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by Bamber Gascoigne

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592)


French courtier and author of Essais (1572-80, 1588), which established a new literary form. Montaigne has remained the greatest exponent of the essay, a short piece that discusses the author's personal thoughts about a particular subject. His successors have followed him in the use of the self as subject, the replacement of logical thought by free association, and the use of essay as "a literary device for saying almost everything about anything" (Aldous Huxley). It has been said, that Montaigne was the first blogger.

"And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? In moulding this figure upon myself, I have been so often constrained to temper and compose myself in a right posture, that the copy is truly taken, and has in some sort formed itself; painting myself for others, I represent myself in a better colouring than my own natural complexion. I have no more made my book than my book has made me: 'tis a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life, and whose business is not designed for others, as that of all other books is." (in The Essays of Montaigne, tr. Charles Cotton, ed. William Carew Hazlitt, 1877)

Montaigne was born at his family estate in Chãteau de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, in southwest France. His grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, had bought the estate of Montaigne in 1477, and thus gained the right to its name. Montaigne's father, a lawyer, had served as a soldier in Italy and adopted advanced views about education, which benefited his son. He had married Antoniette de Lopez, who came from a Spanish Jewish family converted to Protestantism. As a baby Montaigne was sent to live with a peasant family so that his earliest memories would be of humble surroundings. He was brought up to speak Latin before French.

After receiving his early education at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, he then studied law at Bordeaux and Toulouse. He was a counselor of the Court des Aides of Périgueaux, in 1557 he was appointed councilor of the Bordeaux Parliament, and from 1561 to 1563 he was at the court of Charles IX. When his friend, the humanist scholar and poet Étienne de La Boétie died in 1563 at the age of thirty-three, Montaigne suffered the most severe emotional experience of his life. Thereafter he never had a close relationship. La Boétie died of dysentry. Montaigne planned to publish his controversial work, a treatise against tyranny entitled Discours de la servitude volontaire, in the first book of Essais, immediately after the essay on friendship (De l'amitié). In this piece Montaigne said that "the ordinary capacity of women is inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of this sacred bond," but on the other hand, "that other, licentious Greek love is justly abhorred by our morality."

In 1565 Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne, with whom he had one daughter; four other children died in infancy. After his father's death in 1568, he retired to the family Chãteau in 1570. He lived there the life of a country gentleman, and completed in the following years the first books of his Essais, which reflected his wide interests and learning. Montaigne's first book of collected essays was published when he was 47. He argued that the beliefs of different cultures should be respected, and covered in his texts a huge range of subjects, including how to converse properly, how to endure pain, how to prepare for death, how to read well, how to bring up children, and how to deal with the sexual urge.

Even his cat did not escape his watchful attention: "When I play with my cat, who knows whether she isn't amusing herself with me more than I am with her?" Montaignes's voice is skeptical and sincere; "I am myself the subject of my book; it is not reasonable to expect you to waste your leisure on a matter so frivolous and empty". Occasionally he made incursions into the world of affairs. As a moderate Roman Catholic and advocacy of toleration, he acted as one of the intermediaries between Henry of Navarre (1589 – assassinated 1610) and the court party. However, in 1588 he was arrested by the members of the Protestant League, but released after a few hours in the Bastille. During this journey he met Marie Le Jars de Goyrnay, a young woman. Montaigne was flattered by her admiration of his work, and called her, perhaps somewhat ironically, his fille d'alliance. "She is the only person I still think about in the world," Montaigne said in the 1595 edition.

