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.