Authors: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French essayist

Author Works


Essais, books 1-2, 1580; books 1-2 revised, 1582; books 1-3, 1588; books 1-3 revised, 1595 (The Essays, 1603)

Journal du voyage, 1774 (Travel Journal, 1842)

Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, 1957


La Théologie naturelle, 1569 (of Raymond de Sebond’s Theologia naturalis)


The father of Michel de Montaigne (mohn-tayn), Pierre Eyquem, was a wealthy trader whose grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, had acquired the Château de Montaigne, near the town of Castellan in Périgord, in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. In his youth Pierre Eyquem had served in the armies of Francis I but had returned to become a prominent citizen of Bordeaux and at length its mayor. His wife, Antoinette de Lopez (or Louppes), a member of a Jewish family of Spanish derivation, had embraced the Protestant faith.{$I[AN]9810000424}{$I[A]Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de}{$S[A]Eyquem, Michel;Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de}{$I[tim]1533;Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de}

Michel de Montaigne

(Library of Congress)

Michel Eyquem, their third child and eldest son, was born at the Château de Montaigne on February 28, 1533; in maturity he chose to discard his patronymic in favor of the estate name. The future essayist was baptized a Catholic and was raised without his mother’s direct supervision. At his father’s insistence he had nurses and godparents selected from the peasantry. Montaigne reports that in childhood, by a pleasant conceit of his father’s, he was always awakened by the playing of music. Pierre Eyquem had further resolved that his son should learn no French before becoming proficient in Latin; his tutor was a German who was directed to speak in Latin only. The servants being required to follow the tutor’s example, the boy spoke no other language before the age of six. He was then sent to the College of Guienne, at Bordeaux, where he improved his acquaintance with Latin literature. It is recorded that he distinguished himself in the performance of Latin plays written by his masters, including the poet George Buchanan.

At thirteen he was withdrawn from the college and went to Toulouse, to read law in preparation for an official career. In these circumstances he formed a friendship with a fellow lawyer a few years his senior, Étienne de la Boétie, who exerted a strong influence on his character and opinions. After a journey with his father to Paris, he undertook, in 1557, a legal practice at the Parlement of Bordeaux, but he seems to have stayed there only a year. He was in royal service at the siege of Thionville in 1558, and on occasions in 1559 and 1560 he attended court functions. In the next seventeen years he was intermittently employed in advisory and diplomatic capacities. Charles IX, Henry III, and Henry of Navarre all gave him commissions of trust; at length, in 1577, Henry of Navarre, duplicating the honor accorded Montaigne by Henry III, appointed him Gentleman Ordinary of the King’s Chamber.

It was the bestowal of the Order of St. Michael, in 1571, that marked the end of his active career in the service of the court. He had been married in 1565 to Françoise de la Chassaigne, and the responsibilities of his estate, which he had inherited at his father’s death three years later, as well as his own distaste for the violence of political life, urged him into retirement. On his thirty-eighth birthday he formally carried out his determination to go into seclusion and devote himself to learning, and he caused a Latin memorial of this action to be inscribed on the walls of his study.

Montaigne was the father of a new literary form–the essay. This new, liberating nonfiction style became the hallmark of modern writing and thinking. In creating the essay, he added a personal element to an aphoristic writing style. “Myself,” he explained, “am the groundwork of my book.” He realized that any book is bound to be, ultimately, a book about its author. At the same time, one cannot write about oneself without writing about humankind.

The first memoranda for Montaigne’s famous Essays may be dated from 1572. Montaigne was horrified by the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, and his early essays took on a philosophic complexion in response to the turbulence of the age. Already he was expressing the dispassionate view of life, the humane tolerance for which he was to become celebrated. Stimulated by the reading of Seneca and the Stoics and of Plutarch, and fortified in mind by an undogmatic skepticism proceeding from his reverence for truth, he set forth his personal reflections with a frankness compatible with his announced purpose of writing for himself and not for the world. His actual intention was otherwise, however; he wished both to teach and to influence, and in his aspiration he has been amply justified. After the first edition of The Essays in 1580, he enlarged his work to three books in the third edition of 1588. The essence of his thought is to be found in the long essay “Apology for Raimond Sebond,” in the second book. This composition, ostensibly a vindication of Sebond’s tractate Theologia naturalis (natural theology), which Montaigne at his father’s behest had translated into French and had later published, seems in fact to constitute a reasoned assault on the dogmas of Christianity.

In the “Apology,” Montaigne shows himself to be the most significant figure in the sixteenth century revival of ancient Skepticism, which is a particular brand of ancient Greek Pyrrhonism. He was known as the father of modern skepticism in France and throughout Europe. Great modern philosophers such as René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza read Montaigne and expressed their indebtedness to him.

In 1579 Montaigne came out of retirement and braved a tour lasting almost a year and a half through Germany and Switzerland to Italy. While abroad, he learned that arrangements had been made to elect him mayor of Bordeaux. Yielding to the king’s desire, he accepted the office and in 1583 allowed himself to be reelected for a second term of two years. In 1588 he traveled to Paris to see the third edition of the Essays through the press. Through the machinations of the Catholic League, he was briefly imprisoned, but he was released at the insistence of Catherine de Médicis. In Paris he became friends with Marie de Jars de Gournay, a young woman of great learning, whom he honored with the title “daughter by adoption.” She, after his death, obtained from his widow a copy of the 1588 edition of The Essays profusely annotated by him, and with it she established a revised text; this, when corrected by means of another annotated copy that Mme. Montaigne had presented to a convent at Bordeaux, formed the basis of the practically definitive fourth edition of 1595. Montaigne died on September 13, 1592, at the Château de Montaigne.

BibliographyBurke, Peter. Montaigne. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Consists of ten articles devoted to different aspects of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne and his writings. Great resource for students. Each chapter includes its own bibliography, and the whole book is indexed.Cottrell, Robert D. Sexuality/Textuality: A Study of the Fabric of Montaigne’s Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981. An advanced study of Montaigne’s writings.Dikka, Berven, ed. Montaigne: A Collection of Essays. 5 vols. New York: Garland, 1995. A five-part examination of Montaigne. Each volume concentrates on a different topic, such as Montaigne’s rhetoric, sources of his thought, and the relationship between Montaigne and the contemporary reader.O’Brien, John, and Malcolm Quainton, eds. Distant Voices Still Heard: Contemporary Readings of French Renaissance Literature. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000. A collection of paired essays on five major authors, including Montaigne.Paulson, Michael G. The Possible Influence of Montaigne’s “Essais” on Descartes’s Treatise on the Passions. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. Examines Montaigne’s influence on René Descartes’s philosophy of the passions.Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the “Essais.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. This work examines Montaigne’s concern with the ethical basis of society.Sayce, Richard A. The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. An important study on Montaigne’s essays. Very readable.Schaefer, David Lewis. The Political Philosophy of Montaigne. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. This book examines The Essays and argues that Montaigne is primarily concerned with political matters. Schaefer portrays Montaigne as a consistent and systematic thinker.Van Den Abbeele, Georges. Travel as Metaphor: From Montaigne to Rousseau. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. Studies the relation between critical thinking and the metaphor of travel in French Renaissance philosophy. The first chapter concentrates on Montaigne.
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