particular human being (see “That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them,” “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” and “Of experience”).  Convinced of the possibility that the content of happiness differs so significantly from one person to the next, Montaigne wishes to preserve a private sphere in which individuals can attempt to realize that happiness without having to contend with the interference of society.

Another distinctively modern feature of Montaigne’s moral thought is the fact that when he treats moral issues, he almost always does so without appealing to theology.  This is not to say that he does not believe that God underwrites the principles of morality (an issue which cannot be decided on the basis of the text), but simply that Montaigne’s moral discourse is not underwritten by theology, but rather by empathetic concerns for the well being of the other and the preservation of the social bond.  Thus he identifies cruelty to other living beings as the extreme of all vices (see “Of cruelty”), while dishonesty comes second in Montaigne’s ordering of the vices, since as human beings we are held together chiefly by our word (see “Of giving the lie”).  Other vices he treats in terms of the degree to which they clash with society.  So, for instance, he finds that drunkenness is not altogether bad, as it is not always harmful to society and it provides pleasures that add greatly to our enjoyment of life (“Of drunkenness”).

Montaigne has been thought by some to have been a hedonist, and while others would disagree with this interpretation, there is no doubt that he thinks pleasure is an integral part of a happy human life, and a very real motivating force in human actions, whether virtuous or vicious.  Much of his ethical reflection centers around the question of how to live as a human being, rather than as a beast or an angel, and he argues that those who disdain pleasure and attempt to achieve moral perfection as individuals, or who expect political perfection from states, end up resembling beasts more than angels.  Thus throughout the Essays the acceptance of imperfection, both in individual human beings and in social and political entities, is thematic.

This acceptance of imperfection as a condition of human private and social life, when combined with his misgivings about those who earnestly seek perfection, leads Montaigne to what has appeared to some as a commitment to political conservatism.  Yet this conservatism is not grounded in theoretical principles that endorse monarchy or the status quo as good in and of itself.  Rather, his conservatism is the product of circumstance.  As he writes in “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law,” he has witnessed firsthand the disastrous effects of attempts at political innovation, and this has led him to be generally suspicious of attempts to improve upon political institutions in anything more than a piecemeal fashion.  Yet this rule is not without its exceptions.  In the next breath he expresses the view that there are times when innovation is called for, and it is the work of judgment to determine when those times arise.

6. Influence

 

Montaigne’s influence has been diverse and widespread.  In the seventeenth century, it was his skepticism that proved most influential among philosophers and theologians.  After Montaigne’s death, his friend Pierre Charron, himself a prominent Catholic theologian, produced two works, Les Trois Véritez (1594) and La Sagesse (1601), that drew heavily from the Essays.  The former was primarily a theological treatise that united Pyrrhonian skepticism and Christian negative theology in an attempt to undermine Protestant challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church.  The latter was more philosophically oriented, and is considered by many to be little more than a systematized version of “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”  Nonetheless, it was immensely popular, and consequently it served as a conduit for Montaigne’s thought to many readers in the first part of the seventeenth century.  There is also clear evidence of Montaigne’s influence on Descartes, particularly in the latter’s Discourse on Method.  There, in addition to skepticism, Descartes took up a number of Montaignian themes, such as the diversity of values and practices among human beings, the power of custom to govern our judgment, and the decision, after having recognized that the philosophers have been unable to bring any of their questions to a decision after centuries of investigation, to engage in self-study.  Ultimately, of course, Descartes parted ways with Montaigne quite decisively when he developed his dogmatic accounts of knowledge, the nature of the soul, and the existence of God. Pascal, on the other hand, also profoundly influenced by the Essays, concluded that reason cannot answer the theoretical question of the existence of God, and that therefore it was necessary to inquire into the practical rationality of religious belief.

In the eighteenth century, the attention of the French philosophes focused not so much on Montaigne’s skepticism as on his portrayal of indigenous peoples of the New World, such as the tribe he describes in “Of cannibals.”  Inspired by Montaigne’s recognition of the noble virtues of such people, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau created the ideal of the “noble savage,” which figured significantly in their moral philosophies.  Meanwhile, in Scotland, David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature showed traces of Montaigne’s influence, as did his Essays, Moral and Political.

