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Michel de Montaigne

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (February 28, 1533 - September 23,1592) was a French Renaissance thinker, a Humanist who took mankind and especially himself as the object of study in his main work, the Essais.


Montaigne was born in Périgord, on the family estate Château de Montaigne. The family was rich as a result of commercial activity; his father was also active in public service and had been the mayor of Bordeaux. Until his sixth year, Michel was raised exclusively in Latin, the language of the educated class.

He studied law in Toulouse and entered a career in the legal system. Serving at the parlement of Bordeaux (a high court) in 1557, he became close friends with the humanist writer Étienne de la Boétie, who died in 1563. Montaigne married in 1565; he had six daughters, but only one survived childhood. In 1568 his father died and he inherited the Château de Montaigne.

He started to write in 1569, first a translation of the Spanish monk Raymond Seybond's Theologia naturalis, then a posthumous edition of Boétie's works. In 1571 he retired to the Château where in his library he began work on his Essais, first published in 1580.

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 Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre.

From 1580 to 1581, Montaigne travelled in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy and 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 was 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 and revise his Essais until the end of his life; he died in 1592 at the Château de Montaigne.


Montaigne essentially invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, of which his book contains a large number. Essai is French for "attempt".

He writes with utter frankness in a non-technical style, sometimes moving in a stream-of-thought fashion from topic to topic. His arguments are often supported with quotes from classical Greek and Roman texts.

Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe man, and especially his own self. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. A typical quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." He describes his poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disgust for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for death.

Montaigne is disgusted with the violent and for him barbaric conflicts between Catholics and Protestants of his time, and his writings show a pessimism and skepticism quite uncharacteristic for the Renaissance. Mentioning the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty, and he rejects general and absolute statements. His skepticism is best exposed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (12th chapter of book 2) which was frequently published seperately. We cannot trust our reasonings because thoughts just occur to us: we don't control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals.

Overall, Montaigne was a strong supporter of Humanism. He believed in God but declined to speculate about His nature.

Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."

He exhibited a quite modern cultural relativism, recognizing that laws, morals and religions of the various cultures, while often quite different, may all be equally valid. He opposed the conquest of the New World, deploring the suffering it brought to the natives.

In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that has to be accepted uncritically.

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