Michel Eyquem seigneur de Montaigne

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Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

The French author Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) created a new literary genre, the essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born on Feb. 23, 1533, at the family estate called Montaigne in Périgord near Bordeaux. His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a Bordeaux merchant and municipal official whose grandfather was the first nobleman of the line. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes (Lopez), was descended from a line of Spanish Jews, the Marranos, long converted to Catholicism. Michel, their third son, was privately tutored and spoke only Latin until the age of 6. From 1539 until 1546 he studied at the Collège de Guyenne, in Bordeaux, where the Scottish humanist George Buchanan was one of his teachers, as was the less-known French poet and scholar Marc Antoine Muret. Very little is known of Montaigne's life from age 13 to 24, but he may have spent some time in Paris, probably studied law in Toulouse, and certainly indulged in the pleasures of youth.

In 1557 Montaigne obtained the position of councilor in the Bordeaux Parlement, and it was there that he met his closest friend and strongest influence, Étienne de la Boétie. La Boétie and Montaigne shared many interests, especially in classical antiquity, but this friendship was ended by La Boétie's death from dysentery in August 1563. Montaigne was with him through the 9 days of his illness. The loss of his friend was a serious emotional blow that Montaigne later described in his essay "On Friendship." In 1571 Montaigne published his friend's collected works.

Two years after La Boétie's death, after a number of diversionary affairs, Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne, daughter of a cocouncilor in the Bordeaux Parlement. She bore him six daughters, of whom only one survived to adulthood. The marriage was apparently amiable but sometimes cool—Montaigne believed that marriage was of a somewhat lower order than friendship.

In 1568 the elder Montaigne died, thus making Michel lord of Montaigne. Before his death, Pierre Eyquem had persuaded his son to translate into French the Book of Creatures or Natural Theology by the 15th-century Spanish theologian Raymond Sebond. The work was an apologia for the Christian religion based on proofs from the natural world. The translation was published early in 1569 and gave clear indication of Montaigne's ability both as translator and as author in his own right. From his work on this translation Montaigne later developed the longest of his many essays, "The Apology for Raymond Sebond." In this pivotal essay, Montaigne presented his skeptical philosophy of doubt, attacked human knowledge as presumptuous and arrogant, and suggested that self-knowledge could result only from awareness of ignorance.

In April 1570 Montaigne resigned from the Bordeaux Parlement, sold his position to a friend, and as lord of Montaigne formally retired to his country estate, his horses, and his beautiful and isolated third-floor library. He carefully recorded his retirement on his thirty-eighth birthday and soon began work on his Essais. Ten years later (1580) the first edition, containing books I and II, was published in Bordeaux.

Late in 1580 Montaigne began a 15-month trip through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. He visited many mineral baths and watering spas in hopes of finding relief from a chronic kidney stone condition. His journal of these travels, though not intended for publication, was published in 1774. Toward the end of his trip Montaigne learned of his election in August 1580 to the mayoralty of Bordeaux, an office in which he then spent two 2-year terms. By all accounts he served the city with conscientious distinction during a troubled period, although public service was clearly not his aspiration at that time. He himself obliquely defended his regime in the essay "Of Husbanding Your Will."

At the end of his term of office Montaigne spent the best part of a year revising the first two books of the Essais and preparing book III for inclusion in the 1588 Paris edition, the fifth edition of the work. In 1586 both war and plague reached his district, and he fled with his household in search of peace and healthier air, receiving at best reluctant hospitality from his neighboring squires. When he returned 6 months later, he found the castle pillaged but still habitable.

Montaigne's last years were brightened by his friendship and correspondence with his so-called adoptive daughter, Marie de Gournay (1565-1645), an ardent young admirer who edited the expanded 1595 edition of his works (mainly from annotations made by Montaigne) and, in its preface, defended his memory to posterity. (It was from her edition that John Florio produced the 1603 English-language edition, which was a source for Shakespeare's Tempest and other playwrights' work.)

After 2 years of illness and decline Montaigne died peacefully in his bed while hearing Mass on Sept. 13, 1592. He died a loyal Catholic, but he was always tolerant of other religious views.

The "Essais"

It is difficult if not impossible to summarize the ideas of Montaigne's Essais. He was not a systematic thinker and defied all attempts to be pinned down to any single point of view. He preferred to show the randomness of his own thought as representative of the self-contradiction to which all men are prone. His characteristic motto was "Que saisje?" ("What do I know?") He was skeptical about the power of human reason, yet argued that each man must first know himself in order to live happily. The Essais constitute Montaigne's own attempt at self-knowledge and self-portrayal—in effect, they are autobiography. Since he argued that "each man bears the complete stamp of the human condition" ("chaque homme porte la forme entière de l'humaine condition"), these autobiographical exercises can also be seen as portraits of mankind in all its diversity. Although he constantly attacked man's presumption, arrogance, and pride, he nonetheless held the highest view of the dignity of man, in keeping with the dignity of nature.

As a skeptic, Montaigne opposed intolerance and fanaticism, believing truth never to be one-sided. He championed individual freedom but held that even repressive laws should be obeyed. He feared violence and anarchy and was suspicious of any radical proposals that might jeopardize the existing order in hopes of childish panaceas. Acceptance and detachment were for him the keys to happiness. In both the form and content of his Essais, Montaigne achieved a remarkable combination of inner tranquility and detachment, together with the independence and freedom of an unfettered mind.

Further Reading

Donald M. Frame wrote the best biography, Montaigne (1965), and has to his credit the excellent translation The Complete Works of Montaigne: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters (1957). His Montaigne's Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist (1955) is a valuable study of Montaigne's humanism, and he also published Montaigne's Essais: A Study (1969). Frieda S. Brown, Religious and Political Conservatism in the Essais of Montaigne (1963), is a useful study of his political ideas. For a scholarly analysis of Montaigne's philosophical skepticism see Craig B. Brush, Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism (1966).

Additional Sources

Frame, Donald Murdoch, Montaigne: a biography, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984, 1965.

Leschemelle, Pierre, Montaigne, or, The anguished soul, New York: P. Lang, 1994.

Lowndes, M. E. (Mary E.), Michel de Montaigne: a biographical study, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978. □

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Michel Eyquem de Montaigne




Beginnings. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born near Bordeaux, France, in February 1533. His father was a soldier, lawyer, landowner, merchant, and, later, mayor of Bordeaux. His mother stemmed from a wealthy Spanish-Portuguese Jewish family that had fled to southern France to avoid religious persecution. As a boy, Michel's education was completely overseen by his father, who permitted his son to read and converse only in Latin until the age of six. At that age Michel was enrolled at the College de Guyenne in Bordeaux; this school was a leading center of mid-sixteenth-century French humanism. Between the age of sixteen and twenty Montaigne attended the University of Toulouse, one of the foremost hubs of French humanism and an institution noted for championing heterodox religious ideas.

Noble Savages. Well-educated as a humanist, Montaigne assumed a legal post in Perigueux in 1554. His father became mayor of Bordeaux that same year, and in 1557 the younger Montaigne took a seat in the Bordeaux parlement (a high ranking court, like a regional Supreme Court). He served as a member of the parliament until 1570. While still a member, Montaigne journeyed to Paris on a mission to the king's court in 1561, and he accompanied the king to Rouen in 1562 after the king's troops had captured the city from Huguenot forces during the fighting now known as the French Wars of Religion. In Rouen, Montaigne observed Brazilian natives, an experience that motivated him to write his celebrated philosophical piece “On Cannibals.” In this work Montaigne argues that European men are arrogant, foolish, and inclined to evil, and that, for all of Europe's advances in science and technology, the “noble savages” of the New World manage to live a purer, more admirable life, one he believes to be free of pollution, economic inequalities, slums, legal inequalities, prisons, and religiously motivated violence.

