*Montaigne, Michel de
►→ also see ►→MICHEL EYGUEM DE MONTAIGNE (1533-1592)
►→ESSAYS, by Michel de Montaigne
Montaigne, Michel de
In 1571 at the age of 38 Michel de Montaigne, an aristocrat of the minor landed nobility, withdrew from public life to his château in southwestern France in order to devote his remaining years, in the company of the “Muses,” to a life of calm, freedom, and leisure, as well as respite from the civil wars of religion. Shortly thereafter he began writing what he called, by a somewhat strange name that was destined to have an immensely influential future, his Essais. Except for interruptions in order to travel and to serve as mayor of Bordeaux and as political negotiator, this project occupied him until his death 20 years later. The Essais consist of three books, published in 1580 (I and II), 1588 (III plus numerous additions to I and II), and posthumously in 1595. His literary apprenticeship had been slight: his only previous publication of any importance had been a translation into French of the Latin Book of Creatures or Natural Theology by the Spanish theologian Raymond Sebond, which would serve as the basis for his longest and least characteristic (though philosophically very important) essay, “Apologie de Raimond Sebond” (“Apology for Raymond Sebond”). Since his aim in writing the Essais was a highly personal one (“domestic and private” is how he describes the work in his foreword “Au lecteur” [“To the Reader”]), this was a type of writing—in fact it was one of the few types of writing—considered suitable for a “gentleman” (i.e. nobleman) of his day. Far from viewing himself as a literary artist, he wrote that he was “less a maker of books than of anything else” (“De la ressemblance des enfants aux pères” [“Of the Resemblance of Children to Fathers”]); his purpose was greater self-knowledge and knowledge of human nature in order to live more wisely.
His desire to write was also fired by the memory of his friendship with the late poet and political writer, Étienne de La Boétie. No longer able to converse or to correspond with his dearest friend, he felt the need to address his thoughts to others, to potential readers who might serve as surrogates for La Boétie. Thus the essay as he initially conceived it had something in it of both the letter to an ideal friend and the dialogue with an ideal friend, echoing two forms of discursive writing inherited from classical antiquity, two “forerunners” of the essay. This aspect goes a long way toward explaining the unique liveliness, the “irrepressible vivacity” (Virginia Woolf, 1925) of the Essais.
But La Boétie left an even greater mark on the work: Book I not only contains the justly famous tribute to the deceased friend, “De l’amitié” (“Of Friendship”), but also is structured as a “literary tomb” for him, the individual essays being compared to “fantastic paintings” (grotesques) surrounding and adorning what he considered the true masterpiece, La Boétie’s sonnets, located at the exact center of Book I.
But why the title Essais, and what models, if any, did Montaigne draw upon? It is clear that he did not begin with the kind of long, personal essay characteristic of the later books, especially Book III. The great pioneer Montaigne scholar, Pierre Villey, in tracing Montaigne’s progress from the beginning “toward the personal essay,” revealed that he not so much began with the essay as grew into it. “Villey has shown that the form of the Essays stems from the collections of exempla, quotations, and aphorisms which were a very popular genre [that] helped to spread humanistic material” (Erich Auerbach, 1946).
The evolution of his essays “epitomizes the general evolution of the form from the commonplace book [as these collections were known in England] to independent reflections” (Douglas Bush, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600– 1660, 1945). Montaigne’s earliest essays are generally very short and thick enough with quotations from classical and other writers (without any indication of sources) for him to remark of them, in his inimitable earthy style, that they “smell a bit foreign” (“Sur des vers de Virgile” [“On Some Verses of Virgil”]). But he also asserted that despite these “borrowed incrustations” he “does not speak the mind of others except to speak [his] own mind better” (“De Pinstitution des enfants” [“Of the Education of Children”]). Patrick Henry (1987) has pointed out that readers today stand in relation to Montaigne as he stood in relation to his sources, challenged by him, as he was by them, to develop our own thought in reading him.
It is important to note also—and this has great bearing on the future of the essay—that Montaigne carries such learning with a grace, charm, and human appeal seldom found in works of specialized knowledge, and was very conscious of doing so. “Authors communicate with the people by some special extrinsic work [i.e. authoritative credentials]; I am the first to do so by my entire being, as Michel de Montaigne, not as a grammarian or a poet or a jurist” (“Du repentir” [“Of Repentance”]). He thus initiated, for the immediate future, “a worldly literature breaking with specialized learning, the literature of l”honnête homme [the cultivated gentleman]” (Hugo Friedrich, 1949), and for the long run, the destiny of the essay as a vehicle of humanistic learning.
