Michel de Montaigne Essay - Critical Essays

Montaigne, Michel de


Michel de Montaigne 1533-1592

(Born Michel Eyquem) French essayist, diarist, and translator.

The following entry presents criticism of Montaigne’s works from 1985 to the present.

Known as the father of the literary essay, Montaigne, in his monumental autobiographical work Les essais de Messire Michel Seigneur de Montaigne (1580; The Essays of Michael Seigneur de Montaigne), was the first person to write extensively and candidly about himself. His writings have commanded the attention of scholars and critics for more than four hundred years, and many consider his inquiries into the nature and limitations of human knowledge as relevant today as they were in his own time.

Biographical Information

Born on his family's estate near Bordeaux, Montaigne was the first member of his family to use the noble title “de Montaigne,” a right obtained by his grandfather when he purchased the Montaigne estate in 1477. Montaigne's father was a lawyer, soldier, and devout Catholic; his mother was a member of a Spanish family that had converted from Judaism to Protestantism. As a soldier in Italy, Montaigne's father learned of the latest theories on child rearing and education. These ideas led him to send his infant son to live with a peasant family in order to expose him to people of more humble circumstances than his own. In addition, he insisted that once the boy returned to the family estate, the entire household speak Latin exclusively so that Montaigne's native tongue would be Latin rather than French. Montaigne's formal education consisted of seven years at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, followed by the study of law in Bordeaux and Toulouse. In 1554, Montaigne accepted a legal position in Périgueux, and three years later he became councilor of the Parliament in Bordeaux, where he made the acquaintance of his dearest friend, Étienne de La Boétie, also a councilor. In 1563, La Boétie died at the age of thirty-two; the loss was a devastating experience for Montaigne from which he never recovered. He was involved in the posthumous publication of some of La Boétie's literary works, and their relationship became the subject of one of Montaigne's most celebrated essays, “De l'amité” (“Of Friendship”). Montaigne served in the Bordeaux Parliament until 1570. His duties included a mission to the king's court in Paris in 1561 and a trip to Rouen in the company of the king the following year. In 1565, Montaigne married Françoise de Chassaigne; the couple had six children, all but one of whom died in infancy. In 1568, after the death of his father, Montaigne retired from public life, took up residence at the family estate, and began to concentrate on his literary career. In 1580, his first collection of essays appeared. That same year, suffering from kidney stones, he traveled throughout Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Austria seeking a cure. In 1581, while still in Italy, Montaigne learned he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux, a position his father had once held. He returned to Bordeaux and served as its mayor until 1585. He spent his final years revising his essays and died at home on September 13, 1592.

Major Works

In 1569, Montaigne translated Raimond Sebond's Theologia naturalis and during that same period was involved in arranging for La Boétie's writings to be published. His first collection of Essays (Books I and II) did not appear until 1580, when he was 47 years old. In 1588, he published a revised edition that included a third volume. The Essays consists of 107 chapters of varying lengths—some are as short as a few paragraphs, while others are more than one hundred pages long—and encompasses a wide range of subjects. Montaigne covered everything from the most significant issues involving philosophy, theology, and law, to the most mundane discussions of his daily habits and dietary preferences. Montaigne's only major work after the Essays was the journal he kept during his travels in 1580-81. Although Montaigne had no intention of publishing the work, it was discovered in the late eighteenth century and published as Journal de voyage (1774; The Journal of Montaigne's Travels).

Critical Reception

Montaigne's work, successful in his own time, has continued to interest commentators for more than four centuries. In addition to concentrating on the ideas and opinions offered in Montaigne's writing, critics have long studied his work from a stylistic standpoint, considering him a pioneer of the essay form, specifically the genre of the personal essay. As Joseph Epstein expressed it, Montaigne “put the capital I, the first person, into literature, and while he was at it also invented the essay.” For Epstein, Montaigne was not just the first essayist, he was also the best and continues to remain so. The nature of Montaigne's self-representation within his essays has been studied by a number of critics, among them Hope H. Glidden, who maintains that Montaigne's strategy was to warn his readers “that the man and his words are not one … the face of Montaigne is laid bare but its very openness cannot be taken at face value.” Much of the scholarship on the Essays is devoted to the discovery and acknowledgement of the many ambiguities and apparent contradictions within the text. Earlier critics often considered such contradictions the work's major flaw or, alternately, considered them evidence of Montaigne's evolution as a thinker—the writer had simply changed his mind on various issues as he grew more sophisticated and more knowledgeable. Recently, however, scholars have begun to appreciate differences in Montaigne's position on various subjects and to consider them part of a deliberate textual strategy on the writer's part. Steven Rendall believes that current scholarship, rather than attempting to establish a new interpretation of Montaigne's work that would compete with earlier theories, should posit an interpretation that “attends to and exploits differences—frictions and discontinuities—within the text.” One such “difference” involves Montaigne's views on the public/private split. Jack I. Abecassis contends that in studying Montaigne's views on public necessity versus private liberty, it is necessary to accept as “possible, and indeed desirable, contradictory propositions and practices.” “The aim,” according to Abecassis, “is not to privilege one over the other (e.g. socio-economic determinism over creative freedom), but, on the contrary, to articulate the viability of their ironic coexistence.” Another area of significant critical discussion involves Montaigne's attitude toward women, which is explored by numerous critics, among them Robert D. Cottrell. On the one hand, Montaigne advised women to concentrate on beauty, grace, and charm, rather than intellectual pursuits for which he considered them poorly suited. At the same time, however, according to Cottrell, Montaigne seemed to situate his voice as a writer within a discourse he himself coded as feminine, that is, a discourse devoted to poetry, history, and moral philosophy. Eric MacPhail argues that Montaigne's ambivalent attitude towards the monarchy was echoed in his ideas on friendship, and it is through the process of writing “De l'amité,” that Montaigne was able to discover and formulate his ideas on political power. “In political terms, friendship offered Montaigne a dignified humanist alternative to the rebellion of civil war and the subservience of courtiership,” claims MacPhail. Lisa Neal has explored an apparent inconsistency in Montaigne's theory of language. The last words of a dying person were perceived by Montaigne as “transparent and transmissible,” according to Neal. She reports, however, that this “implies a view of language that seems incompatible with Montaigne's frequently expressed opinion that words are equivocal, ambiguous, and ever open to multiple interpretations.” Timothy Hampton, in his examination of “Des coches,” demonstrates Montaigne's ability to see both sides of the Spanish conquest of the New World and present them to his reader. According to Hampton, “Montaigne places the reader both in the position of the Spaniard and in the imaged position of the New World native, in the place of the one who knows that gunpowder is gunpowder and the one who thinks it is thunder.” Deborah N. Losse has also addressed Montaigne's essays on the New World, suggesting that the central project of his writing, self-discovery, may have precluded any real discovery of the nature and culture of the Indian “other.”

Principal Works

La théologie naturelle [translator] (essay) 1569

Les essais de Messire Michel Seigneur de Montaigne [The Essays of Michael Seigneur de Montaigne] (essays) 1580; revised editions 1582, 1588, 1595

Journal de voyage [The Journal of Montaigne's Travels] (travel journal) 1774

The Complete Works of Montaigne (essays, travel journal, and letters) 1957

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Steven Rendall (essay date December 1985)

SOURCE: Rendall, Steven. “On Reading the Essais Differently.” MLN 100, no. 5 (December 1985): 1080-1085.

[In the following essay, Rendall traces the development of various interpretations of Montaigne's Essays.]

What is the value of differing readings of a text? The question seems to presuppose that the existence of more than one reading of a text is a fact that can be regarded positively. To do so runs counter to a traditional view, particularly common but by no means universal in Renaissance writing, which insists that to find oneself confronted by different readings is to be in a deplorable state, especially if no ready means is at hand for deciding among...

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Eric MacPhail (essay date November 1989)

SOURCE: MacPhail, Eric. “Friendship as a Political Ideal in Montaigne's Essais.Montaigne Studies 1, no. 1 (November 1989): 177-87.

[In this essay, MacPhail discusses Montaigne's views on political power through an examination of his writings on friendship.]

La plus part des offices de la vraye amitié sont envers le souverain en une rude et perilleus essay.

“De l'Experience”

The attitude to monarchy that Montaigne expresses in the Essais possesses the same ambivalence as the notion of friendship which he adapts from classical texts and infuses with his own experience. For...

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Robert D. Cottrell (essay date winter 1990)

SOURCE: Cottrell, Robert D. “Gender Imprinting in Montaigne's Essais.L'Esprit Créateur 30, no. 4 (winter 1990): 85-96.

[In the essay below, Cottrell maintains that Montaigne codes his own authorial voice as female even as he participates in the misogynist discourse of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods.]

In “De La Praesumption” (II, 17, 639a),1 Montaigne remarks that he speaks and writes the French that is spoken and written in the South of France, adding that it is a “langage alteré” (Donald Frame translates this as “a corrupted language”) that would offend “les oreilles pures françoises” of those Northern...

