Michel de Montaigne

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1925

Article abstract: In an age of violent religious and political struggles, Montaigne mediated for tolerance. He examined and interpreted the ideas of Greek Skeptics and developed a Renaissance version of skepticism.

Early Life

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born in his father’s château in Périgord, a French county east and north of Bordeaux, which became a part of France in 1607. His father, Pierre Eyquem, held many important posts, including that of mayor of Bordeaux, and afforded an unusual model of religious tolerance by heading a Catholic family that included a Protestant wife of Spanish and Jewish blood and two Protestant children.

Montaigne dearly loved his father, who was responsible for his being positioned to enjoy a gentle and cultured life. At age six, he was sent to the finest school in Bordeaux, where he completed the twelve-year course in seven years. Sometime during the next eight years, he very likely studied law.

From 1557 to 1570, Montaigne was a councillor in the Bordeaux Parlement and took numerous trips to Paris. During this period, he made a close and erudite friend, Étienne de La Boétie, who in the remaining four years of his life came to be more important to Montaigne than anyone else and influenced Montaigne throughout his life. It was La Boétie’s stoic acceptance of suffering and his courageous death, at which Montaigne was present despite the danger of contagion, that turned Montaigne toward Stoicism and probably inspired him to begin writing.

In 1565, Montaigne married Françoise de La Chassaigne. He seldom mentions her in his writing. Of his six children, only one, Léonor, survived childhood.

About 1567, Montaigne’s father had him translate a work that was strongly opposed to Protestantism and atheism: Theologia naturalis, sive Liber creaturarum (1485; the book of creatures: or, natural theology), written in medieval Latin by a fifteenth century Spaniard, Raimond Sebond. His father, although terminally ill, arranged for the publication of the translation.

After his father’s death, Michel became Lord of Montaigne, owner of the château and the estate, and at thirty-eight years of age retired to what he hoped would be a life of quiet study and composition. Much of his time was spent in the tower, which he asked to be added to his castle, and which even his wife was forbidden to enter. There he wrote his life’s work, The Essays, which was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1676 but was viewed favorably by the Vatican in Montaigne’s day.

Life’s Work

Over a period of thirty years, Montaigne dealt with every conceivable aspect of life by describing in detail his own thoughts, beliefs, experiences, and habits of living. Nothing was too abstruse to be tackled or too insignificant to be mentioned. His essay titles range from “Sur des vers de Virgile” (“On Certain Verses of Virgil”) to “Des coches” (“Of Coaches”). His early essays were compilations of views followed by a brief moral, often showing the influence of Seneca the Younger or Plutarch, both of whom he admired immensely. These were followed by what is called his skeptical period, during which he coined his motto: “What do I know?” The years from 1578 onward are termed his Epicurean period, wherein he endeavored to find his own nature and to follow its dictates. His hero during this period was Socrates, and life was a great adventure to be lived as happily as possible, with due regard for the rights of others and guided by common sense. He counseled moderation in all things, freedom with self-control, and honesty and courage.

In the essay “De la proesumption” (“About...

(This entire section contains 1925 words.)

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Presumption”), Montaigne describes himself as below average height but strong and well-set, with a face not fat but full. A portrait of him in the Condé Museum at Chantilly depicts a handsome man with regular features, fine eyes, short-cropped hair, a small mustache, and a neat beard. Evidently he was not given to vanity. He enjoyed horseback riding, travel, and conversation with intelligent men. He also enjoyed the company of his “covenant daughter,” Marie de Gournay, who became his literary executrix.

After Montaigne’s retirement, all of his time was not spent in seclusion. Between 1572 and 1576, he attempted to mediate between his friend Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) and the extremist Catholics of the Holy League. At the accession of Henry III in 1576, Montaigne was made a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, an office that gave access to the king without requiring residence at court. His disgust at the excesses of the Wars of Religion gave him a strong distaste for government, and although he loved the city of Paris, he avoided the royal court.

In 1580, Montaigne journeyed to take the waters at Lucca on the west coast of Italy. He hoped, but probably did not really believe, that the baths could cure his recurring misery caused by a kidney stone. Accompanied by his younger brother, two nobles, and a secretary, he left on horseback with no itinerary. En route to the baths, he visited Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. In Rome, he was declared a citizen of that city, an honor that he greatly coveted. During his second stay in Lucca, he learned to his dismay that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. He tried to refuse the responsibility but finally capitulated and arrived home after an absence of seventeen months.

Montaigne served two terms as mayor, from 1581 to 1585, and without showing undue zeal managed to initiate some reforms that included improving the lot of foundling children and imprisoned women and helping the poor by refusing to allow the rich to be exempt from taxation. He showed his concern for education by improving the Collège des Jésuites and his own old school, the Collège de Guyenne. He left office somewhat ignominiously, tendering his resignation outside the city, which was at that time stricken by the plague.

