Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de
MONTAIGNE, MICHEL EYQUEM DE
French writer and moralist, author of the Essais, widely considered to be finest of its type in world literature; b. at the château of Montaigne, Périgord, Feb. 28, 1533; d. there, Sept. 13, 1592. Few people have held the attention of their fellow men for so long and as steadily as has Montaigne, and this although he never really wanted public reaction. He tells future readers at the opening of the Essais that his book has but one aim: to be a sincere and unadorned self-portrait that will serve kinfolk and friends as a living reminder of himself. Emerson has called Montaigne a "representative man." This he says because the good sense of the Essais has impressed readers through the years; at the same time, the author holds them with the magic of his personality and the charm of his humanity.
Montaigne's father, born of rich, middle-class merchants only recently ennobled, had returned from the Italian wars under the spell of Renaissance splendors and the new knowledge he had found in Italy. He was anxious to apply this learning to the education of his son and heir. The awakening of the young Montaigne to the gentle sounds of music, for example, was not due to any epicurean tendency on the part of his father. The boy had merely read the Italian philosopher Cardano, who taught that the person who awakes abruptly may have his body invaded by a soul not his own. This mixture of superstition and enthusiasm for experiment and new learning is typical of the intellectual climate into which Montaigne had been born. His father also decided that the boy's first language would be Latin, and he employed a German tutor, Horstanus, who spoke no French. When Montaigne went to the Collège de Guyenne at the age of six, he already spoke Latin fluently. He was later critical of both his secondary education and the legal training it opened to him at the University of Toulouse. He aspired to the Italian ideal of the uomo universale and after many years of reading, thinking, and study he was to come very close to achieving it.
Early Years. Montaigne's youthful days were marked by the hedonism characteristic of the nobility of the century; yet it was in this same early period that he became the close friend and admirer of Étienne de la Boétie, whose deep love of learning and moderation were to have so profound an influence on him. At this time, too, he made a most significant decision: to remain within the Catholic fold, although his family, like so many in the realm, was divided—his brother and sister espousing the "new religion." He followed his father's footsteps in choosing a profession and practiced law in the Parlement of Bordeaux. His intellectual life really began, however, when his father asked him to translate the Theologia Naturalis (c. 1400) of Raymond of Sabunde, a work often cited against the heretics of the century. In the meantime, he married Françoise de la Chassaigne in 1565.
In 1571, Montaigne decided to retire from the world to his château, probably because he desired to secure greater independence and because he had little taste for the political arena. It is almost impossible to describe the state of France at this time. The massacre of thousands of Protestants on st. bartholomew's day (Aug. 24, 1572) marked a high point of terror and destruction that had not been equalled since the Hundred Years' War. With death surrounding him and with the example of his friend La Boétie in mind, Montaigne determined to devote the last years of his life to contemplation and study. The place he had chosen for it commands even today beautiful green and rolling country in an atmosphere of calm and peace.
Here he began the Essais, which were to be developed and added to for the next 20 years. His great source of ideas was his reading: the Roman poets, Seneca, the Greeks in translation, and especially Plutarch's Lives in Amyot's French translation. At first, his purpose was simply to compile anecdotes with brief commentaries. Very much attracted to the stoical humanism that was then the intellectual vogue in France, he gradually came to see that for him, a passive rather than an active man, such a stance was not possible; he decided to live and let live rather than to seek violent changes. Although he realized the importance of good intentions, he could not help but note the mediocre results of much of human effort. And, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was struck by the inhuman demands of the Stoical position, especially with regard to suicide, which he knew to be at variance with his Catholic faith.
So-called Skeptical Crisis. The subsequent stage in Montaigne's development is often referred to as his skeptical crisis. He did indeed doubt the unreal academic attitude of the Stoics as well as the rigid dogmatism of philosophers in general, but Montaigne, the universal and all-corrosive doubter, is a fiction created by such Jansenist fanatics as Pierre nicole in the seventeenth century. (It was at this time, too—1676—that Montaigne was put on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Church, although strangely enough, the folio giving the Church's reasons for this is missing.) The main evidence adduced by those who accused him of universal skepticism is the chapter of the Essais entitled "The Apology of Raymond de Sebond" (see raymond of sabunde), which includes his famous phrase, "que sais-je?" It is a disconcerting essay which has meant many things to many readers. Today scholars are mostly in agreement that the essay is not to be read as a betrayal of Sabunde. Rather it is a layman's attempt, as Montaigne clearly says, to defend the orthodox faith he holds in common with Sabunde. The structure of the essay, however, is curious. It is divided into two unequal parts.
In defending Sabunde, Montaigne first attacks the fideists. That he devotes so few pages to them has led many critics to accuse Montaigne of fideism. But both faith and reason have their role to play in traditional theology; faith is the source, but reason applies itself within these limits to the object of inquiry. This is precisely Montaigne's position.
The second group of adversaries are the rationalists. These Montaigne with ill-disguised enjoyment excoriates in a long attack. He shows—and Pascal was to remember his arguments—that man without God is nothing; that knowledge and reason do not necessarily add to man's happiness; and that the most learned of rationalists have always disagreed. It is at this point in the chapter, after pointing to the bloody quarrels occasioned largely by the Calvinist rejection of transubstantiation, that he inserts his wise "que sais-je?" He approaches the last part of his defense with much misgiving; he warns us that here his argument is most dangerous for he is going to prove that not only does man know nothing, but also that he can know nothing. His conclusion is that man is a wretched being at best, whom only the grace of God can raise to dignity.
