Michel Eyquem de Montaigne - biography
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (French pronunciation: [miʃɛl ekɛm də mɔ̃tɛɲ]) (February 28, 1533 – September 13, 1592) is one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, known for popularising the essay as a literary genre and is popularly thought of as the father of Modern Skepticism. He became famous for his effortless ability to merge serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography—and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as "Attempts") contains, to this day, some of the most widely influential essays ever written. Montaigne had a direct influence on writers the world over, including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Eric Hoffer], Isaac Asimov, and perhaps William Shakespeare (see section "Related Writers and Influence" below).
In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, 'I am myself the matter of my book', was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sais-je?' ('What do I know?'). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne and writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling.
Montaigne was born in the Aquitaine region of France, on the family estate Château de Montaigne, in a town now called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, not far from Bordeaux. The family was very rich; his grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant and had bought the estate in 1477. His father, Pierre Eyquem, was a French Roman Catholic soldier in Italy for a time and had also been the mayor of Bordeaux. His mother, Antoinette López de Villanueva, was from a wealthy (Marrano) Sephardic Jewish family. Although she lived a great part of Montaigne's life near him, and even survived him, she is only mentioned twice in his work. Montaigne's relationship with his father, however, played a prominent role in his life and works.
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, 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 hired only servants who could speak Latin and they also were given strict orders to always speak to the boy in Latin. The same rule applied to his mother, father, and servants, who were obliged to use only 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, and 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. He then 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 courtier at the court of Charles IX; he was present with the king at the siege of Rouen (1562). 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."
In a prearranged marriage, Montaigne married Françoise de la Cassaigne. he did not marry her under his own free will and was pressured by family to do so; they had six daughters, though only the second-born survived childhood.
Following the petition of his father, Montaigne started to work on the first translation of the Catalan monk Raymond Sebond's Theologia naturalis, which he published a year after his father's death in 1568 (In 1595, Sebond's Prologue was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum for its declaration that the Bible is not the only source of revealed truth). After this he inherited his estate, the Château de Montaigne, to which he moved back in 1570. Another literary accomplishment was Montaigne's posthumous edition of his friend Boétie's works.
In 1571, he retired from public life to the Tower of the Château, his so-called "citadel", in the Dordogne, 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 Essais ("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, tranquility, 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 of 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 the city of Lucca 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 Essais. In 1588 he wrote its third book and also met the writer Marie de Gournay, who admired his work and later edited and published 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.
His fame rests on the Essais, a collection of a large number of short subjective treatments of various topics published in 1580, inspired by his studies in the classics, especially Plutarch. Montaigne's stated goal is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. Montaigne's writings are studied within literary studies, as literature and philosophy.
Inspired by his consideration of the lives and ideals of the leading figures of his age, he finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disdain for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for his timely death. He writes about his disgust with the religious conflicts of his time, reflecting a spirit of skepticism and belief that humans are not able to attain true certainty. 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. His essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix. The Essais exercised important influence on both French and English literature, in thought and style.
Related writers and influence
Thinkers exploring similar ideas include Erasmus, Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé, who all worked about fifty years before Montaigne.
Since Edward Capell first made the suggestion in 1780, some scholars believe that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne's essays. John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essais became available for Shakespeare in English in 1603. It is suggested that Montaigne's influence is especially noticeable in "Hamlet" and "King Lear", both in language and in the skepticism present in both plays. For an example, compare Shakespeare's Hamlet to Rosencrantz, at Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, about line 240, with an earlier quote of Montaigne:1. "... for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison." 2. "Whether the events in our life are good or bad greatly depends on the way we perceive them."
Much of Blaise Pascal's skepticism in his Pensées was a result of reading Montaigne, whose influence is also seen in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In"Schopenhauer as Educator", Friedrich Nietzsche was moved to judge of Montaigne: "That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth".
The American philosopher Eric Hoffer employed Montaigne both stylistically and in thought. In Hoffer's memoir, Truth Imagined, he said of Montaigne, "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..."