Although no longer mayor, Montaigne was unable to avoid involvement in the turbulent political situation. After a peaceful year at home working on The Essays, he found his unprotected estate overrun by soldiers and himself suspect to both the Catholics and the Protestants. In early 1588, he was sent to Paris on a secret mission to Henry III from Henry of Navarre. En route, he was detained by Protestants and a few months later found himself briefly imprisoned in the Bastille by the Catholics. After nearly a year spent in following the king from Paris to Chartres to Rouen and attending the Estates-General at Blois, Montaigne returned home and helped keep Bordeaux loyal to the king. In his remaining years, he continued to add passages to The Essays. There is no eyewitness account of his death, but numerous contemporaries claim that he died peacefully while hearing Mass in his room.


Montaigne’s writing style is vivacious and strong, with unexpected images, picturesque details, and often ironic humor. He reaches his highest level when he discusses the interdependence of mind and matter; modern psychologists and even psychiatrists might well claim him as their forefather. It is said that Sigmund Freud was interested in The Essays. Perhaps it is the surprising intimacy that Montaigne creates that is the most novel characteristic of his work: The reader believes that he knows the author better than he knows his closest friends or his family and maybe better than he knows himself. This kind of writing was new to literature.

In politics and in religion, Montaigne was opposed to change; his aim was peace, and he worked toward that end. Despite personal reservations, he remained a loyal subject of the Crown and a practicing Catholic, proclaiming that one ought to accept the government of one’s country and its religion.

In education, Montaigne was centuries ahead of his time: In his essay “De l’institution des enfants” (“Of the Education of Children”), he advocated training children to be efficient human beings by exposing them not to pedants but to people of all social stations. Children must be taught to observe and to judge for themselves.

In literature, Montaigne established the great principle of the seventeenth century: respect for and imitation of the classics. He insisted that the only subject suitable for study is humanity itself. There is no doubt that his essays influenced thinkers such as Francis Bacon, François de La Rochefoucauld, Blaise Pascal, Jean de La Bruyère, and Joseph Addison.

While Montaigne was describing himself in his writings, he was also depicting people in general; in fact, he was dealing with the human condition. In the twentieth century, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and a host of other eminent writers in Europe and the United States devoted their talents to examining the human condition. Whether they acknowledge it, directly or indirectly, they are all indebted to Montaigne.

Additional Reading

Burke, Peter. Montaigne. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Consists of ten articles devoted to different aspects of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and his writings. Great resource for students. Each chapter includes its own bibliography, and the whole book is indexed.

Cottrell, Robert D. Sexuality/Textuality: A Study of the Fabric of Montaigne’s Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981. An advanced study of Montaigne’s writings.

Dikka, Berven, ed. Montaigne: A Collection of Essays. Vols. 1-5. New York: Garland, 1995. A five-part examination of Montaigne. Each volume concentrates on a different topic such as Montaigne’s rhetoric, sources of his thought, and the relationship between Montaigne and the contemporary reader.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. A useful source of information about Montaigne’s life and work.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne’s Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955. The development of Montaigne’s philosophy is examined against the background of his life experiences.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne’s Essais: A Study. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. This book examines Montaigne’s influence on philosophy in the past four centuries. It also takes a detailed look at his life and development as a thinker. Includes a chronology, bibliography, and index.

O’Brien, John, and Malcolm Quainton, eds. Distant Voices Still Heard: Contemporary Readings of French Renaissance Literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2000. A collection of paired essays on five major authors, including Montaigne.

Paulson, Michael G. The Possible Influence of Montaigne’s “Essais” on Descartes’s Treatise on the Passions. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. This work examines Montaigne’s influence on René Descartes’s philosophy of the passions.

Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the “Essais.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. This work examines Montaigne’s concern with the ethical basis of society.

Sayce, Richard A. The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. An important study on Montaigne’s essays. Very readable.

Schaefer, David Lewis. The Political Philosophy of Montaigne. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. This book examines The Essays and argues that Montaigne is primarily concerned with political matters. Schaefer portrays Montaigne as a consistent and systematic thinker.

Sichel, Edith. Michel de Montaigne. London: Constable, 1911. An enjoyable biography that takes a personal view of Montaigne and his times based on quotations from The Essays. Contains facsimiles of portraits and manuscript and bibliographical notes.

Van Den Abbeele, Georges. Travel as Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. This book studies the relation between critical thinking and the metaphor of travel in French Renaissance philosophy. The first chapter concentrates on Montaigne.

Bibliography updated by Tammy Nyden-Bullock