How does Montaigne view human nature?

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In the Essays collection, Michel de Montaigne gives a clear insight into human nature. Having worked as a local magistrate, his experiences influenced these ruminations on the very things that help and hinder human beings in achieving our true selves. In the introduction, Montaigne tells us that he considers himself...

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In the Essays collection, Michel de Montaigne gives a clear insight into human nature. Having worked as a local magistrate, his experiences influenced these ruminations on the very things that help and hinder human beings in achieving our true selves. In the introduction, Montaigne tells us that he considers himself to be the sum of his work, and he acknowledges his human faults and how others could misrepresent him:

My imperfections may be read to the life, and my natural form will be here in so far as respect for the public allows. . . . I am myself the substance of my book.

The essays show an alternating view of human nature. He laments the prideful ways in which humans betray themselves and each other yet celebrates the wisdom gained through experience and education. Much of his writing discusses the line between human intuition and the ability to ascertain truth. In the essay "On Liars," Montaigne writes:

If, like the truth, falsehood had only one face, we should know better where we are, for we should then take the opposite of what a liar said to be truth. But the opposite of a truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.

This dishonesty, coupled with prideful fantasies about humanity’s superior standing in the animal kingdom, produces a misguided sense of self worth that ultimately causes man to be miserable. It can be said that he sees this misery and self-deception as an inherent part of human nature, but it is a part that can be overcome by reasoning. Montaigne attempts to shield himself from the consequences of this misguided philosophy, as he states in the essay "On Presumption," “If I must run the risk of a dubious choice, I prefer to do so under someone who is more certain of his opinions and more closely wedded to them than I.”

This careful consideration allows Montaigne to live with a greater sense of independence and integrity. He states similarly in "On Presumption," “Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.”

These principles allow him to experience life boldly and honestly. His skepticism allows him to remain free from living a misinformed, miserable existence. In the essay "On Cruelty," he states:

Every man’s death should correspond to his life. We do not change to die. I always interpret death by the life; and if I am told of an apparently brave death joined to a feeble life, I hold that it is the product of some feeble cause in keeping with that life.

Montaigne writes extensively on the topic of legacy and how humans view one another. However, he does not seem bound by these judgments, as he subscribed to the humanist virtues of individualism and free thought. Here we find another aspect of human nature that inspired Montaigne: the ability to attain self-knowledge.

Ultimately, Montaigne sees humans as arrogant yet pliable, sometimes deliberately ignorant, sometimes courageous, and always capable of sound, logical thought.

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 Montaigne's Essays show a mixed view of human nature. As he writes in "Of Repentance," "I do not portray being: I portray passing ... I may indeed contradict myself now and then." He does, however, believe that it is human nature across the globe for people to assume their own customs to be superior to those of other groups. He sees this faith in the superiority of one's culture as a problem that can lead to barbarism, war, and the acceptance of cruelty. In his essay "On Cannibals," he contrasts the culture of cannibals, usually regarded as "primitive" and inferior to European culture, to how Europeans live, and finds cannibal culture superior: they don't have kings or hierarchy, they dance all day (enjoy life), and they don't practice the commonplace cruelties and hypocrisies of Europeans. In "An Apology of Raymond Sebond," he describes human nature as "proud," and attacks the human belief that we are superior to animals. Because of the tendency of human nature to be narrow-minded (prejudiced in favor of one's group) and unreasonably proud, he advocated that people cultivate their tolerance, open-mindedness, rationality and willingness to view life from other points of view, parts of human nature he also recognized and affirmed.

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I think that Montaigne possesses a fairly optimistic view of human nature.  His model was Socrates, representing the idea that human inquiry and the mind as a thinking tool is of the utmost of importance.  Montaigne is renowned for wearing the medallion around his neck that suggests "What do I know," raising fundamental questions about the nature of human endeavor.  Yet, I think that Montaigne's body of work suggests that this is something that he uses as an opportunity to refine the nature of the human being.  The fact that Montaigne does not subscribe to anything in the nature of dogmatic or oppressive notions of the good is reflective of his idea that he saw opportunity for growth and advancement of the human being.  His exploration of education as a social venture, where children are able to gain much in terms of their exposure to as many arenas as possible would represent an optimistic and rather redemptive notion of human nature.  His own life as one committed to the social and political experiment whereby a sense of the progressive was highly evident serves to enhance the idea that Montaigne was not afraid of the nature of the human being, rather being able to embrace it with promises and possibilities.

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