Montaigne, Michel de 1533–1592 French Essay Writer

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Montaigne, Michel de
French essay writer

Writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne played a large role in the development of the essay as a literary genre* in the Renaissance. His unique writing style and his ideas on the "art of living" influenced thinkers and writers through the 1900s.

Montaigne was born near the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France. He attended school there and later studied law. At the age of 21 Montaigne began his legal career, eventually taking a position at the Court of Justice in Bordeaux. However, he became bored with the law, and in 1570 he resigned to devote his life to reading, thinking, and writing.

Perfecting the Essay. Scholars before Montaigne had used the term essay to refer to a formal philosophical work. Montaigne was the first to apply the word to short, informal discussions in the style of everyday speech. He used this new form to test his judgment and to explore his views on life and on himself. The first collection of Montaigne's Essays, in two volumes, was published in 1580. A new three-volume edition appeared in 1588.

Through his essays, Montaigne tried to relate the experiences of his life. He combined personal elements with humor, a graceful style, and new and unusual themes. Neither stiff nor artificial, Montaigne's essays are full of witty sayings and stories—many of them drawn from his reading of classical* literature. The pieces show the influence of such ancient Roman authors as Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch. Montaigne cleverly blended his personal ideas and concerns with the teachings of the Greeks and Romans.

The titles of Montaigne's essays reveal their wide range of topics: "Of Liars," "Of the Power of the Imagination," "Of the Education of Children," and "Of the Art of Conversation." In many of his essays Montaigne attempted to answer a basic question of existence that haunted him: "What do I know?"

Self-Knowledge. Montaigne's essays also captured the spirit of individualism that arose during the Renaissance. He often discussed the art of living well. To Montaigne, happiness and knowledge exist within the self, in a person's everyday life and experience. He argued that to be fulfilled, people had to learn to know themselves. In "Of Experience," Montaigne explained his theory of self-awareness, claiming that "we … go out of ourselves because we do not know what is within us."

Montaigne once stated: "I am myself the subject matter of my book." However, his individualism was not a form of selfishness. Montaigne saw himself as an example of all humanity, and he wanted to show the "universal being" of his individual self. He claimed that "Every man contains within himself the form of the human condition."

Montaigne's essays influenced many thinkers and writers who followed him, including the French philosopher René Descartes. A number of English authors also found inspiration in Montaigne's work. The English writer Francis Bacon, for example, borrowed Montaigne's title, Essays, for his own collection of essays. In his play The Tempest, William Shakespeare quoted directly from Montaigne's essays.

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; French Language and Literature. )

* genre

literary form

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

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Montaigne, Michel de 1533–1592 French Essay Writer

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Montaigne, Michel de 1533–1592 French Essay Writer