This is a beta version of NNDB
Search: for

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de MontaigneAKA Michel-Eyquen de Montaigne

Born: 28-Feb-1533
Birthplace: Château de Montaigne, France
Died: 23-Sep-1592
Location of death: Château de Montaigne, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Église de Foeuillens, Bordeaux, France

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Essayist

Nationality: France
Executive summary: Essays

French essayist born, as he himself tells us, between eleven o'clock and noon on the 28th of February 1533. The patronymic of the Montaigne family, who derived their title from the château at which the essayist was born and which had been bought by his grandfather, was Eyquem. It was believed to be of English origin, and the long tenure of Gascony and Guienne by the English certainly provided abundant opportunity for the introduction of English colonists. But the elaborate researches of Malvézin (Michel de Montaigne, son origine et sa famille, 1875) proved the existence of a family of Eyquems or Ayquems before the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to King Henry II of England, though no connection between this family, who were sieurs de Lesparre, and the essayist's ancestors can be made out. Montaigne is not far from Bordeaux, with which the Eyquem family had for some time been connected. Pierre Eyquem, Montaigne's father, had been engaged in commerce (a herring-merchant Scaliger calls him, and his grandfather Ramon had certainly followed that trade), had filled many municipal offices in Bordeaux, and had served under Francis I in Italy as a soldier. He married Antoinette de Louppes (Lopez), descended from a family of Spanish Jews. The essayist was the third son. By the death of his elder brothers, however, he became head of the family. He had also six younger brothers and sisters. His father appears, like many other men of the time, to have made a hobby of education. Montaigne was not only put out to nurse with a peasant woman, but had his sponsors from the same class, and was accustomed to associate with it. He was taught Latin orally by servants (a German tutor, Horstanus, is especially mentioned), who could speak no French, and many curious fancies were tried on him, as, for instance, that of waking him every morning by soft music. But he was by no means allowed to be idle. A plan of teaching him Greek by some kind of mechanical arrangement is not very intelligible, and was quite unsuccessful. These details of his education (which, like most else that is known about him, come from his own mouth) are not only interesting in themselves, but remind the reader how, not far from the same time, Rabelais, the other leading writer of French during the Renaissance, was exercising himself, though not being exercised, in plans of education almost as fantastic. At six years old Montaigne was sent to the collège de Guienne at Bordeaux, then at the height of its reputation. Among its masters were Buchanan, afterwards the teacher of King James I, and Muretus, one of the first scholars of the age. At thirteen Montaigne left the collège de Guienne and began to study law, it is not known where, but probably at Toulouse. In 1548 he was at Bordeaux during one of the frequent riots caused by the gabelle, or salt-tax. Six years afterwards, having attained his majority, he was made a counsellor in the Bordeaux parlement. In 1558 he was present at the siege of Thionville, in 1559 and 1561 at Paris, and in 1562 at the siege of Rouen. He was also much about the court, and he admits very frankly that in his youth he led a life of pleasure, if not exactly of excess. In 1565 he married Françoise de la Chassaigne, whose father was, like himself, a member of the Bordeaux parlement. Three years later his father died, and he succeeded to the family possessions. Finally, in 1571, as he tells us in an inscription still extant, he retired to Montaigne to take up his abode there, having given up his magistracy the year before. His health, never strong, had been further weakened by the hard living which was usual at the time. He resolved, accordingly, to retire to a life of study and contemplation, though he indulged in no asceticism except careful diet. He neither had nor professed any enthusiastic affection for his wife, but he lived on excellent terms with her, and bestowed some pains on the education of the only child (a daughter, Léonore) who survived infancy. In his study -- a tower of refuge, separate from the house, which he has minutely described -- he read, wrote, dictated, meditated, inscribed moral sentences which still remain on the walls and rafters, annotated his books, some of which are still in existence, and in other ways gave himself up to a learned ease.

