(1533 – 1592)
Born in Bordeaux in southern France, Michel de Montaigne’s father oversaw his early education by hiring tutors to teach the child Latin at an early age. Allowed only to speak this language until the age of six, Montaigne then entered the Collège de Guyenne, a secondary school in Bordeaux and a center of the humanist movement in France. He stayed there until he was 16, at which point he moved on to attend the University of Toulouse, another center of French humanism and a place of fervent religious debate at the time.
Like other humanisticallyeducated sons of prosperous fathers, Montaigne soon made a political career. In 1554 he took a legal post at Perigeaux and a few years later he became a member of the parlement (a local court of appeals) at Bordeaux. While a member of the parlement Montaigne traveled to Paris and took part in several important missions for the king. On one of these to Rouen he witnessed the consequences of the Wars of Religion, the great civil war that afflicted France at the time. In Rouen he also saw Brazilian natives recently brought to Europe, a subject that he later exploited in his famous essay Of Cannibals. In 1565 he married a wealthy heiress, and the large fortune that she brought to their marriage made Montaigne a rich man. He had six children with his wife, but only one survived infancy. In his writings he only rarely mentions his family.
His closest personal attachments seem to have been with other leading humanists and scholars. Among these, his closest friend was Étienne de la Boétie, a French humanist with whom Montaigne worked in the parlement at Bourdeaux. Boétie’s premature death in 1563 had a lasting impact on Montaigne, and in later life, he composed his famous essay “Of Friendship” in memory of him. Another of Montaigne’s friends was the female scholar Marie de Gournay, whom Montaigne considered like an adopted daughter. Gournay edited one version of the Essays. By 1570, Montaigne had grown increasingly disillusioned with public life and he resigned his duties. A year later he took up residence at a country estate where he shut himself off for a great part of each day in a tower of the chateau to devote himself to reading, study, writing, and contemplation. Except for only brief interruptions, Montaigne remained there for the rest of his life, producing the Essays for which he became justifiably famous.
At the time in which he wrote these works, the French word Essai meant “trial” or “attempt.” Essays were a form of short, reflective prose that had developed out of the genre of Renaissance letters. Montaigne used this form and raised its literary value to a high level.
He wrote his works over a number of years and revised them many times so that they eventually became one of the milestones in the history of the French language. In France his thoughts affected later thinkers like René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu, among others, and the works enjoyed wide readership outside their native country, too. In his play, The Tempest, William Shakespeare quotes from the Essays. Certainly, one reason for their broad appeal was their diversity of subjects. Montaigne ranges over a number of areas, including friendship, cannibalism, cruelty, presumption, the enjoyment of food and wine, and even the human imagination.
To these various subjects Montaigne brings a depth of insight and often a cool detachment to dissect human emotions, thoughts, and fears. He is also strikingly relativistic in his judgments; in Of Cannibals, the essay recounting his seeing of Brazilian natives at Rouen, Montaigne concludes that Europeans are crueler than New World natives. Unlike the so-called savages of the New World who live relatively peaceful lives in harmony with nature, Europeans inhabit a social order filled with intolerance, inequality, filth, and violence.
Traditionally, scholars have seen three stages in the development of Montaigne’s ideas in the Essays. More recently, others have called attention to the eclectic and free-ranging nature of his ideas, stressing that elements of many different schools of thought can be found in all periods in which he wrote the essays. While Montaigne was eclectic, there is still a definite change of tone in each of the three volumes. In the first book Montaigne appears to be applying the ancient ideas of the Stoics to the problems he analyzes. Stoicism taught that an ascetic self-discipline and disregard for the world was the best way to face harsh fortune. In the second volume Montaigne’s intellectual development embraces an increasingly skeptical and relativistic creed. Truths, his insights taught him, were not to be found in religious orthodoxy or in moral absolutes.
These were instead merely cultural ideas that one inherited from being brought up in a particular place and time. Catholic children were the result of Catholic parents, while Protestants and Muslims were the products of a different upbringing. No amount of philosophizing could ever prove that the assumptions that each group doggedly held were, in fact, true. In the final section of the essays, Montaigne shifted his stance yet again to develop his thoughts in an Epicurean mold. The Epicureans, an ancient Greek philosophical sect, taught that the purpose of life consisted in enjoying the good things the world had to offer.
As he concluded his Essays Montaigne seems to have come to peace with the world, realizing that in the embrace of its pleasures lay one of the mysteries of existence. Although he remained an orthodox Catholic throughout his life, his thoughts contained many ideas upon which later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers would build more skeptical philosophies, philosophies that eventually challenged theistic religions altogether.
For this reason his works would eventually be placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, the organ of Roman Catholic censorship throughout Europe. In their own time, though, they were a stunning testament to the insights that classical scholarship helped breed among Renaissance thinkers. And they continue to provide unparalleled insights into sixteenth-century life and customs.