Last Updated on August 7, 2019, 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...
(The entire section contains 624 words.)
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