Montaigne Skepticism Essay

"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

When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind. He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.

His Essays’ preface almost warns us off:

Reader, you have here an honest book; … in writing it, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end. I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason that you should employ your leisure upon so frivolous and vain a subject. Therefore farewell.

The ensuing, free-ranging essays, although steeped in classical poetry, history and philosophy, are unquestionably something new in the history of Western thought. They were almost scandalous for their day.

No one before Montaigne in the Western canon had thought to devote pages to subjects as diverse and seemingly insignificant as “Of Smells”, “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”, “Of Posting” (letters, that is), “Of Thumbs” or “Of Sleep” — let alone reflections on the unruliness of the male appendage, a subject which repeatedly concerned him.

French philosopher Jacques Rancière has recently argued that modernism began with the opening up of the mundane, private and ordinary to artistic treatment. Modern art no longer restricts its subject matters to classical myths, biblical tales, the battles and dealings of Princes and prelates.

If Rancière is right, it could be said that Montaigne’s 107 Essays, each between several hundred words and (in one case) several hundred pages, came close to inventing modernism in the late 16th century.

Montaigne frequently apologises for writing so much about himself. He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all. With an almost Socratic irony, he tells us most about his own habits of writing in the essays titled “Of Presumption”, “Of Giving the Lie”, “Of Vanity”, and “Of Repentance”.

But the message of this latter essay is, quite simply, that non, je ne regrette rien, as a more recent French icon sang:

Were I to live my life over again, I should live it just as I have lived it; I neither complain of the past, nor do I fear the future; and if I am not much deceived, I am the same within that I am without … I have seen the grass, the blossom, and the fruit, and now see the withering; happily, however, because naturally.

Montaigne’s persistence in assembling his extraordinary dossier of stories, arguments, asides and observations on nearly everything under the sun (from how to parley with an enemy to whether women should be so demure in matters of sex, has been celebrated by admirers in nearly every generation.

Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare. He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot. Voltaire celebrated Montaigne - a man educated only by his own reading, his father and his childhood tutors – as “the least methodical of all philosophers, but the wisest and most amiable”. Nietzsche claimed that the very existence of Montaigne’s Essays added to the joy of living in this world.

More recently, Sarah Bakewell’s charming engagement with Montaigne, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) made the best-sellers’ lists. Even today’s initiatives in teaching philosophy in schools can look back to Montaigne (and his “On the Education of Children”) as a patron saint or sage.

So what are these Essays, which Montaigne protested were indistinguishable from their author? (“My book and I go hand in hand together”).

It’s a good question.

Anyone who tries to read the Essays systematically soon finds themselves overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of examples, anecdotes, digressions and curios Montaigne assembles for our delectation, often without more than the hint of a reason why.

To open the book is to venture into a world in which fortune consistently defies expectations; our senses are as uncertain as our understanding is prone to error; opposites turn out very often to be conjoined (“the most universal quality is diversity”); even vice can lead to virtue. Many titles seem to have no direct relation to their contents. Nearly everything our author says in one place is qualified, if not overturned, elsewhere.

Without pretending to untangle all of the knots of this “book with a wild and desultory plan”, let me tug here on a couple of Montaigne’s threads to invite and assist new readers to find their own way.

Philosophy (and writing) as a way of life

Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic, hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars, and his grief at the loss of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie through dysentery.

Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favourites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles. It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called “a way of life”.

Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it. He writes:

Either our reason mocks us or it ought to have no other aim but our contentment.

Indeed:

We are great fools. ‘He has passed over his life in idleness,’ we say: ‘I have done nothing today.’ What? have you not lived? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious of all your occupations.

One feature of the Essays is, accordingly, Montaigne’s fascination with the daily doings of men like Socrates and Cato the Younger; two of those figures revered amongst the ancients as wise men or “sages”.

Their wisdom, he suggests, was chiefly evident in the lives they led (neither wrote a thing). In particular, it was proven by the nobility each showed in facing their deaths. Socrates consented serenely to taking hemlock, having been sentenced unjustly to death by the Athenians. Cato stabbed himself to death after having meditated upon Socrates’ example, in order not to cede to Julius Caesar’s coup d’état.

To achieve such “philosophic” constancy, Montaigne saw, requires a good deal more than book learning. Indeed, everything about our passions and, above all, our imagination, speaks against achieving that perfect tranquillity the classical thinkers saw as the highest philosophical goal.

We discharge our hopes and fears, very often, on the wrong objects, Montaigne notes, in an observation that anticipates the thinking of Freud and modern psychology. Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change. Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.

Philosophy, in this classical view, involves a retraining of our ways of thinking, seeing and being in the world. Montaigne’s earlier essay “To philosophise is to learn how to die” is perhaps the clearest exemplar of his indebtedness to this ancient idea of philosophy.

Yet there is a strong sense in which all of the Essays are a form of what one 20th century author has dubbed “self-writing”: an ethical exercise to “strengthen and enlighten” Montaigne’s own judgement, as much as that of we readers:

And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? … I have no more made my book than my book has made me: it is a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life …

As for the seeming disorder of the product, and Montaigne’s frequent claims that he is playing the fool, this is arguably one more feature of the Essays that reflects his Socratic irony. Montaigne wants to leave us with some work to do and scope to find our own paths through the labyrinth of his thoughts, or alternatively, to bobble about on their diverting surfaces.