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David Matthew Posner (essay date September-December 1992)

SOURCE: Posner, David Matthew. “Stoic Posturing and Noble Theatricality in the Essais.Montaigne Studies 4, no. 1 (September-December 1992): 127-55.

[In the following essay, Posner explores Montaigne's version of the ideal nobleman during a period when the political, social, and military power of the nobility was eroding.]

One of the more carefully elaborated Montaignian personæ we find in the Essais seems to be a direct response to the problems of Montaigne's historical moment. This is the neo-Stoic nobleman who, disillusioned with the ills of the age, accepts the vicissitudes of fortune with equanimity and spends his life preparing to faire une...

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Joseph Epstein (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Reading Montaigne.” Commentary 95, no. 3 (March 1993): 34-41.

[In this essay, Epstein discusses the remarkable staying power of Montaigne's Essays, which he contends are as relevant today as they were in Montaigne's own time.]

Michel de Montaigne put the capital I, the first person, into literature, and while he was at it also invented the essay. When he took up the writing of his Essays, in 1572, Montaigne was the first man to write freely about himself, and not for another two centuries, until Jean Jacques Rousseau, would anyone do so with such unabashed candor again. Chiding Tacitus for undue modesty, Montaigne remarked...

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Hope H. Glidden (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Glidden, Hope H. “The Face in the Text: Montaigne's Emblematic Self-Portrait (Essais III:12).” Renaissance Quarterly 46, no. 1 (spring 1993): 71-97.

[In the following essay, Glidden examines Montaigne's self-representation in the essay “Of Physiognomy.”]

On the opening page of his penultimate essay, “Of physiognomy,” Montaigne noted that the human race is, by and large, myopic: “Nous n'apercevons les graces que pointues, bouffies et enflées d'artifice. Celles qui coulent soubs la nayfveté et la simplicité eschappent ayséement à une veue grossiere comme est la nostre: elles ont une beauté delicate et cachée; il faut la veue nette et...

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Jack I. Abecassis (essay date December 1995)

SOURCE: Abecassis, Jack I. “‘Le Maire et Montaigne ont tousjours esté deux, d'une separation bien claire’: Public Necessity and Private Freedom in Montaigne.” MLN 110, no. 5 (December 1995): 1067-89.

[In the essay that follows, Abecassis discusses Montaigne's contradictory views on the split between private life and public obligations, maintaining that his beliefs have much in common with the thinking of Richard Rorty.]

Le maire et Montaigne ont tousjours esté deux, d'une separation bien claire. Pour estre advocate ou financier, il n'en faut pas mesconnoistre la forbe qu'il y en telles vacation. Un honneste homme n'est pas comptable du vice...

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Ian R. Morrison (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Morrison, Ian R. “Montaigne and Torture in Criminal Justice.” French Studies Bulletin 58 (spring 1996): 9-10.

[In the essay below, Morrison explains Montaigne's rejection of torture as part of the execution process and his limited acceptance of torture as a means of interrogation.]

Many scholars have described Montaigne's general hostility to torture. Some have also noted a distinction, in criminal matters, between two uses of torture: in executing the convicted, and in interrogating accused persons on trial.1 This note concerns the divergence between Montaigne's views on these two uses.

As of the 1580 Essais, he rejects...

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Dora E. Polachek and Marcel Tetel (essay date October 1996)

SOURCE: Polachek, Dora E., and Marcel Tetel. “A Place of One's Own.” Montaigne Studies 8, no. 1 (October 1996): 3-8.

[In the following essay, Polachek and Tetel discuss the treatment of women in the Essays, contending that Montaigne's complicated views on the subject do not fit the usual feminist/misogynist dichotomy.]

Mon frere, mon frere, me refusez vous doncques une place?

La Boétie1

As we reach the end of the millennium, technology enables us to consider with more precision what constitutes the critical focus of the majority of contemporary readings of Montaigne. To confirm...

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Richard L. Regosin (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Regosin, Richard L. “Textual Progeny.” In Montaigne's Unruly Brood: Textual Engendering and the Challenge to Paternal Authority, pp. 13-47. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

[In this excerpt, Regosin traces changes in the critical reception of Montaigne's Essays from the literal interpretations of the writer's own time to the current focus on figurative and metaphorical meanings.]

Car ce que nous engendrons par l'ame, les enfantemens de notre esprit, de nostre courage et suffisance, sont produicts par une plus noble partie que la corporelle, et sont plus nostres.

(II, 8,...

