Michel de Montaigne Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)
0111201566-Montaigne.jpg Michel de Montaigne (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 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...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)

Michel de Montaigne Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

In 1580, while he was in Rome, Montaigne was invited by the papal censor to respond to a report on his Essays prepared by several theologians. This report charged him with using the word “fortune,” referring to heretical poets, arguing against the use of torture to extract confessions from suspected wrongdoers, and defending the emperor Julian. The censor judged these charges as minor imperfections that need not be corrected, and urged Montaigne to continue in “the devotion he had always borne to the Church.” Montaigne did not, however, make the changes suggested in the report. During the years of the Counter-Reformation, the ruling argument of his Essays, that trust in individual reason and conscience is at once destructive of civil order and conducive to atheism, was used by many Catholic apologists, including Jean-Pierre Camus and Pierre Charron.

A thoroughgoing skeptic who was never convinced of humankind’s capacity to find ethical guidance through individual reasoning, Montaigne was a staunch conservative throughout his adult life. “A private fantasy can have but a private jurisdiction,” he emphasized in his influential, long, sustained attack on deism, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond.” In accordance with that principle, Montaigne repeatedly maintained the Church’s authority as the only valid interpreter of Scripture. His belief that a divinely sanctioned teaching from faith, rather than a humanistic reliance...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Michel de Montaigne Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (mon-TAYN) was born to wealthy parents, Pierre Eyquem and Antoinette de Louppes, in the family château in southwestern France on February 28, 1533. From childhood, he was taught to speak Latin even before his own native language, for his German tutor knew no French and instructed his pupil exclusively in the language of antiquity. Consequently, during his first ten years, Montaigne knew little French at all. From classical languages, however, he learned clarity of expression and thought, and his writings are enriched by references to Roman history, mythology, and authors such as Cicero, Vergil, and Seneca.

Montaigne’s training in classical languages and literature was also an indication of his century. The rapid spread of Greek and Roman classics and the newly revived humanistic learning of the Renaissance was no more than a quarter of a century old in France when he was born, and it was not unusual for children such as Michel to learn Latin. Earlier, however, the Latin that he was taught would have been church Latin, but Montaigne learned the secular Latin of the great poets and orators of the past. Montaigne went on to become one of the principal proponents of this classical learning, called the New Philosophy, and its insistence upon the individual as the measure of all things and upon a healthy skepticism in the pursuit of truth. Montaigne, in fact, took as his motto “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”), reflecting his rejection of authority, his tolerance for all ideas, and his restless and searching mind.

Montaigne’s father, a wealthy merchant, sent his son to the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux from 1539 to 1546 and later to the University of Bordeaux to study philosophy. Later still, in 1559, Montaigne studied law at the University of Toulouse. In 1557, his father was elected mayor of Bordeaux, leaving his post as counselor in the parliament of Bordeaux and passing it on to his son. Montaigne served as counselor until 1570, during a time of great religious and political upheaval in France. A series of civil wars between Catholics and Protestants (who acquired the derisive name Huguenots) divided the country, culminating in 1572 with the ambush slaying of twenty thousand Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24)....

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Michel de Montaigne Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Michel de Montaigne’s place in the history of world literature has been secure for more than four hundred years. He is not only the father of the modern essay form but also a writer of singular artistry who has been admired down through the centuries by such noted authors as George Gordon, Lord Byron, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, André Gide, T. S. Eliot, and many others. His epigrammatic style makes him an often-quoted author, while the clarity of diction, the balanced phrasing, and the proper words in proper order make his statements ring with truth and stay in the mind.

“Free association artistically controlled—this is the paradoxical secret of Montaigne’s best...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Michel de Montaigne Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The father of Michel de Montaigne (mohn-tayn), Pierre Eyquem, was a wealthy trader whose grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, had acquired the Château de Montaigne, near the town of Castellan in Périgord, in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. In his youth Pierre Eyquem had served in the armies of Francis I but had returned to become a prominent citizen of Bordeaux and at length its mayor. His wife, Antoinette de Lopez (or Louppes), a member of a Jewish family of Spanish derivation, had embraced the Protestant faith.{$S[A]Eyquem, Michel;Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de}

Michel Eyquem, their third child and eldest son, was born at the Château de Montaigne on February 28, 1533; in maturity he chose to discard his patronymic...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)