Montaigne, Michel De (1533–1592)

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MONTAIGNE, MICHEL DE (15331592), French essayist. Montaigne was born at his family's château, which is still in existence, near Bordeaux, on 28 February 1533. The château de Montaigne and the title had been bought in 1477 by his great-grandfather Ramon Eyquem, who had made his fortune trading in wine and salt fish. Pierre, Montaigne's father, was the first of his family to "live nobly," that is, give up commerce, and Montaigne himself was the first to follow the aristocratic practice of adopting the name of the estate as his own. Pierre had married, in 1528, Antoinette de Louppes (Lopez), from a family of converso Spanish Jews, and Michel was the eldest of their surviving children.

Montaigne's father took a great interest in the new humanist learning, and thus had Michel raised in the company of a tutor who spoke only Latin to him, so that Latin, rather than French, was his first language. Montaigne spoke fondly of this part of his childhood, but less fondly of his years at the Collège de Guyenne, whose harsh discipline he detested, although he admitted to having had a few excellent teachers. He went on to study law, in preparation for a career of public service. By the late 1550s he was a member of the Parlement of Bordeaux, a position he retained until 1570. It was there, around 1558, that he met Étienne de la Boétie, who became his greatest friend, and whose premature death in 1563 was the defining moment in Montaigne's personal life. In 1565, Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne; around this time, he also began to translate, at his father's request, the Theologia naturalis of Raymond Sebon (d. 1436), which described a path to faith through rigorous self-examination. He finished the translation in time to present it to his father before the latter's death in 1568, and it was printed in 1569.

In 1570, Montaigne sold his parliamentary office, and officially retired from public service, out of (he said) a desire to devote the remainder of his days to study, writing, and contemplation. His "retirement" was, however, not complete. Himself a moderate Catholic, he was trusted by both Catholics and Protestants, and often played an important role in negotiations between them in France's Wars of Religion, work for which he was honored by both sides. He was at the same time working on the Essais, whose first edition, in two books, was published in 1580. In the same year, he embarked on a leisurely trip through central Europe to Italy, visiting various spas in search of relief from the kidney stones that had begun to plague him two years earlier. This trip resulted in the Journal de voyage, not rediscovered and published until 1774. While still in Italy, Montaigne was informed that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. He was initially reluctant to accept the office, and it was only at King Henry III's insistence that he returned home in late 1581 to take up his none-too-onerous duties. Two years later he was elected to a second term as mayor, which kept him busy dealing with the Catholic League and working to reconcile Henry III and the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre (later King Henry IV).

He continued work on the Essais during this time, revising and adding to the essays of the first two books while writing the thirteen essays of the third book. In 1588 he went to Paris on a diplomatic mission, also bringing the new three-book version of the Essais to the printer. On this trip he met an enthusiastic reader, Marie de Gournay, who would become his literary executor. Montaigne kept working on the Essais up to the time of his death (13 September 1592), making notes, revisions, and extensive additions in the margins of his own copy of the 1588 edition. This book, the exemplaire de Bordeaux (Bordeaux copy), became the basis of the posthumous 1595 edition, whose publication was overseen by Marie de Gournay, and of most subsequent editions as well.

Montaigne has been credited with inventing in the Essais both the essay form and the modern notion of the self. In fact, neither claim is strictly true. Montaigne's earliest essays are in fact closely modeled on (even, sometimes, translations of) the moral essays of classical authors like Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch. Later essays, while ranging farther afield, always remain in dialogue with their classical models. Likewise, the notion of an approach to philosophical wisdom through autobiography has a long history in the Western tradition, from Augustine on. Montaigne's real innovation is to combine essay and self-examination into a genuinely unique result: the literary representation of the self as constantly evolving process. He intends, he tells us, to offer an entirely unvarnished self-portrait, including everything, no matter how trivial, and hiding nothing, no matter how embarrassing. Montaigne's self-deprecatory attitude is, of course, partly ironic, since the inclusiveness of his project allows him to claim for it an exemplarity on a par with, or surpassing, that of his classical predecessors. And it is indeed inclusive; the Essais cover an astounding range of topics, from the deepest theological and philosophical questions to codpieces, motion sickness, and the drinking habits of Germans. Some essays are miniatures, a paragraph or two of comment on some classical topic, while others, especially those of the third book, are extended and complex, weaving together multiple themes (the Apologie de Raymond Sebon, a critique of Sebon running to nearly two hundred pages, is in a class by itself).