No real models existed for Montaigne’s essays. There was for him no “anxiety of influence,” as Harold Bloom would call it. He was very conscious of being a pioneer: “It is the only book of its kind, a book with a wild and eccentric plan” (“De l’affection des pères aux enfants” [“Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children”]). Montaigne himself includes among works encouraging him in the development of the essay: Horace’s verse Epistles, with their free-wheeling form; Plutarch’s Moral Essays, works “in which he forgets his theme, in which his subject is found only incidentally, quite smothered in foreign matter” (“De la vanité” [“Of Vanity”]—the reference is to ‘The Demon of Socrates”); Seneca’s Epistles, which were for Montaigne like Plutarch’s essays, “detached pieces that do not demand the obligation of long labor, of which I am incapable…For they have no continuity from one to the other” (“Des livres” [“Of Books”]); and Plato’s Dialogues, especially the Phaedrus, a “fantastic motley,” in which Plato lets himself be “tossed in the wind, or seem to be” (“Of Vanity”—italics added).
An important “anti-model” or “anti-essay,” so to speak, was Cicero, with his boring “prefaces, definitions, partitions…logical and Aristotelian arrangements…[and] longwinded preparations” (“Of Books”).
Andreas Blinkenberg (in Mélanges de linguistique et de littérature romanes offerts à Mario Roques, 1950) claims that Montaigne may have chosen his unfamiliar title, Essais, because of its lack of precision. From the Low Latin essagium (cf. Italian saggio and Spanish ensayo), essai or coup d’essai originally meant the apprentice artisan’s work as distinct from the master’s. By extension it came to mean any “testing,” “trying out,” “trial,” or “probing.” For Montaigne what is involved is his own “self-testing,” the testing of his judgment, his mind, indeed of his whole being as it is pitted against various problems: “As for the natural faculties that are in me, of which this book is the essay…” (“Of the Education of Children”); or again, he calls his writing “the record of the essays of my life” (“De l’expérience” [“Of Experience”]). He appears not to have used the term in its later sense of a literary form or genre, in fact calling the divisions of his book not essais but chapitres (chapters) or contes (stories). His concept of the essay as a testing of one’s powers guaranteed that the subject matter of the essay would be without limitation, infinitely open-ended, the generator of “infinis essais” (“numberless essays”—“Considération sur Ciceron” [“A Consideration upon Cicero”]). The suitability of any subject to self-testing is also supported by his philosophical belief that all subjects are mysteriously related to one another: “Any topic is fertile for me. A fly will serve my purpose…for all subjects are linked with one another” (“On Some Verses of Virgil”).
We have touched on Montaigne’s relatively novel “dialogic” or “dialectical” relationship with his reader (explored further by Patrick Henry). An even more radical departure from literary tradition is his relationship with his own book. “I am myself the matter of my book” (“To the Reader”); “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics and my physics” (“Of Experience”). He goes even further in stating that he and his book are one, using a theological term from the Nicene Creed: his book is “consubstantial with its author” (“Du démentir” [“Of Giving the Lie”]). He both shapes his book, by virtue of his art, and is shaped by it in his life and nature. But we must be careful not to oversimplify the complex meaning of the “self” for Montaigne. Far from portraying himself “entire and wholly naked,” his “respect for the public” (“To the Reader”), especially on the part of the gentleman that he was, placed limits on his candor.
JeanJacques Rousseau wrote his Confessions (1782-89) in part to show the way beyond what he considered the disappointing reticences of the Essais. Montaigne’s example taught future essayists that the essay is not expected to be self-revelatory in the same manner as the intimate journal or the confession. In addition to his silences he often adopts “protective masks” to hide his most daring thoughts and indulges in “artful proceedings” and “subterfuges” concerning his innermost self (Jacob Zeitlin, Introduction to The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, 1934). As well, he acknowledges the inevitable amount of “adornment” that occurs in any self-portrait: “Painting myself for others, I have painted my inward self with colors clearer than my original ones” (“Of Giving the Lie”).