What must be remembered in analyzing the "Apology" is that Montaigne's attack on reason, filled with paradoxes and contradictions, is a kind of intellectual exercise. Where he is deadly serious is in attacking the rigorist rationalists whose vain presumption has brought much unhappiness to mankind, for they love not men but problems, and thus indulge in what seems to him the worst of human follies. Following his own counsel of moderation, he seems to shift his purpose in the Essais (about 1578–80); he now intends simply to portray himself in all his manifold human aspects.
Although Montaigne in a sense retired from active life, he set off on a long journey in 1580 and 1581. His Journal de voyage is a delightful and entertaining travel book filled with curiosity concerning the lands and persons he meets. But even travel helps Montaigne to see himself—this time against a different background—and thus aids him in his self-study. While he was traveling, he was elected mayor of Bordeaux. He returned home for two years and then was reelected for a second two-year term ending in 1585. When he returned to private life, the civil war was raging even worse than before, and, to add to his woes, the plague forced him and his family to abandon the château for six months. As he wandered about, he was much impressed with the quiet courage and heroism in the face of death that he noticed among simple peasants, ignorant of all philosophy. He began to abandon his own apprehensiveness about death and renewed his confident optimism in human nature. It was in this spirit that he began work on the Essais once more.
Last Years. These last years of Montaigne's life were fraught with peril and sickness. Since his travels, he had suffered from kidney stones, and in these years (1586–92) his many painful bouts became worse. Yet it was during this period that he wrote the 13 great chapters of the last book of the Essais. Moreover, he had become too well known and respected not to take an important role in the negotiations between King Henry II and his successor, King Henry IV. While in Paris in 1588, probably on such a mission, he published his first edition of the Essais, containing all three books. Returning to his château, he spent his last days adding almost a thousand passages to his great work and correcting its style. In this last stylistic revision he tends to shift from long philosophical exposition and classical rhetorical periods to the familiar style of conversation. The movement of his thinking is one of overlapping circles of argument; what counts most in Montaigne is his matter, not his manner. Montesquieu says of him: "In most authors I see the man who writes; in Montaigne I see the man who thinks."
And yet it is difficult to define Montaigne's thought. He seems most intent in seeking out the real nature of man and deducing from that how he should live. Montaigne is not a systematic philosopher. He is rather a practical moralist who notes that there are vast differences among men and yet that "all of moral philosophy can be applied as well to a common and private life as to one of richer stuff. Every man carries in himself the entire form of the human state" [The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, tr. and ed. J. Zeitlin (New York 1936), 3.2:15; subsequent quotations are from this edition.] Moreover, man is composed of soul and body, and real wisdom consists in recognizing this duality, which means precisely that we have great limitations but possess even greater possibilities. "In the experience I have of myself, I find enough to make me wise, if I were a good scholar." And he later adds: "Let us but give ear to it, and we tell ourselves everything of which we chiefly stand in need"(3.13:273–274). Therefore, to live happily, we must first know ourselves and live in harmony with ourselves. Not an easy task for most but surely the most important work in life. "Have you known how to think out and manage your own life? You have then performed the greatest work of all…. Our duty is to compose our character…. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately" (3.13:309).
The key to all this is a realistic acceptance of nature as our guide. Of course, Montaigne realized that mere nature cannot always be relied upon, but he was a man of his age in urging us to enjoy to the hilt the legitimate and abundant pleasures of this life for "it is an absolute perfection and, as it were divine, for a man to know how to enjoy his existence as he ought" (3.13.316). Or again: "For my part then, I love life and cultivate it, such as it has pleased God to bestow it upon us…. A man doeswrong to the great omnipotent giver in refusing, nullifying, or disfiguring His gift. All goodness Himself, He has made all things good" (3.13:313–314). But this confidence was possible for Montaigne only because he had learned, in studying himself, another and equally valid principle: "I am pleased not to be sick; but if I am I would know that I am…. Evil is proper to man in itsturn. Pain is not always to be avoided, nor pleasure always to be pursued" (2.12:153).
Montaigne died while Mass was being said in his room, fully conscious of the Real Presence. He had made great progress from his early hedonism, pessimism, and Stoicism up to the final and growing confidence in the goodness of God and hope in a common humanity. Montaigne's contribution to Western thought is his humanism, especially if we define that humanism as respect for what makes man human: intelligence, responsibility, freedom, and the revealed knowledge that he is the adopted son of God.
See Also: renaissance; stoicism; skepticism;humanism.
Bibliography: m. e. de montaigne, Essais, ed. a. thibaudet (Paris 1950); Complete Essays, tr. d. m. frame (Stanford, Calif.1958). d. m. frame, Montaigne's Discovery of Man (New York 1955). c. sclafert, L'Âme religieuse de Montaigne (Paris 1951). p. l. villey-desmeserets, Les Sources et l'évolution des essais de Montaigne (2d ed. rev. Paris 1933). a. forest, "Montaigne humaniste et théologien," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 18 (1929): 59–73. d. m. frame, Montaigne: A Biography (New York 1965).