Montaigne, Michel de


Montaigne, Michel de
(1533-1592)
   French moral philoso-pher and author, commonly regarded as the inventor of the personal essay as a literary genre. His father was a wealthy lawyer who had risen to the minor nobility. The father was himself attracted to classi-cal and humanistic learning but was not very skilled in Latin. He de-vised a unique system of education for his infant son, surrounding him with a German tutor and a household of servants who spoke only Latin to the child, so that until he was six, Montaigne himself spoke only Latin. He was sent to study at the Collège de Guyenne, one of the best of France's Latin grammar schools. Subsequently he studied law, probably at Toulouse, and at age 21 began work as a lawyer, holding a magistracy in the Parlement de Guyenne (the supreme ju-dicial court of southwestern France) at Bordeaux.
   Montaigne found this judicial career dull and unfulfilling. Since he was sufficiently wealthy to live off his private fortune, he retired in 1571 and moved to his estate at Montaigne, intending to spend the rest of his life reading, thinking, and writing. In 1580-1581 he undertook a long foreign tour for self-education, visiting Germany, Switzerland, and especially Italy, where he met many of that country's leading liter-ary and philosophical figures. His scholarly retreat was interrupted by service as mayor of Bordeaux (1581-1585), a difficult task in a period when the country was torn by civil war between Protestants and Catholics. Though personally loyal to his country's traditional Catholic faith, he despised the violence and fanaticism of extremists on both sides of the conflict. Because of his candor and honesty he came to be respected and trusted by moderates on both sides, including the Protes-tant leader Henry of Navarre, the future King Henry IV, who used Montaigne to conduct confidential negotiations between rival factions.
   In 1569 Montaigne published his first work, a French translation of the Natural Theology of Raymond Sebond, a Catalan theologian of the 15th century who undertook to prove by rational demonstration all the doctrines of the Catholic faith, an effort that Montaigne re-garded as futile and that had led to censure by the church because he left no room for faith. Montaigne also wrote a journal of his travels abroad. Yet his great literary work is his three books of essays, the first two published in 1580, revised and republished several times, and reissued with a third book in 1588. He continued revising and adding to the text until his death, and a posthumous edition incorpo-rating all of the later additions was published in 1595 under the edi-torship of the intellectual noblewoman Marie de Gournay.
   Although the essays deal in an idiosyncratic and deliberately un-systematic way with a broad range of topics, the real subject of all of them is the author himself as he thinks about his own varied experi-ence. The work reflects Montaigne's profound mastery of classical literature, the result of years of thoughtful reading, yet he had no in-tention of presenting or systematically endorsing the ideas of any au-thor. One of his most famous essays, "Of Education," insists that the proper goal in reading the classics is not to memorize facts about them but to use them for the formation of one's own beliefs. Though the search for truth is characteristic of human nature, the finding of truth (in the sense of absolute and indisputable truth) is highly ques-tionable. Montaigne was strongly influenced by the writings of Sex-tus Empiricus, the only surviving text of ancient Greek pyrrhonist skepticism, and by the works of some earlier Renaissance authors who had shown interest in philosophical skepticism, and while he was no more a systematic skeptic than he was a systematic follower of any school of philosophy, a strong element of doubt permeates his thought. His longest and philosophically most earnest essay, "Apol-ogy for Raymond Sebond," is a historically important discussion of extreme (or pyrrhonist) skepticism. In practice, his interest is not in abstract questions of science or philosophy but in the kind of moral decisions that people make every day of their lives, practical deci-sions about which of several possible courses of action the individual should choose. In this quest for an experience-based moral philoso-phy that recognizes the impossibility of absolute certainty and is will-ing to settle for probability, ancient Stoicism, as found in the writings of Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, seems to have been more attractive to Montaigne than any other system, though he had no interest at all in the metaphysical foundations of ancient Stoic philosophy and was merely interested in the making of day-to-day decisions.
   Even in his defense of Catholicism, his line of reasoning is not that he can demonstrate the truth of that religion's doctrines but that he can show that the rival Protestant theologians have not convincingly proved that their beliefs are more true than the Catholic ones. Hence he advises holding fast to the traditional system, since doing so seems to offer a better chance of social and political stability. Montaigne may have been a dutiful Catholic, but his writings do not glow with religious warmth. His essay "On Cannibals" is a famous example of the cultural relativism that he drew from the experience of meeting natives from the short-lived French colony in Brazil. In it he suggests that "barbarism" is merely any custom that is alien to our own cus-toms and that a people's religion is determined not by what is true but by where they are born and brought up.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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