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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

The Essays is a collection of philosophic arguments by the French Renaissance writer Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. As such, Montaigne makes a number of critical observations concerning sixteenth-century French society and proposes a number of suggestions by which individuals can improve themselves and avoid succumbing to certain corrupting influences. Montaigne touches on a large number of different topics—from emotions to rationality, to good and bad governance—and it would be impossible to go through them all at length here, but The Essays does have some recurring themes which pepper his work.

The Nature of Knowledge

One of the most prevalent themes in The Essays, to which Montaigne attaches a significant amount of emphasis, concerns the nature of knowledge. Montaigne is very critical of those members of elite French society who he believes have developed a mastery over words and flattery but for whom true knowledge is only a pipe dream.

Furthermore, Montaigne was incredibly critical of those individuals—particularly the paid orators who lined the streets of medieval France and were willing to make any argument for a price—for whom falsehood became a means to intentionally adulterate pure knowledge. For example, in chapter 9 ("Of Liars"), Montaigne says:

In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word.

Because the process of lying involved taking into one's consciousness a proposition that one knew beforehand to be untrue, Montaigne argued that lies themselves were incredibly vain, without firm commitment, and easy to forget.

Therefore, he considered lying to be a perverse action not only because it entailed the deliberate corruption of knowledge but also because the process of lying itself produced a heightened state of ignorance in a liar.

Virtue and Vice

Virtue and vice, in a vague and loosely-defined sense, are two other themes that come up in Montaignes work. France was a complex and multifarious society in the medieval period, and a person could take up any of an enormous number of occupations in the city that simply did not exist a century earlier. The very diversity that Renaissance life afforded the individual permitted them to engage in lifestyles that Montaigne considered to be either virtuous or lascivious.

"Vices," he argued, were all alike, because they were simply immoral states of being or lifestyles. However, he argued that not all vices were equal. In chapter 2 of the second book of The Essays, Montaigne makes this point clear:

There is in this as great diversity as in anything whatever. The confounding of the order and measure of sins is dangerous: murderers, traitors, and tyrants get too much by it, and it is not reasonable that they should flatter their consciousness, because another man is idle, lascivious, or not assiduous at his devotion.

I believe this quote sums up Montaigne's general position on virtue/vice nicely, because it demonstrates his overall moral position to many of the lifestyles he would have been witness to in France during the period.

Although laziness, drunkenness, and poor self-management should not be held to the same level of seriousness as murder or treachery, these were all characteristics of the illegitimate ways of living against which The Essays was arguing. Montaigne maintained that faithful devotion to more virtuous occupations, which he fleshes out elsewhere in the work, could prevent an individual from descending down an immoral path.

A General Moral Narrative

The Essays discusses much else, including affections, emotions, speech, the soul, government, the family, and most other aspects of French society. Each entry contains a certain wisdom of its own, but together Montaigne's collection of thoughts seeks to provide a moral narrative that may help guide the lonely reader through the perilous realities of life.

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