A century later, Montaigne would become a favorite of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In Emerson’s essay “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic,” he extols the virtues of Montaigne’s brand of skepticism and remarks Montaigne’s capacity to present himself in the fullness of his being on the written page: “The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches into his sentences.  I know not anywhere the book that seems less written.  Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”  Nietzsche, for his part, admired Montaigne’s clear-sighted honesty and his ability to both appreciate and communicate the joy of existence.  In Schopenhauer as Educator, he writes of Montaigne: “the fact that such a man has written truly adds to the joy of living on this earth.”

In the twentieth century Montaigne was identified as a forerunner of various contemporary movements, such as postmodernism and pragmatism.  Judith Shklar, in her book Ordinary Vices, identified Montaigne as the first modern liberal, by which she meant that Montaigne was the first to argue that cruelty is the worst thing that we do.  In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty borrowed Shklar’s definition of a liberal to introduce the figure of the “liberal ironist.”  Rorty’s description of the liberal ironist as someone who is both a radical skeptic and a liberal in Shklar’s sense has led some to interpret Montaigne as having been a liberal ironist himself.

As many scholars have noted, the style of the Essays makes them amenable to a wide range of interpretations, which explains the fact that many thinkers with diverse worldviews have found the Essays to be a mirror in which they see their own reflection, albeit perhaps clarified to some degree by Montaigne’s penetrating insights into human nature.  This would not be inconsistent with Montaigne’s purposes.  In essaying himself publicly, he essays his readers as well, and in demonstrating a method of achieving self-knowledge, he undoubtedly intends to offer readers opportunities for self-discovery.

7. References and Further Reading

a. Selected editions of Montaigne’s Essays in French and English

  • Montaigne, Michel de.  Essais. 2nd Ed. Edited by Pierre Villey and V.-L. Saulnier. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.
  • Montaigne, Michel de. Essais. Edited by André Tournon.  Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1998.
  • Montaigne, Michel de. Essais. Edited by J. Balsamo, M. Magnien, and C. Magnien-Simonin. Paris: Gallimard, 2007.
  • Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Translated by Donald M. Frame.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943.
    • The translation used in the quotations above, parenthetically cited as “F.”
  • Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Translated by M.A. Screech.  New York: Penguin, 1991.
  • Montaigne, Michel de. Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Works. Translated by Donald M. Frame. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
    • Includes the “Travel Journal” from Montaigne’s trip to Rome as well as letters from his correspondence.

b. Secondary Sources

  • Brush, Craig B. Montaigne and Bayle:  Variations on the Theme of Skepticism.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966.
    • A thorough treatment of Montaigne’s skepticism; includes a lengthy commentary on “Apology for Raymond Sebond.”
  • Cave, Terence. How to Read Montaigne. London: Granta Books, 2007.
    • A helpful introduction to Montaigne’s thought.
  • Frame, Donald M. Montaigne: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965.
    • A very thorough biography.
  • Friedrich, Hugo. Montaigne.Edited by Philippe Desan. Translated by Dawn Eng. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
    • A landmark work in Montaigne studies; provides a thorough account of both the Essays themselves and the cultural context out of which they emerged.
  • Gauna, Max. Montaigne and the Ethics of Compassion. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
    • A study of Montaigne’s ethics that situates him in the tradition of eudaimonism.
  • Hallie, Philip. The Scar of Montaigne: An Essay in Personal Philosophy. Middletown:  Wesleyan University Press, 1966.
    • An accessible account of Montaigne as a skeptic for whom the practice of philosophy is intimately tied to one’s way of life.
  • Hartle, Ann. Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
    • An excellent account of the philosophical nature of Montaigne’s thought.
  • La Charité, Raymond C. The Concept of Judgment in Montaigne. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968.
    • A superb study of the role that judgment plays in Montaigne’s philosophical project.
  • Langer, Ullrich, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
    • Contains a number of helpful articles by preeminent Montaigne scholars.
  • Levine, Alan. Sensual Philosophy: Toleration, Skepticism, and Montaigne’s Politics of the Self. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001.
    • Interprets Montaigne as a champion of modern liberal values such as tolerance the protection of a robust private sphere.
  • Nehamas, Alexander.  The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
    • Includes a study of Montaigne’s relationship to Socrates, especially in connection with the essay “Of Physiognomy.”
  • Popkin, Richard. The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
    • Interprets Montaigne as a skeptical fideist in the Pyrrhonian tradition.
  • Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
    • Argues that Montaigne’s primary concern in the Essays is to replace the martial conception of virtue prevalent during his time with a new conception of virtue more conducive to the preservation of public peace.
  • Regosin, Richard. The Matter of My Book: Montaigne’s Essays as the Book of the Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
    • A literary study examining the relation between Montaigne’s text and his conception of the self.
  • Sayce, Richard. The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.
    • A classic comprehensive study of the Essays.
  • Schaefer, David Lewis. The Political Philosophy of Montaigne. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.
    • Argues that the Essays are more systematic than they initially appear, and that Montaigne’s primary project in writing them was to transform the political and social orders of his time.
  • Shklar, Judith. Ordinary Vices. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
    • Interprets Montaigne’s ranking of cruelty as the worst vice as both a radical rejection of the religious and political conventions of his time and a foundational moment in the history of liberalism.
  • Starobinski, Jean. Montaigne in Motion. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
    • A postmodern reading the Essays that deals with major themes such as the body, friendship, the public and the private, and death.
  • Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1989.
    • Situates Montaigne in the history of modern conceptions of the self.