From 1578 Montaigne had suffered from kidney stones. This led him in search of curative waters. In 1580 he set out on travels through Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, meeting Torquato Tasso at Ferrara. At the beginning of May 1581, he spent some time at Bagno della Villa, recording in his journal his daily routines, baths and medicines he took, and what he had for dinner. In 1581 Montaigne was elected mayor of Bordeaux. He was still in Italy and on the occasion Henry III (1551 – assassinated 1589) wrote to him: "Inasmuch as I hold in great esteem your fidelity and zealous devotion to my service, it has been a pleasure to me to learn that you have been chosen mayor of my town of Bordeaux. I have had the agreeable duty of confirming the selection, and I did so the more willingly, seeing that it was made during your distant absence; wherefore it is my desire, and I require and command you expressly that you proceed without delay to enter on the duties to which you have received so legitimate a call. And so you will act in a manner very agreeable to me, while the contrary will displease me greatly." Montaigne served for four years, he absented himself from his duties only at a time of plague. In 1588 he accompanied Henry III to Rouen and spent the last years in revising his writings. Montaigne died on September 13, 1592, at Château Montaigne. He was buried near his own house. A few years his remains were removed to the church of a Commandery of St. Antoine at Bordeaux.

The practical and self-centered world-view of the Renaissance was manifested in the autobiographical writings of Cellini and Montaigne, the historical analyses of Machiavelli, and Leonardo's drawing of the Vitruvian man. Montaigne was the first to use the term "essay" to describe the literary form to which he had devoted himself – "the dialogue of the mind with itself" as the poet and critic Matthew Arnold said. Montaigne's Essais had great influence not only in France, but also in England, where his works were quoted by William Shakespeare and imitated by Francis Bacon, who used the new term in his Essays and Counsels, Civil and Moral (1596).

Basically Montaigne's self-centerness was the cause why his work was placed in 1676 on the Vatican’s index of prohibited books; the ban was lifted in 1854. When he playfully argued that penis has its own rebellious nature, stronger than human will, he stepped on the toes of the church: "We are right to note the licence and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we do not want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will: it stubbornly and proudly refuses all out incitements, both mental and manual." In 'Sur des vers de Virgile' (On Some Verses of Virgil) Montaigne complains of the scripteur's small penis.

No real models existed for Montaigne's essays. His literary apprenticeship had been slight: his only early noteworthy publication had been a work of translation. There is a profound affinity between Lucretius, an Epicurean materialist and the writer of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), and Montaigne, who owned a copy of the book and filled it with his notes. However, Montagne was not so much interested in the underlying pattern or order behind nature but the  manifold of appearances.

Montaigne's purpose in his essays was self-knowledge: "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself." But the self one finds in his writings is not narcissistic, although he admitted: "Painting myself for others, I represent myself in a better colouring than my own natural complexion." Montaigne gives room for dialogue, addressing his thoughts to the potential reader, and combining the form of a letter with the form of a dialogue with an ideal friend. Later the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) developed Montaigne's unsystematic thoughts into their logical conclusion in his famous "Cogito; ergo sum" (Je pense, donc je suis; I think, therefore I am).

For further reading: Les Sources et l'évolution des Essais de Montaigne by Pierre Villey (1933, 2 vols.); Michel de Montaigne: A Concise Bibliography by Samuel A. Tannenbaum (1942); Le Style de Montaigne by Floyd Gray (1958); Montaigne by Albert Thibaudet (1963); Montaigne: A Biography by Donald M. Frame (1965); Montaigne: Essays by Frank Bowman (1965); The Essays of Montaigne by Richard A. Sayce (1972); Montaigne by Peter Burke (1981); Montaigne and Melancholy by M.A. Screech (1983); A Descriptive Bibliography of Montaigne's Essais, 1580-1700 by Richard A. Sayce (1983); Montaigne by Hugo Friedrich (1991, original German edition 1949); Michel de Montaigne by Madeleine Lazard (1992); Montaigne and the Ethics of Skepticism by Zahi Zalloua (2005); Montaigne and the Art of Free-thinking by Richard Scholar (2010); Montaigne and the Life of Freedom by Felicity Green (2012); Unsettling Montaigne: Poetics, Ethics and Affect in the Essais and Other Writings by Elizabeth Guild (2014); The Oxford Handbook of Montaigne, edited by Philippe Desan (2016); Montaigne and the Tolerance of Politics by Douglas I. Thompson (2018); Montaigne: Life Without Law by Pierre Manent; translated by Paul Seaton (2020) - Some classical works for further information: 'Montaigne' by Virginia Woolf, in her The Common Reader (1925); Representantive Men by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1850); Essai sur Montaigne by André Gide (1929) - See also: Isaiah Berlin, Michael Innes

