To essay is to “test” or “try,” and Montaigne, thinking of his works as trials of his own judgment and capacities, succeeded in inventing the essay with a personal slant. While often personal, his essays are not confessional or confidential but achieve the universal quality of the greatest literature.
He investigates such topics as happiness, names, the education of children, solitude, repentance, and more than a hundred more. In length the essays range from one or two pages to one of more than a hundred pages.
Living in sixteenth century France, Montaigne had many opportunities to observe the disorder and cruelty that arose from intense religious conviction, and although he respected religion, he loathed religious excesses as begetters of vice. He cultivated a contrastingly skeptical approach, illustrated by his motto: “What do I know?” Even more than Socrates, he believed that the awareness of one’s own ignorance is the basis of wisdom. Instead of insisting on the correctness of his ideas, he attempts to see his subjects from other points of view, including those of Mohammedans, cannibals, and even of cats.
His twin sources of ideas are books and experience. An extremely well-read man, he peppers his essays with quotations, but his style is relaxed, informal, and good-humored. At the end of his essay “Of Experience,” Montaigne writes: “The most beautiful lives, to my mind, are those that conform to the common human pattern,...
(The entire section is 520 words.)