Author Information

Christopher Edelman
Email: edelman@uiwtx.edu
University of the Incarnate Word
U. S. A.

"Montaigne" redirects here. For the Australian singer-songwriter, see Montaigne (musician).

Michel de Montaigne

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne.

BornMichel de Montaigne
28 February 1533
Château de Montaigne, Guyenne, Kingdom of France
Died13 September 1592(1592-09-13) (aged 59)
Château de Montaigne, Guyenne, Kingdom of France
Alma materCollege of Guienne
Collège Royal
University of Toulouse
EraRenaissance philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolRenaissance humanismRenaissance skepticism

Notable ideas

The essay,
Montaigne's wheel argument[1]

Influenced

  • William Shakespeare, René Descartes, Pierre Charron, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-François Lyotard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Blaise Pascal, Gore Vidal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Albert Hirschman, William Hazlitt, Eric Hoffer, Albert Camus, Michel Onfray, José Saramago[2]

Signature

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne (;[3]French: [miʃɛl ekɛm də mɔ̃tɛɲ]; 28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. His work is noted for its merging of casual anecdotes[4] and autobiography with serious intellectual insight; his massive volume Essais contains some of the most influential essays ever written.

Montaigne had a direct influence on Western writers, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes,[5]Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Albert Hirschman, William Hazlitt,[6]Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Eric Hoffer,[7]Isaac Asimov, and possibly on the later works of William Shakespeare.

In his own lifetime, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, "I am myself the matter of my book", was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would come to be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, "Que sçay-je?" ("What do I know?", in Middle French; now rendered as Que sais-je? in modern French).

Life[edit]

Montaigne was born in the Aquitaine region of France, on the family estate Château de Montaigne, in a town now called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, close to Bordeaux. The family was very wealthy; his great-grandfather, Ramon Felipe Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant and had bought the estate in 1477, thus becoming the Lord of Montaigne. His father, Pierre Eyquem, Seigneur of Montaigne, was a French Catholic soldier in Italy for a time and had also been the mayor of Bordeaux.

Although there were several families bearing the patronym "Eyquem" in Guyenne, his father's family is thought to have had some degree of Marrano (Spanish and Portuguese Jewish) origins.[8] While his mother, Antoinette López de Villanueva, was a convert to Protestantism.[9] His maternal grandfather, Pedro Lopez,[10] from Zaragoza, was from a wealthy Marrano (Sephardic Jewish) family who had converted to Catholicism.[11][12][13][14] His maternal grandmother, Honorette Dupuy, was from a Catholic family in Gascony, France.[15]

His mother lived a great part of Montaigne's life near him, and even survived him, but is mentioned only twice in his essays. Montaigne's relationship with his father, however, is frequently reflected upon and discussed in his essays.

Montaigne's education began in early childhood and followed a pedagogical plan that his father had developed, refined by the advice of the latter's humanist friends. Soon after his birth, Montaigne was brought to a small cottage, where he lived the first three years of life in the sole company of a peasant family, in order to, according to the elder Montaigne, "draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help".[16] After these first spartan years, Montaigne was brought back to the château. The objective was for Latin to become his first language.

The intellectual education of Montaigne was assigned to a German tutor (a doctor named Horstanus, who could not speak French). His father hired only servants who could speak Latin, and they were also given strict orders always to speak to the boy in Latin. The same rule applied to his mother, father, and servants, who were obliged to use only Latin words he himself employed, and thus acquired a knowledge of the very language his tutor taught him. Montaigne's Latin education was accompanied by constant intellectual and spiritual stimulation. He was familiarized with Greek by a pedagogical method that employed games, conversation, and exercises of solitary meditation, rather than the more traditional books.

