Michel de Montaigne

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Michel de Montaigne

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

Article abstract: In an age of violent religious and political struggles, Montaigne mediated for tolerance. His gift to literature was the invention of the essay.

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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 receiving 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 which 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, Raymond 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, Essais (1580, 1588, 1595; The Essays, 1603), which was placed on the Index 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 man’s 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 gave him a strong distaste for government, and, while 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 planned itinerary.

En route to the baths, he visited Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. In Rome, he was declared a citizen of that city, an honor which 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 also 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 for long his 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 to 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.

Summary

Michel de 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 a child to be an efficient human being by exposing him not to pedants but to men of all social stations. The child must be taught to observe and to judge for himself.

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 man’s study is man himself. There is no doubt that his essays influenced 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 man 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 have devoted their talents to examining the human condition. Whether they acknowledge it, directly or indirectly, they are all indebted to Montaigne.

Bibliography

Burke, Peter. Montaigne. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Each of the ten chapters is devoted to a special aspect of Montaigne. Each chapter has its own bibliography, and there is an index. The style is straightforward, the information accurate. For students and general readers.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne’s Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955, 2d ed. 1967. An account of the life of Montaigne and the development of his thought as conveyed in The Essays.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne’s Essais: A Study. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. A detailed study of Montaigne’s life and an erudite examination of the evolution of his talent as revealed in The Essays as well as an estimate of his impact during the last four centuries. Contains a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Translated by George B. Ives. 4 vols. New York: Limited Editions Club, 1946. Introduction by André Gide and an accompanying handbook, which includes notes on the text by the translator and a series of comments on The Essays by Grace Norton. Highly readable and informative.

Sichel, Edith. Michel de Montaigne. London: Constable, 1911. Divided into “Montaigne the Man” and “Montaigne the Philosopher,” this is a leisurely and rather personal view of his times, his life, and his work based largely on quotations from The Essays. Facsimiles of portraits and manuscript and bibliographical notes. Pleasant, easy reading.

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