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Timothy Hampton (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hampton, Timothy. “The Subject of America: History and Alterity in Montaigne's ‘Des Coches.’” The Project of Prose in Early Modern Europe and the New World, edited by Elizabeth Fowler and Roland Greene, pp. 80-103. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hampton discusses Montaigne's representation of the positions of both the Spanish and the indigenous population in his essay on the Spanish conquest of America.]

Who hasn't heard of Troy?



Near the center of “Des...

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Jules Brody (essay date April 1998)

SOURCE: Brody, Jules. “Montaigne: Philosophy, Philology, Literature.” Philosophy and Literature 22, no. 1 (April 1998): 83-107.

[In the following essay, Brody subjects Montaigne's work to a philological analysis, praising the writer for his brilliance and his highly original style.]

A philosopher is, after all, only one special kind of writer, to whom the same procedure may be applied, which is so often used by critics of “literature” […] To think with words and in words is a procedure as old as human philosophy.1

You need not spend much time in the miserable business of writing to find out just how...

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Deborah N. Losse (essay date October 1999)

SOURCE: Losse, Deborah N. “Rewriting Culture: Montaigne Recounts New World Ethnography.” Neophilologus 83, no. 4 (October 1999): 517-28.

[In the essay below, Losse compares Montaigne's essays on natives in the New World with the accounts provided by his source material, maintaining that the changes Montaigne made were motivated by the aesthetics of good storytelling as well as by the desire to illuminate his own society through the study of Native American culture.]

Michel de Montaigne was a man caught between substantial domestic and local responsibilities requiring his attention in the South of France and serious national as well as international crises which...

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John O'Brien (essay date January 2000)

SOURCE: O'Brien, John. “At Montaigne's Table.” French Studies 54, no. 1 (January 2000): 1-16.

[In the following essay, O'Brien discusses Montaigne's detailed accounts of his food preferences and dietary habits in “De l'experience.”]

At one point in his last essay, ‘De l'experience’, Montaigne pauses to tell us about his table habits: he prefers salt beef, unsalted bread, has no particular taste for pastries and dainties nor for salads and fruits except melons, and he likes sauces and fish.1 It is an episode which in recent years has proved popular with the critics, perhaps surprisingly so in view of the seemingly anecdotal evidence and...

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Dorothea B. Heitsch (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Heitsch, Dorothea B. “Approaching Death by Writing: Montaigne's Essays and the Literature of Consolation.” Literature and Medicine 19, no. 1 (spring 2000): 96-106.

[In the essay which follows, Heitsch explores Montaigne's use of writing about the death of his friend Étienne de La Boétie as part of the mourning process.]

He had deceived death by his assurance and death deceived him by his convalescence; for does it not mean deceiving us if we are ready to arrive at the harbor and are pushed out onto the open sea again? He has finally reached this harbor and has left us in the middle of the water in a thousand storms and a thousand...

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Nicolas Cogney Russell (essay date April 2001)

SOURCE: Russell, Nicolas Cogney. “Steps Toward a Rhetoric of Judgment in Montaigne's ‘De Democritus et Heraclitus’ (I, 50).” Neophilologus 85, no. 2 (April 2001): 177-92.

[In the following essay, Russell examines the rhetorical structures used in “De Democritus et Heraclitus” and compares the author's critique of judgment in that essay with similar claims in his other writings.]

Reading for Montaigne is not a simple process of retrieving a single message which the author has preserved in a book. Montaigne does not lose sight of the fact that different readers have different interpretations of texts and that sometimes readers interpret texts in ways that the...

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Constance Jordan (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Jordan, Constance. “Law and Political Reference in Montaigne's ‘Apologie de Raimond Sebond.’” Rhetoric and Law in Early Modern Europe, edited by Victoria Kahn and Lorna Hutson, pp. 199-219. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Jordan discusses Montaigne's rejection of both divine and natural law and the implications of that rejection for the possibility of social and political change.]

An ancient [philosopher] who was reproached for professing philosophy, of which nevertheless in his own mind he took no great account, replied that this was being a true philosopher. They wanted to consider everything, to...

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Eric MacPhail (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: MacPhail, Eric. “Montaigne and the Praise of Sparta.” Rhetorica 20, no. 2 (spring 2002): 193-211.

[In this essay, MacPhail examines Montaigne's writings on Sparta, maintaining that he used the comparison between ancient and modern cultures as a way of defining the values of his own time.]

In the Apophthegmata regum et imperatorum, Plutarch recounts the anecdote of the sophist who proposed to give a speech in praise of Hercules. “Who blames him?” asked the Spartan king Antalcidas.1 This anecdote appealed sufficiently to Plutarch for him to repeat the same saying twice in the Apophthegmata Laconica, where it is attributed first to...

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