Michel de Montaigne was born on 28 February, 1533. He died on 13 September, 1592. In between he studied law, became a Councillor of the Parliament of Bordeaux, translated Raymond Sebond's Theologia Moralis into French, and published three volumes of essays containing 107 essays in total.
While it is possible to comfortably carry his complete works without the assistance of any mechanical device, sometimes quality is more important than quantity. Montaigne is credited with being the initiator of the essay as a modern literary form, and was the first to use the French word essais, meaning 'attempt', to describe this form of writing.
Montaigne says in a note1 to the reader:
I have proposed to myself only an intimate and private end; I have not considered what would be serviceable for you or my renown... I desire to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday guise, without effort and artifice; for it is my own self that I portray. My imperfections will be seen herein to the life, and my personal nature... Since, reader, I am thus, myself, the subject of my book, it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on so trivial and empty a matter.
Many critics disagree with this self-assessment. Many have found Montaigne's treatment of the various subjects which interested him fascinating and a pleasure to read.
The first thing the modern reader may notice about the essays is the abundance of quotations. This was a common device of the times, as it was believed that everything needing to be said had already been said. Montaigne's earlier essays are weighed more heavily with quotations than his later ones, because he grew more bold with his own thoughts as he published later editions. The modern reader may also express surprise at how, in many ways, mankind has changed little in over 400 years, at how much mankind has changed in others, and at the insight Montaigne provides into the human condition.
'On Cannibals' - Vol I, Chapter XXXI
In this essay, which appears in Montaigne's first volume, Montaigne writes on the natives of 'that other world which has been discovered in our time'... America. He does not praise a state of savagery, but rather, a state of nature, espousing a similar view on the subject to that of Jean Jaques Rousseau who himself wrote nearly a century later. Montaigne wrote:
They are wild men, just as we call those fruits wild which Nature has produced unaided and in her usual course; whereas, in truth, it is those that we have altered by our skill and removed from the common kind which we ought rather to call wild.
A collection of Montaigne's essays is one of the few books known to have been in Shakespeare's library. A copy of the Florio translation, published in 1603, with Shakespeare's signature on the flyleaf, is stored in the British Museum. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1610. Decide for yourself the extent of Montaigne's influence:
It is a nation in which there is no sort of traffic, no acquaintance with letters, no knowledge of numbers, no title of magistrate or of political eminence, no custom of service, of wealth, or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividings of property, no occupations except leisurely ones, no respect for any kinship save in common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metals, no use of wine or grain.
- Shakespeare 2:
I'th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation: all men idle, all,
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty -
The essay concludes with Montaigne mentioning three natives from the American colony who were brought to the court of King Charles IX. They were shown around the city, and then asked what they thought. Included in their comments:
(They have a fashion of speech of calling men halves of one another), they had perceived that there were among us some men gorged to the full with all sorts of possessions, and that their other halves were beggars at the doors, gaunt with hunger and destitution; and they thought it strange that these poverty-stricken halves could suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.
'On the Power of the Imagination' - Vol I, Chapter XXI
This essay illustrates both the prevalent superstition of Montaigne's time, and Montaigne's 'frankness of speech' and 'lack of refinement'3, as one critic put it.
And although it may be no new thing to see horns grow in the night on one who had none when he went to bed, nevertheless the case of Cyprus, King of Italy, is noteworthy, who, after he had been present during the day, with great zest, at a bull-fight, and had dreamed all night of horns, produced them on his head by force of the imagination.
Montaigne says that, while it is common to dream about having horns, King Cyprus actually sprouted real horns by the power of his imagination. He continues with other miraculous tales, such as the story of a man named Germain, who claimed to have been a girl named Marie up to the age of 22;
When making a certain effort in leaping, his virile parts appeared; and there is still current among the girls of the place a ballad in which they warn one another not to take long strides for fear of becoming boys, like Marie Germain.