Wealth. In 1565 Montaigne married an heiress, Françoise de Chassagne, who brought to their marriage a large dowry. This sum, combined with the inheritance from his father's death three years later, made Montaigne an extremely wealthy man. Strangely, Montaigne, a man who wrote so much about himself and his experiences, wrote precious little about his wife or his family life. He had six children, but only one lived more than a few months. He did, however, have a deep attachment to Mademoiselle de Gournay, who had been attracted to him by his writings before ever meeting him, and whom he ultimately adopted as his daughter late in his life.

Government Service. During the 1570s Montaigne tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a compromise between the Catholics and Henri of Navarre, the Huguenot leader, in an attempt to bring the Wars of Religion to a close. Pestered by gallstones, Montaigne undertook a journey to Germany in 1580 in search of a cure at German and Italian spas. During this trip he also visited parts of Switzerland and was received by the Pope during his stay in Rome. Montaigne published the diaries penned during this trip as Travel Journey (1580). In 1581, while still in Italy, Montaigne was elected, as his father once had been, mayor of Bordeaux. He returned to accept the position, one he was to hold for four years. It was a challenging task: the religious wars were still being fought, and Montaigne had to work hard to keep Bordeaux under Catholic control and to pacify the volatile surrounding countryside. He was criticized for abandoning his duty, as he fled the city immediately after concluding a second term as its mayor in order to avoid the plague. However, evidence reveals that Montaigne was no coward; as mayor he always fulfilled his military obligations to guard the city against the Huguenots, and he fought against the raiding parties and minor bands of mercenaries who frequently attacked the city. In the late 1580s Montaigne, who had retired to his estates, ventured once more to Paris, where he served Henri of Navarre during the negotiations that led to the latter's conversion to Catholicism and subsequent coronation as King Henri IV, events that brought the French Wars of Religion to a close. Offered important positions by a grateful Henri in 1590, Montaigne, in declining health, refused them, and died in 1592 at the age of fifty-nine.

Trials of a Man. Montaigne is most famous for his Essais, a nontraditional autobiographical work compiled in a three-volume series of sketches that he began writing in 1572 and finished in 1588. In fact, it is from this title that the word essay, meaning a short, reflective, written work, is derived; but Montaigne meant the title to suggest “trials.” His “autobiography,” rather than following a linear path relating the events of his life from birth to old age, seeks to depict the true essence of the man (himself) in a timeless setting, by conveying the man's reactions to various events and to disturbing subjects (hence, the trials). The Essais explore, to list but a few examples, Montaigne's views on friendship, on the social and medical effects of wearing certain types of clothing, on cruelty, on cripples, on presumption, and on cannibalism.

Philosophical Skepticism. This work is also important to the history of Western philosophy, for in it Montaigne developed philosophical skepticism; his famous motto was “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?). Undoubtedly influenced by the intellectual shocks that followed the discovery of the New World, the Copernican Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and the attack on Aristotelian science by the Paracelsians, Montaigne, through the Essais, established a system of thought that stressed how completely relative personal experience was, and how transitory most scientific and moral “truths” actually were. Truth, for him, emerged from one's culture, upbringing, time, and natural prejudices. Thus, a child born Catholic believes in the truth of Catholicism; a Muslim child believes in the truth of Islam. Montaigne argued that neither God's existence nor the immortality of the soul could ever be proved, and that the determination of such ultimate questions relied solely on faith. Montaigne has thus been seen as a skeptical nonbeliever, whose questioning of religious truths ushered in the secular-oriented Enlightenment. Indeed, the Vatican put his works on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1676. Others, however, consider Montaigne a champion of the Catholic Counter Reformation, for his writings attacked the ability of reason and rational thought to address religious concerns, and thus, in a real sense, attacked the justification of Martin Luther's arguments. For the social historian, his Essais and Travel Journey are invaluable sources for glimpses of daily life in sixteenth-century Europe.


The Complete Works of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1957).

Donald M. Frame, Montaigne: A Biography (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965).