Selected works:

  • Apologie de Raymond de Sebonde, 1569 (translator; Theologia naturalis sive Liber creaturarum, by Raymond, of Sabunde)
    - In Defense of Raymond Sebond, 1959 (translated by Arthur H. Beattie) / An Apology for Raymond Sebond, 1987 (translated and edited by M.A. Screech) / Apology for Raymond Sebond, 2003 (translated by Roger Ariew and Marjorie Grene)
  • Essais, 1580 (2 vols.); 1588 (3 vols., rev. enl. edition); 1595 (definitive edition by Marie de Gournay); 1906-1933 (5 vols., standard modern edition, ed. Fortunat Strowski and others); 1930-31 (3 vols., edited by Pierre Villey); 1931-33 (6 vols, edited by Jean Plattard); 1941 (3 vols., edited by Maurice Rat); 1966 (3 vols., edited by Pierre Michel); 1969 (3 vols., edited by Alexandre Micha); 1992 (edited by Claude Pinganaud)
    - The Essayes, or, Morall, Politike and Millitarie Discourses of Lo. Michaell de Montaigne, 1603 (translated by John Florio) / Essays of Michael, Seigneur de Montaigne, 1685-86 (3 vols., translated by Charles Cotton) / other editions: 1925 (4 vols., translated by George B. Ives); 1927 (2 vols., translated by E.J. Trechman); 1934-36 (3 vols., translated by Jacob Zeitlin); 1958 (translated by Donald M. Frame); 1991 (translated by M.A. Screech)
    - Tutkielmia: valikoima, 1922 (suom. Edwin Hagfors) / Esseitä, 1955 (suom. Marketta Enegren, 1955) / Esseitä: osa I, 2003 (suom. Renja Salminen); Esseitä: osa 2 (suom. Renja Salminen)
  • Journal du Voyage de Michel de Montaigne en Italie, par la Suisse et l’Allemagne, en 1580 et 1581, 1774 (edited by M. de Querlon)
    - The Journal of Montaigne's Travels in Italy by Way of Switzerland and Germany in 1580 and 1581, 1903 (translated by W. G. Waters) / The Diary of Montaigne's Journey to Italy in 1580 and 1581, 1929 (translated by E. J. Trechmann) / Montaigne's Travel Journal, 1983 (translated by Donald M. Frame, foreword by Guy Davenport)
  • Works of Michael de Montaigne. Comprising His Essays, Journey into Italy, and Letters, 1842 (edited by W. Hazlitt)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1924-41 (12 vols., edited by Armand Armaingaud)
  • The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957 (translated by Donald M. Frame)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1962 (edited by Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat)
  • Montaigne, maire de Bordeaux: lettres (1581-1585), 1992 (edited by Anne-Marie Cocula, et al.)
  • Selected Essays = Essais choisis, 2007 (Dover ed.: edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum)
  • Lettres: suivie des notes de Montaigne sur les éphémérides de Beuther, 2004 (edited by Claude Pinganaud)
  • Les essais, 2007 (édition établie par Jean Balsamo, Michel Magnien et Catherine Magnien-Simonin; édition des notes de lecture et des sentences peintes établie par Alain Legros)
  • Lettre à son père sur la mort d'Étienne de La Boétie, 2012 (préfacée et commentée par Jean-Michel Delacomptée)
  • Michel de Montaigne: Selected Essays, 2012 ( Dover Publications; translated by Charles Cotton; edited by William Carew Hazlitt)
  • Journal du voyage en Italie: (1774), 2014 (texte établi et présenté par Philippe Desan)
  • Sur des vers de Virgile: Essais, III, 5, 2019 (introduction, notes et commentaire par Jean Terrel)
  • De la phisionomie: Essais, III, 12, 2019 (introduction, notes et commentaire par Blandine Perona)

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