The atmosphere of the boy's upbringing, although designed by highly refined rules taken under advisement by his father, created in the boy's life the spirit of "liberty and delight" to "make me relish... duty by an unforced will, and of my own voluntary motion...without any severity or constraint"; yet he would have everything to take advantage of his freedom. And so a musician woke him every morning, playing one instrument or another,[17] and an épinettier (with a zither) was the constant companion to Montaigne and his tutor, playing a tune to alleviate boredom and tiredness.

Around the year 1539, Montaigne was sent to study at a prestigious boarding school in Bordeaux, the Collège de Guyenne, then under the direction of the greatest Latin scholar of the era, George Buchanan, where he mastered the whole curriculum by his thirteenth year. He then began his study of law at the University of Toulouse in 1546 and entered a career in the local legal system. He was a counselor of the Court des Aides of Périgueux and, in 1557, he was appointed counselor of the Parlement in Bordeaux (a high court). From 1561 to 1563 he was courtier at the court of Charles IX; he was present with the king at the siege of Rouen (1562). He was awarded the highest honour of the French nobility, the collar of the Order of St. Michael, something to which he aspired from his youth. While serving at the Bordeaux Parlement, he became very close friends with the humanist poet Étienne de la Boétie, whose death in 1563 deeply affected Montaigne. It has been suggested by Donald M. Frame, in his introduction to The Complete Essays of Montaigne that because of Montaigne's "imperious need to communicate" after losing Étienne, he began the Essais as his "means of communication" and that "the reader takes the place of the dead friend".[18]

Montaigne married Françoise de la Cassaigne in 1565, probably in an arranged marriage. She was the well-got daughter and niece of merchants of Toulouse and Bordeaux. They had six daughters, but only the second-born, Léonor, survived infancy.[19] Little is known about their marriage, a few words only escaping from Montaigne himself on the subject – he wrote of his daughter Léonor, "All my children die at nurse; but Léonore, our only daughter, who has escaped this misfortune, has reached the age of six and more without having been punished, the indulgence of her mother aiding, except in words, and those very gentle ones."[20] His daughter married François de la Tour and later Charles de Gamaches and had a daughter by each.[21]

Following the petition of his father, Montaigne started to work on the first translation of the Catalan monk Raymond Sebond's Theologia naturalis, which he published a year after his father's death in 1568 (In 1595, Sebond's Prologue was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for its declaration that the Bible is not the only source of revealed truth). After this, he inherited the family's estate, the Château de Montaigne, to which he moved back in 1570, thus becoming the Lord of Montaigne. Another literary accomplishment was Montaigne's posthumous edition of his friend Boétie's works.

In 1571, he retired from public life to the Tower of the Château, his so-called "citadel", in the Dordogne, where he almost totally isolated himself from every social and family affair. Locked up in his library, which contained a collection of some 1,500 works, he began work on his Essais ("Essays"), first published in 1580. On the day of his 38th birthday, as he entered this almost ten-year period of self-imposed reclusion, he had the following inscription crown the bookshelves of his working chamber:

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.[22]

During this time of the Wars of Religion in France, Montaigne, a Roman Catholic, acted as a moderating force,[citation needed] respected both by the Catholic King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre. Montaigne believed that a knowledge of devastating effects of vice is calculated to excite an aversion to vicious habits.

In 1578, Montaigne, whose health had always been excellent, started suffering from painful kidney stones, a sickness he had inherited from his father's family. Throughout this illness, he would have nothing to do with doctors or drugs.[23] From 1580 to 1581, Montaigne traveled in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, partly in search of a cure, establishing himself at Bagni di Lucca where he took the waters. His journey was also a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto, to which he presented a silver relief depicting himself and his wife and daughter kneeling before the Madonna, considering himself fortunate that it should be hung on a wall within the shrine.[24] He kept a fascinating journal recording regional differences and customs[25] and a variety of personal episodes, including the dimensions of the stones he succeeded in ejecting from his bladder. This was published much later, in 1774, after its discovery in a trunk which is displayed in his tower.[26]

During Montaigne's visit to the Vatican, as he described in his travel journal, the Essais were examined by Sisto Fabri who served as Master of the Sacred Palace under Pope Gregory XIII. After Fabri examined Montaigne's Essais the text was returned to its author on 20 March 1581. Montaigne had apologized for references to the pagan notion of "fortuna" as well as for writing favorably of Julian the Apostate and of heretical poets, and was released to follow his own conscience in making emendations to the text.[27]