Furthermore, the self that one finds in his essays is never solipsistic or narcissistic but has been broadened to include many other “voices.” Dialogue occurs not only with his reader and with the authors he quotes but also with himself, in what Donald Frame (1969) calls “the constant inner dialogue of the self-portrayer.” How can this be otherwise, since Montaigne has said, “I presented myself to myself for argument and subject” (“Of the Affection of Fathers for Their Children”)? The most famous of his assertions that his “self” was not to be narrowly construed is his oft-quoted statement, “Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate” (“Of Repentance”). In other words, his habit of selfobservation qualified him for observing others and seeking knowledge of “man in general” (“On Books”), but to attain such knowledge is another matter. Underlying the
Essais is his perception of reality as constant flux, perpetual motion: “I do not portray being, I portray passing” (“Of Repentance”). “The essay according to Montaigne,” writes Jean Starobinski (1982), is “the pursuit [of a self] that is by definition unattainable.” His use of the prepositions de (of) and sur (on) in so many of his titles arises less from respect for classical usage (Cicero, Seneca, et al.) or from modesty than from his conviction that no subject can be grasped in its totality: “For I do not see the whole of anything; nor do those who promise to show it to me” (“Of Experience”—italics added).
The critic’s attempt to describe the method and art of the Essais is helped immensely by the fact that this very subject lies at the heart of the book: “I write of myself and of my writings as of my other actions, because my theme turns in upon itself” (“Of Experience”). “The Essais are their own developed commentary” (Friedrich)—and, one should add, “their own best commentary.” The typical essayist’s habit of reflecting on his or her own art thus begins with Montaigne himself. Almost all his characteristic features of form and style flow logically from his desire to capture in writing that “marvelously vain, diverse, and undulating object that is the human being” (“Par divers moyens on arrive à pareille fin” [“By Diverse Means We Arrive at the Same End”]). A disorderly process at best, we might believe; but beneath the apparent disorder of the surface lies a new kind of order, a new kind of rhetoric which critics have come more and more to discover (Richard Sayce, Michel Baraz, Floyd Gray). “The very notion of order acquires a different sense in each truly original creation” (Baraz, 1961). For every passage of the essays calling attention to their formlessness there is a corresponding one inviting us to discover their hidden form. Citing Plato and Plutarch as precursors, Montaigne writes:
“My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance, and look at each other, but with a side-long glance” (“Of Experience”). And again: “It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I” (“Of Experience”). Starobinski shows that “the form ‘essayed’ by Montaigne approximates as fully as possible the absence of form [l’informe].”
Emerson’s (1850) description of Montaigne’s style has become famous: he found it “wild and savoury as sweet fern” and added, “Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive; they walk and run.” Montaigne’s finest translator, Donald Frame, has summed up the essential features of his style (in his translation of The Complete Essays, 1958): the “vivid bold images; the epigrammatic word play; the meandering, associative order, disdainful of logical connectives; the obscenity, which is a studied protest against man’s rejection of the body.” Montaigne’s style is both “familiar” and “poetic.” “The speech I love is a simple natural [naïf] speech, the same on paper as in the mouth…remote from affectation, irregular, disconnected and bold; each bit [chaque lopin] making a body in itself” (“Of the Education of Children”). Albert Thibaudet (1963) coined the term “lopinisme” to describe this style, arguing that it corresponded to a view of reality as fragmented and discontinuous. Humor is also an essential ingredient of this style, as it will be of the subsequent essay, especially of the English essay. This “humorous and familiar style” (“A Consideration upon Cicero”) was actually Montaigne’s very original adaptation into French of a literary mode going back to Seneca in Latin and to Plato in Greek, the so-called “Attic prose,” which fought traditional rhetoric with a new rhetoric and preferred “the forms that express the energy and labor of minds seeking the truth…to the forms that express a contented sense of the enjoyment and possession of it” (Morris Croll, 1966). As important as the familiar, conversational aspect of Montaigne’s style is its poetic quality, which will also leave its mark on future essayists, from Sir Thomas Browne to Emerson, Virginia Woolf and beyond. Plato’s Dialogues were his supreme example here; it is clear that he intended his own prose to be moved by a similar “demon” (operating often on a subconscious level):
“I love the poetic gait, by leaps and gambols. It is an art, as Plato says, light, flighty, demonic” (“Of Vanity”). Perhaps the most striking of his poetic qualities is his extensive use of imagery, first singled out for praise by the great critic Sainte-Beuve, who called his style “a perpetual metaphor, constantly renewed,” and attempted, with varying degrees of success, to imitate it in his own essays. More recently, Thibaudet and his disciple Floyd Gray (1958) have conducted perceptive analyses of Montaigne’s imagery.