He was not new to literature. In his father's lifetime, and at his request, he had translated the Theologia naturalis of Raymund de Sabunde, a Spanish schoolman (published 1569). On first coming to live at Montaigne he edited the works of his deceased friend Étienne de la Boétie, who had been the comrade of his youth, who died early, and who, with poems of real promise, had composed a declamatory and school-boyish theme on republicanism, entitled the Contr' un, which is one of the most over-estimated books in literature. But the years of his studious retirement were spent on a work of infinitely greater importance. Garrulous after a fashion as Montaigne is, he gives us no clear idea of any original or definite impulse leading him to write the famous Essays. It is very probable that if they were at first intended to have any special form at all it was that of a table-book or journal, such as was never more commonly kept than in the 16th century. It is certainly very noticeable that the earlier essays, those of the first two books, differ from the later in one most striking point, in that of length. Speaking generally, the essays of the third book average fully four times the length of those of the other two. This of itself would suggest a difference in the system of composition. These first two books appeared in 1580, when their author was forty-seven years old.

They contain, as at present published, no fewer than ninety-three essays, besides an exceedingly long apology for the already mentioned Raymund Sabunde, in which some have seen the kernel of Montaigne's philosophy. The book begins with a short avis (address to the reader), opening with the well-known words, "C'est icy un livre de bon foy, lecteur", and sketching in a few lively sentences the character of meditative egotism which is kept up throughout. His sole object, the author says, is to leave for his friends and relations a mental portrait of himself, defects and all; he cares neither for utility nor for fame. The essays then begin, without any attempt to explain or classify their subjects. Their titles are of the most diverse character. Sometimes they are proverbial sayings or moral adages, such as "Par divers moyens on arrive à pareille fin", "Qu'il ne faut juger de notre heur qu'après la mort", "Le profit de l'on est le dommage de l'aultre." Sometimes they are headed like the chapters of a treatise on ethics: "De la tristesse", "De l'oisiveté", "De la peur", "De l'amitié." Sometimes a fact of some sort which has awaked a train of associations in the mind of the writer serves as a title, such as "On est puni de s'opiniastrer à une place sans raison." "De la bataille de Dreux", etc. Occasionally the titles seem to be deliberately fantastic, as "Des puces", "De l'usage de se vestir." Sometimes, though not very often, the sections are in no proper sense essays, but merely commonplace book entries of singular facts or quotations, with hardly any comment. These point to the haphazard or indirect origin of them, which has been already suggested. But generally the essay-character -- that is to say, the discussion of a special point, it may be with wide digressions and divergences -- displays itself. The digressions are indeed constant, and sometimes have the appearance of being absolutely wilful. The nominal title, even when most strictly observed, is rarely more than a starting-point; and, though the brevity of these first essays for the most part prevents the author from journeying very far, he contrives to get to the utmost range of his tether. Quotations are very frequent.

In 1571 he had received the order of Saint-Michel; in 1574 was with the army of the Duke de Montpensier; two years later was made gentleman-in-ordinary to Henri III, and next year again to Henry of Navarre. He visited Paris occasionally, and travelled for health or pleasure to Cauterets, Eaux Chaudes and elsewhere. But his health grew worse and worse, and he was tormented by stone and gravel. He accordingly resolved to journey to the baths of Lucca. Late in the 18th century a journal was found in the château de Montaigne giving an account of this journey, and it was published in 1774; part of it is written in Italian and part dictated in French, the latter being for the most part the work of a secretary or servant. Whatever may be the biographical value of this work, which has rarely been reprinted with the Essays themselves, and the manuscript of which disappeared early, it is almost entirely destitute of literary interest. The course of the journey was first northwards to Plombières, then by Basel to Augsburg and Munich, then through Tirol to Verona and Padua in Italy. Montaigne visited most of the famous cities of the north and center, staying five months at Rome, where he had an audience of the pope and was made a Roman citizen, and finally establishing himself at the baths of Lucca for nearly as long a time. There he received news of his election as mayor of Bordeaux with a peremptory royal endorsement enjoining residence, and after some time journeyed homewards. The tour contains much minute information about roads, food, travelling, etc., but the singular condition in which it exists and the disappearance of the manuscript make it rather difficult to use it as a document. The best argument in its favor is the improbability of anybody having taken the trouble to forge so bald and awkward a heap of details. Of the fact of the journey there is no doubt whatever.