While in the city of Lucca in 1581, he learned that, like his father before him, he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux; he returned and served as mayor. He was re-elected in 1583 and served until 1585, again moderating between Catholics and Protestants. The plague broke out in Bordeaux toward the end of his second term in office, in 1585. In 1586, the plague and the Wars of Religion prompted him to leave his château for two years.[23]

Montaigne continued to extend, revise, and oversee the publication of Essais. In 1588 he wrote its third book and also met the writer Marie de Gournay, who admired his work and later edited and published it. Montaigne called her his adopted daughter.[23] King Henry III was assassinated in 1589, and Montaigne then helped to keep Bordeaux loyal to Henry of Navarre, who would go on to become King Henry IV.

Montaigne died of quinsy at the age of 59, in 1592 at the Château de Montaigne. The disease in his case "brought about paralysis of the tongue",[28] and he had once said "the most fruitful and natural play of the mind is conversation. I find it sweeter than any other action in life; and if I were forced to choose, I think I would rather lose my sight than my hearing and voice."[29] Remaining in possession of all his other faculties, he requested mass, and died during the celebration of that mass.[30]

He was buried nearby. Later his remains were moved to the church of SaintAntoine at Bordeaux. The church no longer exists: it became the Convent des Feuillants, which has also disappeared.[31] The Bordeaux Tourist Office says that Montaigne is buried at the Musée Aquitaine, Faculté des Lettres, Université Bordeaux 3 Michel de Montaigne, Pessac. His heart is preserved in the parish church of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne.

The humanities branch of the University of Bordeaux is named after him: Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3.

Essais[edit]

Main article: Essays (Montaigne)

His fame rests on the Essais, a collection of a large number of short subjective treatments of various topics published in 1580, inspired by his studies in the classics, especially by the works of Plutarch and Lucretius.[32] Montaigne's stated goal is to describe humans, and especially himself, with utter frankness. Montaigne's writings are studied as literature and philosophy around the world.

Inspired by his consideration of the lives and ideals of the leading figures of his age, he finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disdain for the human pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for his timely death. He writes about his disgust with the religious conflicts of his time. He believed that humans are not able to attain true certainty. The longest of his essays, Apology for Raymond Sebond, marking his adoption of Pyrrhonism contains his famous motto, "What do I know?"

Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked strong feelings of passionate love because he saw them as detrimental to freedom. In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that has to be accepted uncritically. His essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix.

The Essais exercised important influence on both French and English literature, in thought and style.[33]Francis Bacon's Essays, published over a decade later, in 1596, are usually assumed to be directly influenced by Montaigne's collection, and Montaigne is cited by Bacon alongside other classical sources in later essays.[34]

Montaigne's influence on psychology[edit]

Though not a scientist, Montaigne made observations on topics in psychology.[35] In his essays, he developed and explained his observations of these topics. His thoughts and ideas covered topics such as thought, motivation, fear, happiness, child education, experience, and human action. Montaigne’s ideas have influenced psychology and are a part of psychology’s rich history.

Child education[edit]

Child education was among the psychological topics that he wrote about.[35] His essays On the Education of Children, On Pedantry, and On Experience explain the views he had on child education.[36]:61:62:70 Some of his views on child education are still relevant today.[37]

Montaigne’s views on the education of children were opposed to the common educational practices of his day.[36]:63:67He found fault with both what was taught and how it was taught.[36]:62 Much of the education during Montaigne’s time was focused on the reading of the classics and learning through books.[36]:67Montaigne disagreed with learning strictly through books. He believed it was necessary to educate children in a variety of ways. He also disagreed with the way information was being presented to students. It was being presented in a way that encouraged students to take the information that was taught to them as absolute truth. Students were denied the chance to question the information. Therefore, students could not truly learn. Montaigne believed that, to learn truly, a student had to take the information and make it their own.

At the foundation Montaigne believed that the selection of a good tutor was important for the student to become well educated.[36]:66 Education by a tutor was to be done at the pace of the student.[36]:67He believed that a tutor should be in dialogue with the student, letting the student speak first. The tutor should also allow for discussions and debates to be had. Through this dialogue, it was meant to create an environment in which students would teach themselves. They would be able to realize their mistakes and make corrections to them as necessary.