Montaigne is the creator of the essay, of whom his numerous followers might say, as Haydn, speaking for the composers of his day, said of Handel, “He is the master of us all.” He also, quite extraordinarily for the inventor of a literary form, remains its greatest exponent, which may explain why he is both imitable and inimitable. His successors learned from him: the inexhaustible potentiality of the self as subject, testing itself agatnst an infinite variety of subjects; the role of chance in the selection of subjects; the use of the essay as “a literary device for saying almost everything about anything” (Aldous Huxley, 1958); the essay as vehicle for the process, rather than the end results, of thought: “For we are born to quest after truth; to possess it belongs to a greater power” (“De l’art de conférer” [“Of the Art of Discussion”]); and the replacement of logical thought by “free association artistically controlled” (Huxley). But there are also distinct limits to Montaigne’s influence, including certain unique features of his Essais: the role of La Boétie in their genesis; the presence of three “strata” in the definitive text (the original plus additions), which enhance in a unique way the overall impression of artful disorder; the “façade titles” of many essays, designed to trick the censor into missing the hidden, heterodox, or otherwise subversive subject (Patrick Henry); and the special way in which quotations are absorbed into the text. His towering stature as a writer may also have intimidated imitators; does one “imitate” Shakespeare? His profound skepticism about the possibility of “fashioning a consistent and solid fabric” out of a person (“De l’inconstance de nos actions” [“Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions”]) is not shared by all essayists; but, together with his claim to portray not “being” but “passing…from day to day, from minute to minute,” this view of human nature may have influenced such great modern novelists as Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, and Woolf (Sayce, Starobinski). But all, especially all essayists, would find it hard not to agree with Nietzsche’s magnificent tribute: “That such a man has written adds to the pleasure of having lived on earth.”
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Born 28 February 1533 at Château de Montaigne, near Bordeaux. Studied privately (spoke in Latin at home); Collège de Guyenne, Bordeaux, c. 1539–46; philosophy at the University of Bordeaux, from 1546; probably studied law, possibly in Toulouse or Paris. Councillor at the Cour des Aides, Périgueux, 1554, transferred to Bordeaux, 1557, where he became friends with Éfitienne de La Boétie (died, 1563). Married Françoise de la Chassaigne, 1565: one daughter (four others died in infancy). Inherited the domain of Montaigne upon father’s death, 1568; resigned magistracy, 1570. Suffered from kidney stones, from 1578, and traveled to Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, 1580–81, staying at various spas. Mayor of Bordeaux, 1581–85.
Friendship with Marie de Gournay, from 1588. Died (from kidney stones) at Château de Montaigne, 13 September 1592.
Essais, 2 vols., 1580; revised, enlarged edition, 3 vols., 1588; edited by Marie de Gournay (definitive edition), 1595; facsimile of 1580 edition reprinted, 2 vols., 1976;
facsimile of 1588 edition reprinted, 3 vols., 1987
Modern editions: (Municipal Edition) edited by Fortunat Strowski and others, 5 vols., 1906–33, Pierre Villey, 3 vols., 1930–31 (revised by V.-L.Saulnier, 2 vols., 1965), Jean Plattard, 6 vols., 1931–33 Maurice Rat, 3 vols., 1941, Pierre Michel, 3 vols., 1966,
Alexandre Micha, 3 vols., 1969, and Claude Pinganaud, 1992.
Translations in English: as Essays, translated by John Florio, 1603 (reprinted 1965),
Charles Cotton, 3 vols., 1685–86 (revised by William Carew Hazlitt, 1842, and Blanshard Bates, 1949), George B.Ives, 4 vols., 1925, E.J.Trechmann, 2 vols., 1927,
Jacob Zeitlin, 3 vols., 1934–36, Donald M.Frame, 1958, and M.A.Screech, 1991.
Selections in French: edited by J.Carol Chapman and François J.-L. Mouret, 1978.
Selections in English: edited and translated by Donald M.Frame, 1943, also a bilingual edition edited and translated by Frame, 1963; translated by J.M.Cohen, 1958; edited by Walter Kaiser, translated by John Florio, 1964; edited and translated by M.A.Screech, 1993.
