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.
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.
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...
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