Montaigne was not altogether delighted at his election to the mayoralty, which promised him two years of responsible if not very hard work. The memory of his father, however, and the commands of the king induced him to accept it; and he seems to have discharged it neither better nor worse than an average magistrate. Indeed, he gave sufficient satisfaction to the citizens to be reelected at the close of his term, and it may be suspected that the honor of the position, which was really one of considerable dignity and importance, was not altogether indifferent to him. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that "nothing in his office became him like the leaving of it." It was his business, if not exactly his duty, to preside at the formal election of his successor, the maréchal de Matignon; but there was a severe pestilence in Bordeaux, and Montaigne writes to the jurats of that town, in one of the fewundoubtedly authentic letters which we possess, to the effect that he will leave them to judge whether his presence at the election is so necessary as to make it worth his while to expose himself to the danger of going into the town in its then condition, "which is specially dangerous for men coming from a good air, as he does." It may be urged in his favor that the general circumstances of the time, where they did not produce reckless and foolhardy daring, almost necessarily produced a somewhat excessive caution. However this may be, Montaigne had difficulty enough during this turbulent period, all the more so from his neighborhood to the chief haunts and possessions of Henry of Navarre, who actually visited him at Montaigne in 1584. He was able, despite the occupations of his journey, his mayoralty, and the pressure of civil war and pestilence, which was not confined to the town, to continue his essay writing. His second term of office terminated in 1585; and in 1588 after a visit of some length to Paris, the third book of the Essays was published, together with the former ones considerably revised. The new essays, as has been remarked, differ strikingly from the older ones in respect of length; and the whimsical unexpectedness of the titles reappears in but two of them: "Des Coches" and "Des Boiteux." They are, however, identical with the earlier ones in spirit, and make with them a harmonious whole -- a book which has hardly been second in influence to any of the modern world.

This influence is almost equally remarkable in point of matter and in point of form. The latter aspect may be taken first. Montaigne is one of the few great writers who have not only perfected but have also invented a literary kind. The essay as he gave it had no forerunner in modern literature and no direct ancestor in the literature of classical times. It has been suggested that the form which the essays assumed was in a way accidental, and this of itself precludes the idea of a definite model, even if such a model could be found. Beginning with the throwing together of a few stray thoughts and quotations linked by a community of subject, the author by degrees acquires more and more certainty of hand, until he produces such masterpieces of apparent desultoriness and real unity as the essay "Sur des vers de Virgile." In matter of style and language Montaigne's position is equally important, but the ways which led him to it are more clearly traceable. His favorite author was beyond all doubt Plutarch, and his own explicit confession makes it undeniable that Plutarch's translator, Jacques Amyot, was his master in point of vocabulary and (so far as he took any lessons in it) of style. Montaigne, however, followed with the perfect independence that characterized him. He was a contemporary of Pierre de Ronsard, and his first essays were published when the innovations of the Pléiade had full established themselves. He adopted them to a great extent, but wit much discrimination, and he used his own judgment in latinizing when he pleased. In the same way he retained archaic and provincial words with a good deal of freedom, but by no means to excess. In the arrangement, as in the selection, of his language he is equally original. He has not the excessive classicism of style which mars even the fine prose of John Calvin, and which makes that of some of Calvin's followers intolerably stiff. As a rule he is careless of definitely rhythmical cadence, though his sentences are always pleasant to the ear. But the principal characteristic of Montaigne's prose style is its remarkable ease and flexibility. A few years after Montaigne's death a great revolution, as is generally known, passed over France. The criticism of François de Malherbe, followed by the establishment of the Academy, the minute grammatical censures of Claude Favre Vaugelas, and the severe literary censorship of Nicolas Boileau, turned French in less than three-quarters of a century from one of the freest languages in Europe to one of the most restricted. During this revolution only two writers of older date held their ground, and those two were Rabelais and Montaigne -- Montaigne being of his nature more generally readable than Rabelais. All the great prose writers of France could not fail to be influenced by the racy phrase, the quaint and picturesque vocabulary, and the unconstrained constructions of Montaigne.