Other writings: diary of a journey to Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes, edited by Armand Armaingaud, 12 vols.,
1924–41; OEuvres cotnplètes (Pléiade Edition), edited by Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat, 1962; The Complete Works, translated by Donald M.Frame, 1957.
Henry, Patrick, “Bibliography of Works Cited,” in his Montaigne in Dialogue, Saratoga, California: Anma Libri, 1987
Sayce, Richard A., and David Maskell, A Descriptive Bibliography of Montaigne’s Essais, 1580–1700, London: Bibliographical Society/Modern Humanities Research Association, 1983
Strawn, Richard R., and Samuel F.Will, “Michel Eyquem de Montaigne,” in A Critical Bibliography of French Literature, vol. 2, edited by Alexander H.Schutz, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1956
Tannenbaum, Samuel A., Michel de Montaigne (A Concise Bibliography), New York: S.A.Tannenbaum, 1942
Auerbach, Erich, “L’Humaine Condition,” in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953
(original German edition, 1946)
Baraz, Michel, “Sur la structure d’un essai de Montaigne,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et de Renaissance 23 (1961):265–81
Boase, Alan M., The Fortunes of Montaigne: A History of the Essays in France, 1580– 1669, London: Methuen, 1935; New York: Octagon, 1970
Bowman, Frank, Montaigne: Essays, London: Edward Arnold, 1965
Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne, 1913–
Burke, Peter, Montaigne, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981
Croll, Morris, “Attic Prose: Lipsius, Montaigne, Bacon,” in his Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm: Essays, edited by J.Max Patrick and others, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Montaigne; or the Skeptic,” in his Representative Men (Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 4), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1987 (original edition, 1850)
Frame, Donald, Montaigne in France, 1812–1852, New York: Octagon, 1970 (original edition, 1940)
Frame, Donald M., Montaigne’s Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist, New York: Columbia University Press, 1955
Frame, Donald M., Montaigne: A Biography, New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1965
Frame, Donald M., Montaigne’s Essais: A Study, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969
Friedrich, Hugo, Montaigne, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991 (original German edition, 1949)
Good, Graham, “Montaigne: The Growth of Experience,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988: 26–42
Gray, Floyd, Le Style de Montaigne, Paris: Nizet, 1958
Gray, Floyd, “The Unity of Montaigne in the Essais,” Modern Language Quarterly 22 (1961): 79–86
Henry, Patrick, Montaigne in Dialogue, Saratoga, California: Anma Libri, 1987
Huxley, Aldous, Preface to his Collected Essays, New York: Harper, 1958; London: Chatto and Windus, 1960
Kellermann, Frederick, “Montaigne, Reader of Plato,” Comparative Literature 8 (1956): 307–22
Pouilloux, Jean-Yves, Lire les Essais de Montaigne, Paris: Maspéro, 1969
Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin, in his Port-Royal, vol. i, Paris: Gallimard, 1952 (original edition, 1840)
Sainte-Beuve, Charles-Augustin, “Montaigne,” in his Causeries du lundi, vol. 4, Paris: Garnier Freres, 1927 (article originally published 1851)
Sayce, Richard, “L’Ordre des Essais de Montaigne,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et de Renaissance 8 (1946): 129–36
Sayce, Richard A., The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972
Schon, Peter M., Vorformen des Essays in Antike und Humanismus, vol. 1, Wiesbaden: Mainzer Romantische Arbeiten, 1954
Screech, M.A., Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays, London: Duckworth, 1983
Starobinski, Jean, “Montaigne on Illusion: The Denunciation of Untruth,” Daedalus 108 (1979): 85–101
Starobinski, Jean, Montaigne en mouvement, Paris: Gallimard, 1982; as Montaigne in Motion, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985
Telle, E.V., “A propos du mot ‘essai’ chez Montaigne,” Bibliothèque d’Hutnanisme et de Renaissance 30 (1968): 225–47
Thibaudet, Albert, Montaigne, Paris: Gallimard, 1963
Villey, Pierre, Les Sources et I’evolution des Essais de Montaigne, Paris: Hachette, 2 vols., revised edition, 1933
Woolf, Virginia, “Montaigne,” in her The Common Reader, First Series, edited by Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth Press, and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984 (original edition, 1925)
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