Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was a skeptical philosopher and perhaps the most influential writer of the French Renaissance. His Essays are difficult—maybe even inchoate—for a modern reader to make sense of. However, when one considers the contextual milieu out of which he was writing, one can begin to see the continuity of Montaigne's arguments which call for critical self-reflection and provide a valuable social commentary of medieval French culture, politics, and life.
Generally, The Essays provides a skeptical analysis of sixteenth-century French Renaissance rhetoric, which Montaigne viewed as manipulative and disingenuous. Because The Essays is a collection of thoughts and observations on the French Renaissance world, it is impossible to give a narrative summary of the piece, as it is not organized in a chronological fashion. Instead, it will be more effective to consider some of the central themes which guided Montaigne's philosophy and examine how he fleshed them out within his work.
Montaigne had primarily negative things to say about sixteenth-century oratory and rhetoric, believing that these were methods by which sickly polities could easily aggravate the passions and prejudices of the ignorant masses. Without using their powers of reason to come to a more solid acquisition of truth, the general populace could be led astray by vulgar people skilled in oratory who were looking to turn popular fears into a profit.
Montaigne points to the decline of Classical Athens and Republican Rome as two examples of major world powers which ultimately succumbed to the internal cultural decay that an overreliance on sweet-sounding, empty words had brought. In many ways, Montaigne was directing these criticisms against French "Latinizers" and students who attended Renaissance "schools of talk" in Paris. He believed that many of these students were being trained in beautiful speech but came out of their education no wiser because of it.
Another theme which pervades The Essays concerns what generally might be thought of as the "good" or "virtuous." In all of the circumstances of life, from the grandest events to the most quotidian routines, Montaigne argues that a man must reach beyond himself in order to achieve a state of being as close to perfection as possible.
For example, in chapter 29 ("Of Virtue") he says:
It accidentally happens even to us, who are but abortive births of men, sometimes to launch our souls, when roused by the discourses or examples of others, much beyond their ordinary stretch; but 'tis a kind of passion which pushes and agitates them, and in some sort ravishes them from themselves.
This kind of reaching was a good thing, and Montaigne believed that man could attain divine qualities by pushing himself beyond his limits. With regards to what he believed to be the damaging nature of rhetoric in France, this meant self-education. Montaigne himself was an incredibly well-read man, and he maintained that by immersing oneself in books an individual could come to more profound truths concerning the world than from listening to oratory.
Such wise individuals, having been tempered by the assiduous pursuit of knowledge, would be less supportive of many of the other abhorrent conditions of medieval French society that Montaigne overwhelmingly disparaged (including the abuses of the Church, religious intolerance, colonial slavery, torture, and much else). Thus, the primary objective of The Essays was to inculcate in its readers a better sense of virtuous action so that they may rectify many of the abuses that Montaigne observed in French society.
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...
(The entire section contains 1093 words.)
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