Characters

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

As Montaigne's The Essays are a collection of thoughts and philosophic discourses on Renaissance French society, it does not have "characters" in the same way that a conventional narrative would. There are no protagonists or antagonists in Montaigne's work, only individual people who the author uses to exemplify his deeper...

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As Montaigne's The Essays are a collection of thoughts and philosophic discourses on Renaissance French society, it does not have "characters" in the same way that a conventional narrative would. There are no protagonists or antagonists in Montaigne's work, only individual people who the author uses to exemplify his deeper points. It is therefore useful to consider how Montaigne uses these characters in order to make his philosophic arguments by selectively discussing some of his favorite examples.

The Romans: Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca

The Roman politicians and thinkers Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca come up quite a bit in The Essays, usually in a positive representation. One of Montaigne's primary arguments is the importance of reading and the collection of books to the cultivation of a virtuous, well-reasoned mind.

In his chapter entitled "On Books," Montaigne says, regarding Plutarch and Seneca, "Their instruction is the cream of philosophy, and delivered after a plain and pertinent manner." All of these men left intellectually speculative interpretations of Roman history behind for future savants like Montaigne to peruse at their leisure, and the French philosopher was grateful to have had such a wealth of opinion available to him with which to come to well-reasoned conclusions regarding metaphysics.

Matin Guerre

Another interesting persona that Montaigne brings up for consideration is the sixteenth-century French peasant Martin Guerre. Guerre was originally a farmer who lived near the Pyrenees in southwestern France. Around 1548, he left his wife and children after having stolen a head of grain from his father. Some time later, another man, claiming to be Guerre, arrived in the town and proceeded to live with the man's family for the next three years. Over time, evidence arose indicating that this new Marin Guerre was in fact an imposter. As this evidence became more concrete, the imposter eventually admitted his lie and was executed for fraud.

This story is important to Montaigne's argument because it demonstrates the fallibility of human knowledge. Montaigne used the story of Guerre to point out that perfect knowledge is unattainable and that human beings are prone to error and mistaken judgement. To rectify this, he maintained that it was necessary to read as much as possible and to saturate oneself with knowledge so as to avoid the possibility of holding on to convictions in the absence of a well-reasoned defense.

Various European Intellectuals

Throughout the rest of The Essays, Montaigne uses a number of other famous European intellectuals—from the Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle to the French theologian Boccaccio—in order to further emphasize the centrality of knowledge in human experience.

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Themes

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Analysis