The French author Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) created a new literary genre, the essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born on Feb. 23, 1533, at the family estate called Montaigne in Périgord near Bordeaux. His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a Bordeaux merchant and municipal official whose grandfather was the first nobleman of the line. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes (Lopez), was descended from a line of Spanish Jews, the Marranos, long converted to Catholicism. Michel, their third son, was privately tutored and spoke only Latin until the age of 6. From 1539 until 1546 he studied at the Collège de Guyenne, in Bordeaux, where the Scottish humanist George Buchanan was one of his teachers, as was the less-known French poet and scholar Marc Antoine Muret. Very little is known of Montaigne's life from age 13 to 24, but he may have spent some time in Paris, probably studied law in Toulouse, and certainly indulged in the pleasures of youth.
In 1557 Montaigne obtained the position of councilor in the Bordeaux Parlement, and it was there that he met his closest friend and strongest influence, Étienne de la Boétie. La Boétie and Montaigne shared many interests, especially in classical antiquity, but this friendship was ended by La Boétie's death from dysentery in August 1563. Montaigne was with him through the 9 days of his illness. The loss of his friend was a serious emotional blow that Montaigne later described in his essay "On Friendship." In 1571 Montaigne published his friend's collected works.
Two years after La Boétie's death, after a number of diversionary affairs, Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne, daughter of a cocouncilor in the Bordeaux Parlement. She bore him six daughters, of whom only one survived to adulthood. The marriage was apparently amiable but sometimes cool—Montaigne believed that marriage was of a somewhat lower order than friendship.
In 1568 the elder Montaigne died, thus making Michel lord of Montaigne. Before his death, Pierre Eyquem had persuaded his son to translate into French the Book of Creatures or Natural Theology by the 15th-century Spanish theologian Raymond Sebond. The work was an apologia for the Christian religion based on proofs from the natural world. The translation was published early in 1569 and gave clear indication of Montaigne's ability both as translator and as author in his own right. From his work on this translation Montaigne later developed the longest of his many essays, "The Apology for Raymond Sebond." In this pivotal essay, Montaigne presented his skeptical philosophy of doubt, attacked human knowledge as presumptuous and arrogant, and suggested that self-knowledge could result only from awareness of ignorance.
In April 1570 Montaigne resigned from the Bordeaux Parlement, sold his position to a friend, and as lord of Montaigne formally retired to his country estate, his horses, and his beautiful and isolated third-floor library. He carefully recorded his retirement on his thirty-eighth birthday and soon began work on his Essais. Ten years later (1580) the first edition, containing books I and II, was published in Bordeaux.
Late in 1580 Montaigne began a 15-month trip through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. He visited many mineral baths and watering spas in hopes of finding relief from a chronic kidney stone condition. His journal of these travels, though not intended for publication, was published in 1774. Toward the end of his trip Montaigne learned of his election in August 1580 to the mayoralty of Bordeaux, an office in which he then spent two 2-year terms. By all accounts he served the city with conscientious distinction during a troubled period, although public service was clearly not his aspiration at that time. He himself obliquely defended his regime in the essay "Of Husbanding Your Will."
At the end of his term of office Montaigne spent the best part of a year revising the first two books of the Essais and preparing book III for inclusion in the 1588 Paris edition, the fifth edition of the work. In 1586 both war and plague reached his district, and he fled with his household in search of peace and healthier air, receiving at best reluctant hospitality from his neighboring squires. When he returned 6 months later, he found the castle pillaged but still habitable.
Montaigne's last years were brightened by his friendship and correspondence with his so-called adoptive daughter, Marie de Gournay (1565-1645), an ardent young admirer who edited the expanded 1595 edition of his works (mainly from annotations made by Montaigne) and, in its preface, defended his memory to posterity. (It was from her edition that John Florio produced the 1603 English-language edition, which was a source for Shakespeare's Tempest and other playwrights' work.)
After 2 years of illness and decline Montaigne died peacefully in his bed while hearing Mass on Sept. 13, 1592. He died a loyal Catholic, but he was always tolerant of other religious views.
It is difficult if not impossible to summarize the ideas of Montaigne's Essais. He was not a systematic thinker and defied all attempts to be pinned down to any single point of view. He preferred to show the randomness of his own thought as representative of the self-contradiction to which all men are prone. His characteristic motto was "Que saisje?" ("What do I know?") He was skeptical about the power of human reason, yet argued that each man must first know himself in order to live happily. The Essais constitute Montaigne's own attempt at self-knowledge and self-portrayal—in effect, they are autobiography. Since he argued that "each man bears the complete stamp of the human condition" ("chaque homme porte la forme entière de l'humaine condition"), these autobiographical exercises can also be seen as portraits of mankind in all its diversity. Although he constantly attacked man's presumption, arrogance, and pride, he nonetheless held the highest view of the dignity of man, in keeping with the dignity of nature.
As a skeptic, Montaigne opposed intolerance and fanaticism, believing truth never to be one-sided. He championed individual freedom but held that even repressive laws should be obeyed. He feared violence and anarchy and was suspicious of any radical proposals that might jeopardize the existing order in hopes of childish panaceas. Acceptance and detachment were for him the keys to happiness. In both the form and content of his Essais, Montaigne achieved a remarkable combination of inner tranquility and detachment, together with the independence and freedom of an unfettered mind.
Further Reading on Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Donald M. Frame wrote the best biography, Montaigne (1965), and has to his credit the excellent translation The Complete Works of Montaigne: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters (1957). His Montaigne's Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist (1955) is a valuable study of Montaigne's humanism, and he also published Montaigne's Essais: A Study (1969). Frieda S. Brown, Religious and Political Conservatism in the Essais of Montaigne (1963), is a useful study of his political ideas. For a scholarly analysis of Montaigne's philosophical skepticism see Craig B. Brush, Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Frame, Donald Murdoch, Montaigne: a biography, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984, 1965.
Leschemelle, Pierre, Montaigne, or, The anguished soul, New York: P. Lang, 1994.
Lowndes, M. E. (Mary E.), Michel de Montaigne: a biographical study, Philadelphia: R. West, 1978.