Essays (Montaigne)

Essays (Montaigne)

"Essays" is the title of a book written by Michel de Montaigne that was first published in 1580. Montaigne essentially invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, of which the book contains a large number. "Essai" is French for "trial" or "attempt".


Montaigne wrote in a kind of crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style which gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotes from classical Greek and Roman texts.


Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. A typical quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disgust for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for death.

Montaigne is disgusted with the violent and, in his opinion, barbaric conflicts between Catholics and Protestants of his time, and his writings show a pessimism and skepticism quite uncharacteristic for the Renaissance.

Overall, Montaigne was a strong supporter of humanism. He believed in God but declined to speculate about His nature.

He exhibited a quite modern cultural relativism, recognizing that laws, morals and religions of the various cultures, while often quite different, may all be equally valid. He opposed the conquest of the New World, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.

Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty, and he rejects general and absolute statements and all dogma. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to (the first known use of this argument against torture). In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond ostensibly defended Christianity. However, Montaigne eloquently employed many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomist Lucretius.

Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."

In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that is expected to be accepted uncritically.

The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.


Montaigne heavily edited "Essays" at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:

* A: passages written 1571-1580, published 1580
* B: passages written 1580-1588, published 1588
* C: passages written 1588-1592, published 1595 (posthumously) [Montaigne, Michel de. "The Complete Essays". Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2003 (1987), p. 1284] , ["Les Essais" (1595 text), Jean Céard, Denis Bjaï, Bénédicte Boudou, Isabelle Pantin, Hachette, Pochothèque, 2001, Livre de Poche, 2002.] Analysis of the differences and additions between editions shows how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Not unremarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.

External links

*The Charles Cotton translation of some of Montaigne's essays:
** [ plain text version] by Project Gutenberg
** [ HTML version] at the University of Adelaide
** [ searchable HTML version] at Oregon State University
*The complete, searchable text of the [ Villey-Saulnier edition] from the ARFTL project at the University of Chicago (French)
* [ English translation by John Florio (1553-1625), First published in 1603]


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  • MONTAIGNE, MICHEL DE —    a sceptico speculative thinker and moralist, born in the Château of Montaigne, Périgord; an easy going mortal, but a keen observer of the ways and manners of other people, which some experience in travel gave him opportunities to do, as well… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

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