This produces an interesting visual. Montaigne does not refrain from speaking more about a man's 'virile parts', and the male reader cannot help but nod his head in empathy with Montaigne;
One has reason to remark on the unruly liberty of this member that so importunately asserts itself when we have no need of it, and so inopportunely fails us when we have most need of it, so imperiously contesting in authority with our will, so proudly and obstinately refusing our solicitations, both mental and manual.
Montaigne imagines that his member, being scolded for its rebellion, might hire him as a lawyer to plead its case; and, if so, Montaigne comes to the conclusion that other parts of his body might be guilty of creating this quarrel out of 'envy of the importance and pleasure attached to its function', for they too are guilty of the same offence;
For I ask you to consider where there is one of the parts of our body that does not often refuse to work at our will, and does not often exert itself contrary to our will... The same cause that animates the male member animates also, without our choice, the heart, the lungs, and the pulse... We do not command our hair to stand on end and our skin to quiver with desire or with fear; the hand often goes where we do not send it... And although, to establish the supreme power of our will, St Augustine declares that he had seen a man who obliged his hinder parts to break wind as often as he chose... this does not imply complete obedience in that organ; for is there one which is commonly more indiscreet and unruly?
While we may wish to argue with the perceptions Montaigne attributes to the King of Cyprus, Marie Germain, or St Augustine, it is hard to argue with the perceptions Montaigne attributes to himself.
'On Coaches' - Vol III, Chapter VI
In his third volume, within an essay in which he focuses mainly on various modes of transportation, Montaigne also returns to America as a subject;
What a reparation to them it would have been, and what an improvement for the whole world, if the first examples of our conduct that we offered to view in those parts had inspired those nations with admiration and imitation of virtue, and had brought about between them and us a fraternal intercourse and understanding... On the contrary, we made use of their ignorance and inexperience to bend them more easily toward treachery, lust, covetousness, and toward every sort of inhumanity and cruelty, by the example and pattern of our conduct. When has so high a price ever set on the course of trade and traffic? So many cities destroyed, so many nations exterminated, so many millions put to the sword, and the richest and fairest portion of the world turned topsy-turvy to obtain pearls and pepper... victories of commerce! Never did ambition, never did national enmities, impel men to such horrible hostility toward others.
It is difficult to convince oneself that this essay was written in the 1500s, while the events were occurring, and yet the words were allowed to be published. Montaigne goes on and describes a few particular hostilities, including the death of the last King of Peru.
American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Montaigne to be the 'frankest and honestest of all writers'. In Montaigne: or, the Skeptic Emerson says Lord Byron considered Montaigne 'the only great writer of past times whom he read with avowed satisfaction'; and Edward Gibbon 'reckons, in these bigoted times [there were] but two men of liberality in France: Henry IV and Montaigne'.
One critic4 has appropriately said of Montaigne;
As he speaks of everything without order or method, any man can glean what he likes from the 'Essays', which will often be what some other would leave aside. There is no author it is easier to give a twist to without incurring the blame of betraying him, for he himself sets the example and constantly contradicts and betrays himself. 'In truth, and I am not afraid to confess it, I would readily, at need, offer a candle to St Michael and another to his dragon.'5'
The consequence of this is that no review can be adequate. Every reviewer will bring their own twist to Montaigne. The only way to truly understand the genius of Montaigne is to read the essays yourself. Luckily, the three volumes are contained in less than 1,000 pages of high density quality.
Here is a brief chronology of events to give one a sense of what else was going on in Europe during the time Montaigne wrote.
- 1492: Columbus sailed the ocean
- 1533: Montaigne was born
- 1546: Martin Luther died
- 1548: Montaigne began to study law
- 1556: Abdication of Charles V
- 1557: Montaigne became Councillor of the Parliament of Bordeaux
- 1560: Accession of Charles IX
- 1564: Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei were born
- 1569: Montaigne translated the Theologia Moralis
- 1571: Montaigne began composing his essays
- 1587: Execution of Mary Stuart
- 1588: Spanish Armada
- 1592: Montaigne died
- 1616: Shakespeare died