Individualized learning was also integral to his theory of child education. He argued that the student combines information he already knows with what is learned and forms a unique perspective on the newly learned information.[38]:356 Montaigne also thought that tutors should encourage a student’s natural curiosity and allow them to question things.[36]:68He postulated that successful students were those who were encouraged to question new information and study it for themselves, rather than simply accepting what they had heard from the authorities on any given topic. Montaigne believed that a child’s curiosity could serve as an important teaching tool when the child is allowed to explore the things that they are curious about.

Experience was also a key element to learning for Montaigne. Tutors needed to teach students through experience rather than through the mere memorization of knowledge often practised in book learning.[36]:62:67He argued that students would become passive adults; blindly obeying and lacking the ability to think on their own.[38]:354 Nothing of importance would be retained and no abilities would be learned.[36]:62 He believed that learning through experience was superior to learning through the use of books.[37] For this reason he encouraged tutors to educate their students through practice, travel, and human interaction. In doing so, he argued that students would become active learners, who could claim knowledge for themselves.

Montaigne’s views on child education continue to have an influence in the present. Variations of Montaigne’s ideas on education are incorporated into modern learning in some ways. He argued against the popular way of teaching in his day, encouraging individualized learning. He believed in the importance of experience over book learning and memorization. Ultimately, Montaigne postulated that the point of education was to teach a student how to have a successful life by practising an active and socially interactive lifestyle.[38]:355

Related writers and influence[edit]

Thinkers exploring similar ideas to Montaigne include Erasmus, Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé, who all worked about fifty years before Montaigne.[39] Many of Montaigne's Latin quotations are from Erasmus' Adagia, and most critically, all of his quotations from Socrates. Plutarch remains perhaps Montaigne's strongest influence, in terms of substance and style. Montaigne's quotations from Plutarch in the Essays number well over 500.[41]

Ever since Edward Capell first made the suggestion in 1780, scholars have suggested Montaigne to be an influence on Shakespeare.[42] The latter would have had access to John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essais, published in English in 1603, and a scene in The Tempest "follows the wording of Florio [translating Of Cannibals] so closely that his indebtedness is unmistakable".[43] However, most parallels between the two can be explained as commonplaces:[42] as with Cervantes, Shakespeare's similarities with writers in other nations could be due simply to their simultaneous study of Latin moral and philosophical writers such as Seneca the Younger, Horace, Ovid and Virgil.

Much of Blaise Pascal's skepticism in his Pensées has been traditionally attributed to his reading Montaigne.[44]

The English essayist William Hazlitt expressed boundless admiration for Montaigne, exclaiming that "he was the first who had the courage to say as an author what he felt as a man. ... He was neither a pedant nor a bigot. ... In treating of men and manners, he spoke of them as he found them, not according to preconceived notions and abstract dogmas".[45] Beginning most overtly with the essays in the "familiar" style in his own Table-Talk, Hazlitt tried to follow Montaigne's example.[6]

Ralph Waldo Emerson chose "Montaigne; or, the Skeptic" as a subject of one of his series of lectures entitled Representative Men, alongside other subjects such as Shakespeare and Plato. In "The Skeptic" Emerson writes of his experience reading Montaigne, "It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience." Friedrich Nietzsche judged of Montaigne: "That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth".[46]Sainte-Beuve advises us that "to restore lucidity and proportion to our judgments, let us read every evening a page of Montaigne." [47]

The American philosopher Eric Hoffer employed Montaigne both stylistically and in thought. In Hoffer's memoir, Truth Imagined, he said of Montaigne, "He was writing about me. He knew my innermost thoughts." The Welsh novelist John Cowper Powys expressed his admiration for Montaigne's philosophy in his books Suspended Judgements (1916) and The Pleasures of Literature (1938). Judith N. Shklar introduces her book Ordinary Vices (1984), "It is only if we step outside the divinely ruled moral universe that we can really put our minds to the common ills we inflict upon one another each day. That is what Montaigne did and that is why he is the hero of this book. In spirit he is on every one of its pages..."

