The word “essay,” a familiar literary term today, was coined by Montaigne, but the word had a meaning that is different from its modern meaning. Essay derives from the Latin word exagium, a weighing, and from the French word essai, a trial or test. Montaigne’s writings were weighings of himself and his beliefs, in the same way that one would weigh, or “assay,” precious ore to determine its worth. They are equally a test of his judgments, a testing of ideas and random thoughts, and an attempt to assess himself and his experiences at various points of his life. The subject of his essays, as he says in many places, is always himself, and his task as an author is to see himself as accurately as he can and to be truthful about what he believes.
Montaigne, however, never thought that his own life and thoughts would hold fascination for centuries of readers. What, then, has attracted readers to Montaigne over the centuries? First, there is his common sense and universality. He is attractive to readers precisely because he is so much like them that his thoughts often seem commonplace. Second, preceding Sigmund Freud, Montaigne had a strong sense of the divisions within the human psyche, the conflict of humanity against itself, and the inability of human reason to solve all of humankind’s problems. What Montaigne seeks is what one would today call “the integrated personality,” a unified sense of being and an orderly view of life. Finally, readers appreciate Montaigne’s clarity of thought and expression, his confessional style, and his mordant wit—all qualities found in the best contemporary essayists such as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.
Exactly how to categorize Montaigne’s thought, however, is not an easy task. He has been called a hedonist, a skeptic, a stoic, and even an existentialist, but none of these seems fully adequate. He is a hedonist in his love of life and enjoyment of sensual pleasures, but in essays such as “De la moderation” (“Of Moderation”), he warns that a person can become a slave to his or her senses. His essays on idleness, lying, cruelty, cowardice, vanity, and drunkenness testify to his skeptical view of humankind’s innate goodness, but these are equally balanced by essays on constancy, friendship, virtue, repentance, and moderation. Montaigne’s stoicism is clear in his thoughts on death, and he titles one of his essays “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (“To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die”), but he also emphasizes the enjoyment of this life. Finally, like the existentialists of the twentieth century, Montaigne sees life in a continual flux, making the attainment of absolute truth impossible. Yet if the absurdity of the human condition prevents people from having true knowledge, they can at least know themselves in their perpetually changing condition.
Perhaps the best term for Montaigne is one suggested by Donald Frame, professor emeritus of French at Columbia University. Montaigne is an “apprehensive humanist,” a lover of reason and books, and a student of human custom and behavior, who is uneasy about the human condition. While the mass of humans may be ignorant, stupid, lazy, and lustful, they can still accomplish occasional great things. Life is paradox and contradiction—composed, Montaigne says, of contrary things—and one must learn to accept human contrariness.
Finally, Montaigne’s use of paradox and irony, of balanced phrase and metaphor, are masterful, and perhaps no one has written in the French language with greater elegance and grace. The Essays are stylishly written reflections upon the oppositions of humanity and God, good and evil, action and inaction, faith and reason. If Montaigne reaches no conclusions, his journey consists of fascinating intellectual twists and turns; and if he continually asks, “What do I know?” he always does so with wit, modesty, and candor.
First published: “Des cannibales,” 1580 (collected in Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957
Type of work: Essay
What people call barbarism is merely vanity and ignorance on their part, for the behavior of “civilized” people surpasses the barbarism of supposedly “uncivilized” people in every way.
Montaigne’s age was one of adventure and exploration, and many travelers returned to Europe with tales of strange and fascinating people elsewhere. During a French expedition to South America in 1557, the explorer Villegaignon encountered a tribe of cannibals in what was then called “Antarctic France” but what is now called Brazil. Some of them returned with the crew. Montaigne not only met one of these cannibals at Rouen in 1562 but also employed a servant who had spent a dozen years...
(The entire section is 1975 words.)