It would be impossible, however, for the stoutest defender of the importance of form in literature to assign the chief part in Montaigne's influence to style. It is the method, or rather the manner of thinking, of which that style is the garment, which has in reality exercised influence on the world. Like all the greatest writers except William Shakespeare, Montaigne thoroughly and completely exhibits the intellectual and moral complexion of his own time. When he reached manhood the French Renaissance was at high water, and the turn of the tide was beginning. Rabelais, who died when Montaigne was still in early manhood, exhibits the earlier and rising spirit, though he needs to be completed on the poetical side. With Montaigne begins the age of disenchantment. By the time at least when he began to meditate his essays in the retirement of his country house it was tolerably certain that no golden age was about to return. As the earlier Renaissance had specially occupied itself with the practical business and pleasures of life, so the later Renaissance specially mused on the vanity of this business and these pleasures. The predisposing circumstances which affected Montaigne were thus likely to incline him to skepticism, to ethical musings on the vanity of life and the like. But to all this there had to be added the peculiarity of his own temperament. This was a decidedly complicated one, and neglect of it has led some readers to adopt a more positive idea of Montaigne's skepticism than is fully justified by all the facts. The attitude which he assumed was no doubt ephectic and critical chiefly. In the "Apologie de Raymund Sabunde", he has apparently amused himself with gathering together, in the shape of quotations as well as of reflections, all that can be said against certainty in aesthetics as well as in dogmatics. It is even said by some who have examined the original (vide infra) that the text and alterations show a progressively freethinking attitude, side by side with a growing tendency to conceal it by ambiguity and innuendo. But until all the documents are accessible this must remain doubtful. The general tenor of the essays is in complete contrast with this skeptical attitude, at least in its more decided form, and it is worth notice that the motto "Que scai-je?" does not appear on the title page until after the writer's death. Montaigne is far too much occupied about all sorts of the minutest details of human life to make it for a moment admissible that he regarded that life as a whole but as smoke and vapor. And it is almost certainly wrong, though M. Brunetière may have given countenance and currency to the idea, to regard his philosophy as in the main intended as a succour against the fear of death. The reason of the misapprehension of him which is current is due very mainly to the fact that he was eminently a humorist. Perhaps the only actual parallel to Montaigne in literature is Charles Lamb. There are differences between them, arising naturally enough from differences of temperament and experience; but both agree in their attitude -- an attitude which is skeptical without being negative and humorous without being satiric. There is hardly any writer in whom the human comedy is treated with such completeness as it is in Montaigne. There is discernible in his essays no attempt to map out a complete plan, and then to fill up its outlines. But in the desultory and haphazard fashion which distinguishes him there are few parts of life on which he does not touch, if only to show the eternal contrast and antithesis which dominate it. The exceptions are chiefly to be found in the higher and more poetical strains of feeling to which the humorist temperament lends itself with reluctance and distrust, though it by no means excludes them. The positiveness of the French disposition is already noticeable in Rabelais; it becomes more noticeable still in Montaigne. He is always charming, but he is rarely inspiring, except in a very few passages where the sense of vanity and nothingness possesses him with unusual strength. As a general rule, an agreeable grotesque of the affairs of life (a grotesque which never loses hold of good taste sufficiently to be called burlesque) occupies him. There is a kind of anticipation of the scientific spirit in the careful zeal with which he picks up odd aspects of mankind and comments upon them as he places them in his museum. Such a temperament is most pleasantly shown when it is least personal. Generations of men have rejoiced in the gentle irony with which Montaigne handles the ludicrum humani saeculi, in the quaint felicity of his selection of examples, and in the real though sometimes fantastic wisdom of his comment on his selections.