20th-century literary critic Erich Auerbach called Montaigne the first modern man. "Among all his contemporaries", writes Auerbach (Mimesis, Chapter 12), "he had the clearest conception of the problem of man's self-orientation; that is, the task of making oneself at home in existence without fixed points of support".[48]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Marvin Lowenthal (1935). The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne: Comprising the Life of the Wisest Man of his Times: his Childhood, Youth, and Prime; his Adventures in Love and Marriage, at Court, and in Office, War, Revolution, and Plague; his Travels at Home and Abroad; his Habits, Tastes, Whims, and Opinions. Composed, Prefaced, and Translated from the Essays, Letters, Travel Diary, Family Journal, etc., withholding no signal or curious detail. Houghton Mifflin. ASIN B000REYXQG. 

External links[edit]

Château de Montaigne, a house built on the land once owned by Montaigne's family. His original family home no longer exists, though the tower in which he wrote still stands.
Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Dumonstier around 1578.
The Tour de Montaigne (Montaigne's tower), mostly unchanged since the 16th century, where Montaigne's library was located
The coat of arms of Michel Eyquem, Lord of Montaigne
Journey to Italy by Michel de Montaigne 1580–1581
  1. ^Robert P. Amico, The Problem of the Criterion, Rowman & Littlefield, 1995, p. 42. Primary source: Montaigne, Essais, II, 12: "Pour juger des apparences que nous recevons des subjets, il nous faudroit un instrument judicatoire ; pour verifier cet instrument, il nous y faut de la demonstration ; pour verifier la demonstration, un instrument : nous voilà au rouet [To judge of the appearances that we receive of subjects, we had need have a judicatorie instrument: to verifie this instrument we should have demonstration; and to approve demonstration, an instrument; thus are we ever turning round]" (transl. by Charles Cotton).
  2. ^FT.com "Small Talk: José Saramago". "Everything I’ve read has influenced me in some way. Having said that, Kafka, Borges, Gogol, Montaigne, Cervantes are constant companions."
  3. ^"Montaigne". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  4. ^His anecdotes are 'casual' only in appearance; Montaigne writes: 'Neither my anecdotes nor my quotations are always employed simply as examples, for authority, or for ornament...They often carry, off the subject under discussion, the seed of a richer and more daring matter, and they resonate obliquely with a more delicate tone,' Michel de Montaigne, Essais, Pléiade, Paris (ed. A. Thibaudet) 1937, Bk. 1, ch.40, p. 252 (tr. Charles Rosen)
  5. ^Buckley, Michael J., At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Yale UP, 1990, p. 69.
  6. ^ abKinnaird, John, William Hazlitt: Critic of Power, Columbia University Press, 1978, p. 274.
  7. ^from Truth Imagined, memoir by Eric Hoffer.
  8. ^Sophie Jama, L’Histoire Juive de Montaigne [The Jewish History of Montaigne], Paris, Flammarion, 2001, p. 76.
  9. ^"His mother was a Jewish Protestant, his father a Catholic who achieved wide culture as well as a considerable fortune." Civilization, Kenneth Clark, (Harper & Row: 1969), p. 161.
  10. ^Winkler, Emil (1942). "Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache und Literatur". 
  11. ^Goitein, Denise R (2008). "Montaigne, Michel de". Encyclopaedia Judaica. The Gale Group. Retrieved 2014-03-06. 
  12. ^Introduction: Montaigne's Life and Times, in Apology for Raymond Sebond, By Michel de Montaigne (Roger Ariew), (Hackett: 2003), p. iv: "Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 at the chateau de Montagine (about 30 miles east of Bordeaux), the son of Pierre Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, and Antoinette de Louppes (or Lopez), who came from a wealthy (originally Iberian) Jewish family".
  13. ^"...the family of Montaigne's mother, Antoinette de Louppes (Lopez) of Toulouse, was of Spanish Jewish origin...." The Complete Essays of Montaigne, Translated by Donald M. Frame, "Introduction," p. vii ff., Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1989 ISBN 0-8047-0486-4
  14. ^Popkin, Richard H (2003-03-20). "The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle". ISBN 9780195107678. 
  15. ^Green, Toby (2009-03-17). "Inquisition: The Reign of Fear". ISBN 9781429938532. 
  16. ^Montaigne. Essays, III, 13
  17. ^Hutchins, Robert Maynard; Hazlitt, W. Carew, eds. (1952). The Essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Great Books of the Western World. twenty-five. Trans. Charles Cotton. Encyclopædia Britannica. p. v.  
