Montaigne

Montaigne

[mon-teyn; Fr. mawn-ten-yuh]
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem, seigneur de, 1533-92, French essayist. Montaigne was one of the greatest masters of the essay as a literary form. Born at the Château of Montaigne in Périgord, he was the son of a rich Catholic landowner and a mother of Spanish Jewish descent. Montaigne's father, ambitious for his son's education, permitted him to hear and speak only Latin until he was six. After seven years at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, he studied for the law, held a magistracy until 1570, and was (1581-85) mayor of Bordeaux. From 1571 to 1580, in retirement and ostensibly aloof from the political and religious quarrels of France, he wrote the first two books of his Essais (1st ed. 1580). The third book of Essais and extensive revisions and additions to the first two was published in 1588 and again, with more revisions, in 1595. The essays, which were trials or tests of his own judgment on a diversity of subjects, show the change in Montaigne's thinking as his examination of himself developed into a study of humankind and nature. The early essays reflect Montaigne's concern with pain and death. To this group belongs the essay "On Friendship," which commemorates Montaigne's association with Étienne de La Boétie. A middle period, characterized by Montaigne's motto "Que sais-je?" [what do I know?], which sums up his skeptical attitude toward all knowledge, is represented by the "Apologie de Raimond Sebond." This essay purportedly defends a Catalan theologian whose work Montaigne had translated (1569), but it is actually an exposition on human fallibility. Montaigne's last essays reflect his acceptance of life as good and his conviction that humankind must discover their own nature in order to live with others in peace and dignity. The style of his essays is usually familiar, full of concrete images and lively or humorous digressions. Montaigne's works have been widely read abroad and have greatly influenced English literature. The old standard translation of his Essais was that of John Florio (1603); other translations include those of Jacob Zeitlin (1934-36) and Donald Frame (1957).

See his Autobiography (tr. by M. Lowenthal, 1956); biography by D. M. Frame (1965, repr. 1984); studies by A. Gide (tr. 1933, repr. 1939), P. P. Hallie (1967), D. Frame (1940, 1955, and 1969), and M. A. Screech (1984).

Essays is the title of a book written by Michel de Montaigne that was first published in 1580. Montaigne essentially invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, of which the book contains a large number. Essai is French for "trial" or "attempt".

Style

Montaigne wrote in a kind of crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style which gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotes from classical Greek and Roman texts.

Content

Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. 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 own 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, in his opinion, barbaric conflicts between Catholics and Protestants of his time, and his writings show a pessimism and skepticism quite uncharacteristic for the Renaissance.

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

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 upon the natives.

Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty, and he rejects general and absolute statements and all dogma. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to (the first known use of this argument against torture). In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond ostensibly defended Christianity. However, Montaigne eloquently employed many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomist Lucretius.

Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being 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."

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

The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.

Chronology

Montaigne heavily edited Essays at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:

  • A: passages written 1571-1580, published 1580
  • B: passages written 1580-1588, published 1588
  • C: passages written 1588-1592, published 1595 (posthumously),

Analysis of the differences and additions between editions shows how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Not unremarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.

External links

References

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