Eyquem de Montaigne was an influential French Renaissance writer,
generally considered to be the inventor of the personal essay. In
his main work, the Essays, unprecedented in its candidness and personal
flavor, he takes mankind and especially himself as the object of
study. He was a skeptic and a humanist.
was born in Périgord on the family estate Château
de Montaigne near Bordeaux. The family was very rich; his grandfather,
Ramon Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant and had
bought the estate in 1477. His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a soldier
in Italy for a time, and developed some very progressive views
on education there; he had also been the mayor of Bordeaux.
mother, Antoinette de Louppes, came from a rich Spanish Jewish
family, but was herself raised Protestant. Although she lived
a great part of Montaigne's life near him, and even survived him,
Montaigne doesn't make any mention of her in his work. In contrast,
Montaigne's relationship with his father played a prominent role
in his life and work.
the moment of his birth, Montaigne's education followed a pedagogical
plan sketched by his father - and secured by the advice of the
latter's humanist friends. Soon after his birth, Montaigne was
brought to a small cottage, where he lived the first three years
of life in the sole company of a peasant family, "in order
to", according to the elder Montaigne, "approximate
the boy to the people, and to the life conditions of the people,
who need our help." After these first spartan years spent
amongst the lowest social class, Montaigne was brought back to
objective was for Latin to become his first language. The intellectual
education of Montaigne was assigned to a German tutor (a doctor
named Horstanus who couldn't speak French); and strict orders
were given to him and to everyone in the castle (servants included)
to always speak to the boy in Latin - and even to use the language
among themselves anytime he was around. The Latin education of
Montaigne was accompanied by constant intellectual and spiritual
sciences were presented to him in most pedagogical ways: through
games, conversation, exercises of solitary meditation, etc., but
never through books. Music was played from the moment of Montaigne's
awakening. An épinettier (playing a zither original to
the French region of Voges) constantly followed Montaigne and
his tutor, playing a tune any time the boy became bored or tired.
When he wasn't in the mood for music, he could do whatever he
wished: play games, sleep, be alone - most important of all was
that the boy wouldn't be obliged to anything, but that, at the
same time, he would have everything in order to take advantage
of his freedom.
the year 1539, he was sent to study at a prestigious boarding
school in Bordeaux, the Collège de Guyenne, and afterwards
he studied law in Toulouse and entered a career in the legal system.
He was a counselor of the Court des Aides of Périgueux,
and in 1557 he was appointed counselor of the Parlement in Bordeaux
(a high court). From 1561 to 1563 he was at the court of Charles
IX. While serving at the Bordeaux Parliament, he became very close
friends with the humanist writer Étienne de la Boétie
whose death in 1563 deeply influenced Montaigne.
married in 1565; he had five daughters, but only one survived
the petition of his father, Montaigne started to work on the first
translation of the Spanish monk Raymond Sebond's Theologia naturalis,
which he published a year after his father's death in 1568. After
this he inherited the Château de Montaigne, to which he
moved back in 1570. Another literary accomplishment of Montaigne,
before the publication of his Essays, was the posthumous edition
of his friend Boétie's works.
1571, he retired from public life to the Tower of the Château,
Montaigne's so-called "citadelle", where he almost totally
isolated himself from every social (and familiar) affair. Locked
up in his vast library he began work on his Essays, first published
in 1580. On the day of his 38th birthday, as he entered this almost
ten-year isolation period, he let the following inscription crown
the bookshelves of his working chamber:
Christi 1571 aet. 38, pridie cal. cart., die suo natali, Mich.
Montanus, servitii aulici et munerum publicorum jamdudum pertaesus,
dum se integer in doctarum virginum recessit sinus, ubi quietus
et omnium securus quantillum in tandem superabit decursi multa
jam plus parte spatii; si modo fata duint exigat istas sedes et
dulces latebras, avitasque, libertati suae, tranquillitatique,
et otio consecravit."
this time of the Wars of Religion in France, Montaigne, himself
a Roman Catholic, acted as a moderating force, respected both
by the Catholic King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre.
1578, Montaigne, whose health had always been excellent, started
suffering from painful kidney stones, a sickness he had inherited
from his father's family. From 1580 to 1581, Montaigne traveled
in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, partly in
search for a cure. He kept a detailed journal recording various
episodes and regional differences. It was published much later,
in 1774, under the title Travel Journal.
in Rome in 1581, he learned that he had been elected mayor of
Bordeaux; he returned and served until 1585, again moderating
between Catholics and Protestants. The plague broke out in Bordeaux
toward the end of his term.
continued to extend, revise and oversee the publication of his
Essays. In 1588 he met the writer Marie de Gournay who admired
his work and would later edit and publish it. King Henry III was
assassinated in 1589, and Montaigne then helped to keep Bordeaux
loyal to Henry of Navarre, who would go on to become King Henry
died in 1592 at the Château de Montaigne and was buried
nearby. Later his remains were moved to the church of a Commandery
of St. Antoine at Bordeaux.
humanities branch of the University of Bordeaux is named after
him: Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3.
The book is a collection of a large number of short subjective
treatments of various topics. Montaigne's stated goal is to describe
man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. He finds the
great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic
features. He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve
problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally
involved, his disdain for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his
attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for
writes about his disgust with the religious conflicts of his time,
his belief that humans are not able to attain true certainty (skepticism),
and even alludes to cultural relativism, all rather modern notions.
His long "Apology for Raymond Sebond" contains his famous
motto, "What do I know?".
considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but
disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental
to freedom. In education, he favored concrete examples and experience
over the teaching of abstract knowledge that has to be accepted
writers and influence
Among the thinkers exploring similar ideas, one can mention Erasmus,
Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé, all working about 50 years
book of essays is one of the few books scholars can confirm Shakespeare
had in library, and his great essay "On Cannibals" is
seen as a direct source for "The Tempest".
of Blaise Pascal's skepticism in his Pensées was a result
of reading Montaigne, and his influence is also seen in the essays
of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Nietzsche was moved to judge of Montaigne: "That such a man
wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth."
(from "Schopenhauer as Educator")