The Reading Room
OLL’s February Birthday: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (February 28, 1533-September 13, 1592)
February’s OLL Birthday Essay celebrates the great French humanist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne. Despite, or perhaps because of, his aristocratic heritage and privileged upbringing, he developed a non-pretentious personal style that was highly skeptical of social and intellectual pretentions.
Instead, he celebrated the myriad possibilities to be found in human nature while simultaneously poking fun at our propensity towards intellectual pomposity and moral weakness, and ridiculing our propensity toward cruelty to our fellow human beings. His skepticism about the possibility of both abstract Reason and blind Religious dogmatism to save us from disaster was no doubt influenced by the horrors of the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), which raged during his lifetime.
Montaigne was born into an aristocratic family on an estate near Bordeaux. His father, a man of the Renaissance, contrived to have his son brought up as the epitome of a Renaissance man. He carefully hired only servants and tutors who could speak Latin, and the young Michel heard (and spoke) only Latin until he was six years old. His father also arranged that his boy would be awakened every day by music. The young Montaigne was a bright and eager pupil. After continuing his studies he held various public service jobs and eventually became a counselor in the Bordeaux Parlement, where he met the famous jurist Etienne de la Boëtie (1530-1563). The two shared many interests and a general Humanist orientation and became very close friends, later described by Montaigne in his essay “On Friendship.” Boetie’s death from dysentery left a horrible mark on Montaigne, from which he never seemed to completely recover.
In 1565 he married Françoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of one of his colleagues at the Parlement. The marriage was the result less of love than of familial and social duty, though the couple did have six daughters, only one of whom survived to adulthood (and outlived Montaigne himself).
1571 Montaigne retired from public life to his ancestral estate (which he had inherited upon the death of his father in 1568) living in a tower in his chateau with minimal human contact, meditating, reading, and writing. In the process, he invented the literary form of the “essay” (from the French essayer: to try, attempt, or test) . He published three volumes of these pieces (1580, 1588, and 1595, the last posthumously) which remain his most famous works.
The Essays represented a completely new type of writing. Confronted with the social, political and intellectual chaos of the Wars of Religion, Montaigne boldly admitted that he was simply writing about himself, and sharing his own thoughts and observations. As their name suggested, the Essays were tentative explorations of various topics. Loosely constructed and rambling, they ranged over a tremendous variety of topics: politics and the nature of freedom, death and suffering, friendship, virtue and many others. His earlier essays display a strong influence from his education in classical philosophy (especially his interest in Stoicism), but most of his essays are characterized by a skepticism in the power of reason and a underlying faith in human nature.
Indeed, his skepticism became the most important feature of his work. While certainly not denying the importance of reason, he cautioned about its limitations. Reason, the power and majesty of which was a main feature in Renaissance intellectual culture, was actually of only limited help in answering the important questions of life. Instead, in his essays he advocated a healthy skepticism regarding the intellectual, moral, and political certainties of the day and urged instead that people think about their own lived-experiences and explore their own natures for answers to the questions they faced in life, as he himself tried to do. His essays thus have a remarkably fresh, conversational tone, that give the reader a strong sense of the author’s personality, while also inviting the reader to reflect on her own nature.
While Montaigne clearly preferred the solitude of his fortified tower library, his duties as the owner of a large estate and as a French nobleman frequently required him to engage in public life. He was a frequent mediator in Paris between Catholic and Protestant factions, which earned him the respect of both Henry III and, later, Henry IV, as well as the hostility of members of both groups. In 1580, after the publication of the second volume of his Essays, wearied and repelled by the situation in France (and in search of treatments for his recurrent affliction with kidney stones) Montaigne took his family on a 15 month trip through Switzerland, Germany and Italy. His innate good-nature and tremendous curiosity made him a natural traveler, and his wonderful and charming notes on his trip were finally published in 1774.
While in Italy he learned that he had been elected Mayor of Bordeaux, a post he held until 1585. The situation in France became increasingly dire, and he spent much of his tenure as mayor trying to keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants. After the conclusion of his term, he spent much of his time in Paris, trying to mediate between the two political and religious factions, an increasingly precarious situation. After the assassination of Henry III in 1589 he was instrumental in securing Bordeaux’s loyalty to the new king Henry IV, thus maintaining a tenuous peace.
He soon after retired back to his tower library at his chateau, revising his collections of essays. In declining health, he died of quinsy, a kind of acute tonsillitis, while hearing Mass in his room.
Although he was a philosopher, trained in the classics of Renaissance humanism, as well as a devout Catholic his whole life, Montaigne was always skeptical toward all dogmas (and pretentions), philosophical and religious. His skepticism informed even his own beliefs and ideas. Hence, his Essays were not dogmatic manifestoes or philosophical arguments, but highly personal attempts at understanding the human condition. His life and work demonstrate the power of a healthy skepticism as a safeguard against intolerance and tyranny.