For Montaigne, The Essays were not only a collection of speculative musings. He saw them as a written formula for appropriate conduct in one’s daily affairs. His work was intended as a critique of the shortcoming that he associated with academic elitism and privilege of the sixteenth-century French Renaissance. He embeds his notions of civility within the larger criticisms he was making of educated French society at the time. Montaigne believed that every country, city, and society had its own particular notions of civility, but in reality the civility only reproduced the superficiality that he associated with high society. True “civility,” as it would be understood by French society, meant being a doddering pedant, someone who replicated the shallow mannerisms and manners of speech of those socialites he desired to curry favor with.
Montaigne exemplifies the superficiality of conventional notions of civility when he describes Adrian Turnebus. Turnebus, Montaigne explains, devoted his entire life to nothing other than learning, which is to be contrasted against the many students of the French Academy who simply devoted their energies and researches to mastering the art of flowery rhetoric, empty of all inner meaning. For this reason, Montaigne considered him to be one of the greatest men of the last thousand years. He goes on to attest that, Turnebus
had nothing at all in him of the pedant, but the wearing of his gown, and a little exterior fashion, that could not be civilised to courtier ways, which in themselves are nothing. I hate our people, who can worse endure an ill-contrived robe than an ill-contrived mind, and take their measure by the leg a man makes, by his behaviour, and so much as the very fashion of his boots, what kind of man he is.
Civility, as it was commonly accepted in French society, was the way a person dressed, moved, and behaved. All of this composed a very shallow measure of people in the minds of other “civilized” members of society. True civility, in Montaigne’s mind, is found in the man willing to forgo common acceptance of his peers for noble pursuits and the life of the mind.