A free-thinking sceptic

Yet Montaigne’s Essays, for all of their classicism and their idiosyncracies, are rightly numbered as one of the founding texts of modern thought. Their author keeps his own prerogatives, even as he bows deferentially before the altars of ancient heroes like Socrates, Cato, Alexander the Great or the Theban general Epaminondas.

There is a good deal of the Christian, Augustinian legacy in Montaigne’s makeup. And of all the philosophers, he most frequently echoes ancient sceptics like Pyrrho or Carneades who argued that we can know almost nothing with certainty. This is especially true concerning the “ultimate questions” the Catholics and Huguenots of Montaigne’s day were bloodily contesting.

Writing in a time of cruel sectarian violence, Montaigne is unconvinced by the ageless claim that having a dogmatic faith is necessary or especially effective in assisting people to love their neighbours:

Between ourselves, I have ever observed supercelestial opinions and subterranean manners to be of singular accord …

This scepticism applies as much to the pagan ideal of a perfected philosophical sage as it does to theological speculations.

Socrates’ constancy before death, Montaigne concludes, was simply too demanding for most people, almost superhuman. As for Cato’s proud suicide, Montaigne takes liberty to doubt whether it was as much the product of Stoic tranquility, as of a singular turn of mind that could take pleasure in such extreme virtue.

Indeed when it comes to his essays “Of Moderation” or “Of Virtue”, Montaigne quietly breaks the ancient mold. Instead of celebrating the feats of the world’s Catos or Alexanders, here he lists example after example of people moved by their sense of transcendent self-righteousness to acts of murderous or suicidal excess.

Even virtue can become vicious, these essays imply, unless we know how to moderate our own presumptions.

Of cannibals and cruelties

If there is one form of argument Montaigne uses most often, it is the sceptical argument drawing on the disagreement amongst even the wisest authorities.

If human beings could know if, say, the soul was immortal, with or without the body, or dissolved when we die … then the wisest people would all have come to the same conclusions by now, the argument goes. Yet even the “most knowing” authorities disagree about such things, Montaigne delights in showing us.

The existence of such “an infinite confusion” of opinions and customs ceases to be the problem, for Montaigne. It points the way to a new kind of solution, and could in fact enlighten us.

Documenting such manifold differences between customs and opinions is, for him, an education in humility:

Manners and opinions contrary to mine do not so much displease as instruct me; nor so much make me proud as they humble me.

His essay “Of Cannibals” for instance, presents all of the different aspects of American Indian culture, as known to Montaigne through travellers’ reports then filtering back into Europe. For the most part, he finds these “savages’” society ethically equal, if not far superior, to that of war-torn France’s — a perspective that Voltaire and Rousseau would echo nearly 200 years later.

We are horrified at the prospect of eating our ancestors. Yet Montaigne imagines that from the Indians’ perspective, Western practices of cremating our deceased, or burying their bodies to be devoured by the worms must seem every bit as callous.

And while we are at it, Montaigne adds that consuming people after they are dead seems a good deal less cruel and inhumane than torturing folk we don’t even know are guilty of any crime whilst they are still alive …

A gay and sociable wisdom

“So what is left then?”, the reader might ask, as Montaigne undermines one presumption after another, and piles up exceptions like they had become the only rule.

A very great deal, is the answer. With metaphysics, theology, and the feats of godlike sages all under a “suspension of judgment”, we become witnesses as we read the Essays to a key document in the modern revaluation and valorization of everyday life.

There is, for instance, Montaigne’s scandalously demotic habit of interlacing words, stories and actions from his neighbours, the local peasants (and peasant women) with examples from the greats of Christian and pagan history. As he writes:

I have known in my time a hundred artisans, a hundred labourers, wiser and more happy than the rectors of the university, and whom I had much rather have resembled.

By the end of the Essays, Montaigne has begun openly to suggest that, if tranquillity, constancy, bravery, and honour are the goals the wise hold up for us, they can all be seen in much greater abundance amongst the salt of the earth than amongst the rich and famous:

I propose a life ordinary and without lustre: ‘tis all one … To enter a breach, conduct an embassy, govern a people, are actions of renown; to … laugh, sell, pay, love, hate, and gently and justly converse with our own families and with ourselves … not to give our selves the lie, that is rarer, more difficult and less remarkable …

And so we arrive with these last Essays at a sentiment better known today from another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of A Gay Science (1882) .

Montaigne’s closing essays repeat the avowal that: “I love a gay and civil wisdom ….” But in contrast to his later Germanic admirer, the music here is less Wagner or Beethoven than it is Mozart (as it were), and Montaigne’s spirit much less agonised than gently serene.

It was Voltaire, again, who said that life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. Montaigne adopts and admires the comic perspective. As he writes in “Of Experience”:

It is not of much use to go upon stilts, for, when upon stilts, we must still walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are still perched on our own bums.

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