Montaigne did not very long survive the completion of his book. On his way to Paris for the purpose of getting it printed he stayed for some time at Blois, where he met De Thou. In Paris itself he was for a short time committed to the Bastille by the Leaguers, as a kind of hostage, it is said, for a member of their party who had been arrested at Rouen by Henry of Navarre. But he was in no real danger. He was well known to and favored by both Catherine de Medici and the Guises, and was very soon released. In Paris, too, at this time he made a whimsical but pleasant friendship. Marie de Jars de Gournay (1565-1645), one of the most learned ladies of the 16th and 17th centuries, had conceived such a veneration for the author of the Essays that, though a very young girl and connected with many noble families, she travelled to the capital on purpose to make his acquaintance. He gave her the title of his "fille d'alliance" (adopted daughter), which she bore proudly for the rest of her long life. She lived far into the 17th century, and became a character and something of a laughingstock to the new generation; but her services to Montaigne's literary memory were, as will be seen, great. Of his other friends in these last years of his life the most important were Étienne Pasquier and Pierre Charron. The latter, indeed, was more than a friend, he was a disciple; and Montaigne, just as he had constituted Mlle. de Gournay his "fille d'alliance", bestowed on Charron the rather curious compliment of desiring that he should take the arms of the family of Montaigne. It has been thought from these two facts, and from an expression in one of the later essays, that the marriage of his daughter Léonore to Gaston de La Tour had not turned out to his satisfaction. But family affection, except towards his father, was by no means Montaigne's strongest point. When Henry of Navarre came to the throne of France, he wished Montaigne, whom he had again visited in 1587, to come to court, but the essayist refused. It would seem that he returned from Paris to his old life of study and meditation and working up his Essays. No new ones were found after his death, but many alterations and insertions. His various maladies grew worse; yet they were not the direct cause of his death. He was attacked with quinsy, which rapidly brought about paralysis of the tongue, and he died on the 13th of September 1592, in circumstances which, as Pasquier reports them, completely disprove any intention of displaying anti-Christian or anti-Catholic leanings. He was buried, though not until some months after his death, in a church in Bordeaux, which after some vicissitudes became the chapel of the college. During the Revolution the tomb, and as it was supposed the coffin, were transferred with much pomp to the town museum; but it was discovered that the wrong coffin had been taken, and it was afterwards restored to its old position. Montaigne's widow survived him, and his daughter left posterity which became merged in the noble houses of Ségur and Lur-Saluces. But it does not appear that any male representative of the family survived.

When Mlle. de Gournay heard of the death of Montaigne she undertook with her mother a visit of ceremony and condolence to the widow, which had important results for literature. Mme. de Montaigne gave her a copy of the edition of 1588 annotated copiously; at the same time, apparently, she bestowed another copy, also annotated by the author, on the convent of the Feuillants in Bordeaux, to which the church in which his remains lay was attached. Mlle. de Gournay thereupon set to work to produce a new and final edition with a zeal and energy which would have done credit to any editor of any date. She herself worked with her own copy, inserting the additions, marking the alterations and translating all the quotations. But when she had got this to press she sent the proofs to Bordeaux, where a poet of some note, Pierre de Brach, revised them with the other annotated copy. The edition thus produced in 1595 has with justice passed as the standard, even in preference to those which appeared in the author's lifetime. Unluckily, Mlle. de Gournay's original does not appear to exist and her text was said, until the appearance of MM. Courbet and Royer's edition, to have been somewhat wantonly corrupted, especially in the important point of spelling. The Feuiilants copy is in existence, being the only manuscript, or partly manuscript, authority for the text; but access to it and reproduction of it are subjected to rather unfortunate restrictions by the authorities, and until it is completely edited students are rather at the mercy of those who have actually consulted it. It was edited in 1803 by Naigeon, the disciple of Denis Diderot; but, according to later inquiries, considerable liberties were taken with it.

Father: Pierre Eyquem (b. 29-Sep-1495, d. 18-Jun-1568)
Wife: Françoise de la Chassaigne (m. 1565)
Daughter: Léonore

    Arrested by the Protestant League, Paris (10-Jul-1588)
    Inmate: Bastille (10-Jul-1588), released the same day
    Risk Factors: Tonsillitis

Author of books:
Essais (1580, essays)

Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile

Copyright ©2021 Soylent Communications