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Montaigne, Mitchel Eyquem De (1533-1592)
"Men of simple understanding, little inquisitive and little instructed, make good Christians."

"It is setting a high value upon our opinions, to roast men alive on account of them."

-- Montaigne


Michel 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.

Montaigne 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.

His 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.

From 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 the Château.

The 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 stimulation.

The 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.

Around 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.

Montaigne married in 1565; he had five daughters, but only one survived childhood.

Following 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.

In 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:

"An. 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."

During 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.

In 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.

While 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.

Montaigne 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 IV.

Montaigne 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.

The humanities branch of the University of Bordeaux is named after him: Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3.

Essays
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 death.

He 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?".

Montaigne 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 uncritically.

Related writers and influence
Among the thinkers exploring similar ideas, one can mention Erasmus, Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé, all working about 50 years before Montaigne.

Montaigne's 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".

Much 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.

Friedrich 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")

 
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