Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557
In The Essays, Montaigne covers a wide variety of topics. Composed over many years, as the author had sufficient means to devote himself to intellectual pursuits without being hampered by a job, the essays span essential issues including the bases of knowledge and the relationship between human consciousness and the perception of the material world. Montaigne believed that people the world over were more similar than they were different, and he wrote frequently of human commonalities.
He professes to having a dim view of human nature, yet writes throughout to the contrary.
Man (in good earnest) is a marvelous vain, fickle, and unstable subject, and on whom it is very hard to form any certain and uniform judgment.
Montaigne has been cited as an early antecedent of anthropology, especially in the essay “On Cannibals.” In reporting information about the Tupinamba people of Brazil, rather than condemn their alleged cannibalistic practices, Montaigne uses reports on their supposedly bizarre customs as an entrée for interrogating European barbarity, notably the warfare of his own times. He cautions the reader about using the term “barbarity,” as it is, for him, far too liberally applied to any society whose views one disagrees. He questions whether cannibalism is, in fact, barbaric. Montaigne also cautions against the negative effects of communication between their own world and that of the savages.
I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. [In] the place wherein we live, there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things. They are savages at the same rate that we say fruits are wild, which nature produces of herself and by her own ordinary progress; whereas, in truth, we ought rather to call those wild whose natures we have changed by our artifice and diverted from the common order.
Philosophy is a constant topic, and the author speaks of differences between distinction between fear and reason, and between passion and manifestations of it.
To him who is not a philosopher, a fright is the same thing in the first part of it, but quite another thing in the second; for the impression of passions does not remain superficially in him, but penetrates farther, even to the very seat of reason, infecting and corrupting it,
In chapter 19, Montaigne returns to the theme of mortality. He specifically poses questions that would be more significant contrasted to negative interpretations of those who reject the importance of taking a skeptical approach to the aims of human life. Philosophy is not an idle calling—far from it, he argues. We have a responsibility to uphold optimism, especially when things seem most dire. The most important use of philosophy—by which he means secular thinking, in distinction to religion—is to prepare one to die: specifically, not to fear death but to have “contempt” for it.
[O]f all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct.