From the moment of his birth, Montaigne's education followed a pedagogical plan sketched out by his father and refined 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, 'draw the boy close 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). His father only hired servants who could speak Latin and they also were given strict orders to always speak to the boy in Latin, or when he was in their presence.The same rule applied to his mother, father and servants, who were obliged only to use Latin words he himself employed, and thus acquired a knowledge of the very language his tutor taught him. Montaigne's Latin education was accompanied by constant intellectual and spiritual stimulation. He was familiarized with Greek by a pedagogical method that employed games, conversation, exercises of solitary meditation, rather than books. Music was played from the moment of Montaigne's awakening. An épinettier (playing a zither original to the French region of Vosges) constantly accompanied 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, then under the direction of the greatest Latin scholar of the era, George Buchanan, where he mastered the whole curriculum by his thirteenth year. 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. He was awarded the highest honour of the French nobility, the collar of the order of St.Michael, something to which he aspired from his youth. While serving at the Bordeaux Parliament, he became very close friends with the humanist poet Étienne de la Boétie, whose death in 1563 deeply affected Montaigne. It has been argued that because of Montaigne's "imperious need to communicate," that, after losing Étienne, he began the Essais as his "means of communication;" and that "the reader takes the place of the dead friend."
At the age of 33, Montaigne married Françoise de la Cassaigne, in 1565, not quite of his own free will, and his wife bore him six daughters, but only the second-born 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 'citadel', where he almost totally isolated himself from every social and family affair. Locked up in his library, which boasted a collection of some 1,500 works, he began work on his Essays, first published in 1580. On the day of his 38th birthday, as he entered this almost ten-year period of self-imposed reclusion, he had the following inscription crown the bookshelves of his working chamber:
'In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquillity, and leisure.’
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, at the age of 59, in 1592 at the Château de Montaigne and was buried nearby. Later his remains were moved to the church of Saint Antoine at Bordeaux. The church no longer exists: it became the Convent des Feuillants, which has also disappeared. The Bordeaux Tourist Office says that Montaigne is buried at the Musée Aquitaine, Faculté des Lettres, Université Bordeaux 3 Michel de Montaigne, Pessac. His heart is preserved in the parish church of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne.
The humanities branch of the University of Bordeaux is named after him: Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3.
He writes about his disgust with the religious conflicts of his time, believing that humans are not able to attain true certainty (skepticism). The longest of his essays, Apology for Raymond Sebond contains his famous motto, "What do I know?"
Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked strong feelings of passionate love because he saw them as detrimental to freedom. In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that has to be accepted uncritically.
Since Edward Capell first made the suggestion in 1780, scholars have been confident that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne's essays. John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essais was available for Shakespeare in English shortly before he completed King Lear in 1603.
The American philosopher Eric Hoffer employed Montaigne both stylistically and in thought. In Hoffer's memoir, Truth Imagined, he noted upon reading Montaigne, "I felt all the time he was writing about me. He knew my innermost thoughts."
The Welsh novelist John Cowper Powys expressed his admiration for Montaigne's philosophy in his books Suspended Judgements (1916) and The Pleasures of Literature (1938).
Judith N. Shklar introduces her book Ordinary Vices (1984), "It is only if we step outside the divinely ruled moral universe that we can really put our minds to the common ills we inflict upon one another each day. That is what Montaigne did and that is why he is the hero of this book, In spirit he is on every one of its pages..."
He is much admired by the essayist and novellist Gore Vidal.
He was also much admired and cited by essayist and "biology watcher" Lewis Thomas, author of, among other books, Lives of a Cell.