In the midst of such diversity, a few major themes, or rather sets of questions, unite the Essais. First, a radical skepticism, given its fullest expression in the Apologie but pervading the entire collection, through which Montaigne constantly calls into question his society's most fundamental assumptions. Second, a critical fascination with Stoic philosophy, influenced both by his readings in classical authors and his experiences in the Wars of Religion. Third, a kind of pragmatic Epicureanism, likewise conditioned by his readings (especially of Lucretius) and by his own experience of the limits of Stoicism. From all of these emerges, finally, a spirit of humility and tolerance, to which Montaigne is led by a thorough contemplation of human imperfection, including his own. Montaigne's style and language are as diverse as his subjects. Now discursively Latinate, now colloquial and blunt, his voice adapts constantly to his topic and mood. He is therefore a deceptively difficult author. The reader is sometimes lulled into complacency by the apparent ease and simplicity of Montaigne's style, only to find that the thought being expressed is far more complex than it had seemed. The Essais are Montaigne's running conversation with antiquity, with his own society, with the reader, and with himself; digressive, polyphonic, sometimes contradictory, often ironic, always generous and humane, they show us one of the finest minds of the Renaissance at work.

Montaigne's impact on his contemporaries was immediate and substantial, and he has occupied a central place in Western literature ever since. John Locke and the philosophes owed much to him, as did Shakespeare and Francis Bacon. Blaise Pascal rightly recognized in him a formidable opponent; the heart of the Pensées is therefore a critical dialogue with Montaigne. Many have applauded Montaigne's skeptical critique of both reason and religion, while others have found him a dangerous freethinker, but none have failed to recognize the necessityand the pleasureof conversing with this most engaging of authors. He has inspired some of the best literary criticism of the last half-century and continues to be a major presence in literature, as well as in political and moral philosophy.

See also Biography and Autobiography ; French Literature and Language ; Pascal, Blaise ; Philosophes ; Political Philosophy .


Primary Sources

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de. Complete Works. Translated by Donald M. Frame. New York, 2003.

. Les Essais de Michel de Montaigne. Edited by Pierre Villey and V.-L. Saulnier. 3rd ed. Paris, 1978. First edition 1924.

. Journal de Voyage. Edited by François Rigolot. Paris, 1992.

Secondary Sources

Compagnon, Antoine. Nous, Michel de Montaigne. Paris, 1980.

Cottrell, Robert D. Sexuality/Textuality: A Study of the Fabric of Montaigne's Essais. Columbus, Ohio, 1981.

Defaux, Gérard, ed. Montaigne: Essays in Reading. Yale French Studies 64. New Haven, 1983.

Friedrich, Hugo. Montaigne. Translated by Dawn Eng. Edited by Philippe Desan. Berkeley, 1991. Original German edition 1949.

Hoffmann, George. Montaigne's Career. Oxford and New York, 1998.

McGowan, Margaret M. Montaigne's Deceits: The Art of Persuasion in the Essais. London, 1974.

Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais. Princeton, 1998.

Regosin, Richard L. The Matter of My Book: Montaigne's Essais as the Book of the Self. Berkeley, 1977.

Rigolot, François. Les métamorphoses de Montaigne. Paris, 1988.

Sayce, R. A. The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration. London, 1972.

Starobinski, Jean. Montaigne in Motion. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, 1985.

Tournon, André. Montaigne: la glose et l'essai. Rev. ed. Paris, 2000. Originally published Lyon, 1983.

David M. Posner

Montaigne, Michel de (1533–1592)

views updated May 21 2018

Montaigne, Michel de (15331592)

French writer whose very personal thoughts and confessionsin the form of essais or trieshave remained influential in modern times. Born into a wealthy family that owned estates in the Aquitaine region of southern France, Montaigne was the son of Pierre Eyquem, a mercenary soldier and one-time mayor of Bordeaux. Montaigne was given a humanist education and a thorough training in the use of Latin as both written and spoken language. Trained as a lawyer in Toulouse, he became counselor to the Parlement court in Bordeaux in 1557. He entered the service of King Charles IX in 1561.

Montaigne took a much greater interest in letters and poetry than the study and practice of law. The politics and rivalries of the royal court, and the demands of public service, left him yearning for privacy, solitude, and enough time to read, study, and work out a personal philosophy of life and how it should be lived. In 1569 he published a translation of Natural Theology, a work of the Spanish monk Raymond Sebond. In 1570, he retired as a lawyer and moved to the family estate, known as the Chateau de Montaigne. There he began work on a series of short writings, in which he expressed his private views on politics, society, literature, family life, childhood, and many aspects of the common human experience that had never been considered suitable material for a serious writer. Working for ten years in isolation, he brought out his book of Essais in 1580, to widespread puzzlement and disdain on the part of serious writers, scholars, and philosophers. Gradually, as the writing of personal experience and confession grew in popularity, Montaigne's work won widespread acceptance.

Seeking a cure for poor health and painful kidney stones, Montaigne set out on a journey across Europe in 1580. From this experience he wrote a series of travel essays that were eventually published in the late eighteenth century as the Travel Journal. In the meantime, the citizens of Bordeaux elected him mayor, in honor of his capable statesmanship during the violent Wars of Religion between Protestants and Catholics. After his term as mayor ended in 1585, he returned to his country estate, where he died in 1592.

Montaigne's book of Essays is one of the most important and original literary works of the Renaissance. In these short works, all literary pretense and artificiality is dropped, and the author reveals his own thoughts and emotions directly to the reader. Montaigne's work created a foundation for the confessional literature that remains a popular literary genre to the present day.