  18. ^Frame, Donald (translator). The Complete Essays of Montaigne. 1958. p. v.
  19. ^The New Yorker
  20. ^Archive.org
  21. ^Montaigne.univ-tours.fr
  22. ^As cited by Richard L. Regosin, ‘Montaigne and His Readers', in Denis Hollier (ed.) A New History of French Literature, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London 1995, pp. 248–52, p. 249. The Latin original runs: 'An. Christi 1571 aet. 38, pridie cal. mart., die suo natali, Mich. Montanus, servitii aulici et munerum publicorum jamdudum pertaesus, dum se integer in doctarum virginum recessit sinus, ubi quietus et omnium securus (quan)tillum in tandem superabit decursi multa jam plus parte spatii: si modo fata sinunt exigat istas sedes et dulces latebras, avitasque, libertati suae, tranquillitatique, et otio consecravit.' as cited in Helmut Pfeiffer, 'Das Ich als Haushalt:Montaignes ökonomische Politik’, in Rudolf Behrens, Roland Galle (eds.) Historische Anthropologie und Literatur:Romanistische Beträge zu einem neuen Paradigma der Literaturwissenschaft, Königshausen und Neumann, Würzburg, 1995 pp. 69–90 p. 75
  23. ^ abc Reynolds, Francis J., ed. (1921). "Montaigne, Michel, Seigneur". Collier's New Encyclopedia. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company. 
  24. ^Edward Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance, 2nd ed. (London, 2000), p. 89.
  25. ^Cazeaux, Guillaume (2015). Montaigne et la coutume [Montaigne and the custom]. Milan: Mimésis. ISBN 9788869760044. Archived from the original on 2015-10-30. 
  26. ^Montaigne's Travel Journal, translated with an introduction by Donald M. Frame and foreword by Guy Davenport, San Francisco, 1983
  27. ^Treccani.it, L'encicolpedia Italiana, Dizionario Biografico. Accessed 10 August 2013
  28. ^Montaigne, Michel de, Essays of Michel de Montaigne, tr. Charles Cotton, ed. William Carew Hazlitt, 1877, "The Life of Montaigne" in v. 1. n.p., Kindle edition.
  29. ^"The Autobiography of Michel De Montaign", translated, introduced, and edited by Marvin Lowenthal, David R. Godine Publishing, p. 165
  30. ^"Biographical Note", Encyclopædia Britannica "Great Books of the Western World", Vol. 25, p. vi "Montaigne"
  31. ^Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live – or – A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010), pp. 325–26, 365 n. 325.
  32. ^"Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libri sex (Montaigne.1.4.4)". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  33. ^Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. 
  34. ^Bakewell, Sarah (2010). How to live : a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. London: Vintage. p. 280. ISBN 9780099485155. 
  35. ^ abKing, Brett; Viney, Wayne; Woody, William.A History of Psychology: Ideas and Context, 4th ed., Pearson Education, Inc. 2009, p. 112.
  36. ^ abcdefghiHall, Michael L. Montaigne's Uses of Classical Learning. "Journal of Education" 1997, Vol. 179 Issue 1, p. 61
  37. ^ abEdiger, Marlow. Influence of ten leading educators on American education.Education Vol. 118, Issue 2, p. 270
  38. ^ abcWorley, Virginia. Painting With Impasto: Metaphors, Mirrors, and Reflective Regression in Montagne's 'Of the Education of Children.'Educational Theory, June 2012, Vol. 62 Issue 3, p. 343–70.
  39. ^Friedrich, Hugo; Desan, Philippe (1991). Montaigne. ISBN 9780520072534. 
  40. ^Billault, Alain (2002). "Plutarch's Lives". In Gerald N. Sandy. The Classical Heritage in France. p. 226. ISBN 9789004119161. 
  41. ^ abOlivier, T. (1980). "Shakespeare and Montaigne: A Tendency of Thought". Theoria. 54: 43–59. 
  42. ^Harmon, Alice (1942). "How Great Was Shakespeare's Debt to Montaigne?". PMLA. 57 (4): 988–1008. JSTOR 458873. 
  43. ^Eliot, Thomas Stearns (1958). Introduction to Pascal's Essays. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. p. viii. 
  44. ^Quoted from Hazlitt's "On the Periodical Essayists" in Park, Roy, Hazlitt and the Spirit of the Age, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971, pp. 172–73.
  45. ^Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Chapter 3, "Schopenhauer as Educator", Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 135
  46. ^Sainte-Beuve, "Montaigne", "Literary and Philosophical Essays", Ed. Charles W. Eliot, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1938.
  47. ^Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis: Representations of Reality in Western Literature', Princeton UP, 1974, p. 311

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