Michel Eyquem de Montaigne - French Philosopher

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

The French nobleman Michel de Montaigne was the inventor of the modern form of the personal essay and the greatest exponent of philosophical skepticism in the 16th century. His father was a rural landowner and his mother a descendant of Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity.

His father ensured that Montaigne received a good humanist education; his tutor was directed to speak nothing but Latin to him until he reached the age of six. Montaigne was educated in the law and as an adult served in the parlement, or law court, of Bordeaux and was mayor of Bordeaux from 1581 to 1585.

The first two volumes of his essays were published in 1580, followed by a complete revised edition of three books in 1588. A third, posthumous edition with further revisions was published in 1595, and his personal journal of a trip through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy in 1580 and 1581 was published in 1774.

Montaigne is responsible for introducing the word essay, originally essai, meaning “attempt.” Unlike Sir Francis Bacon, who was greatly influenced by Montaigne as an essayist, Montaigne saw self-knowledge as a goal and dwelled on his personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences in addition to drawing from his extensive reading. Montaigne was utterly at home in the classics but wrote his essays in French. (His work has also influenced the development of the French philosophical vocabulary.)

As a skeptic, Montaigne’s motto was Que sais-je? (What do I know?). He followed the tradition of classical skeptics like the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho in asserting that certainty could not be attained either by the senses or by reason. Montaigne was particularly interested in the ethical teachings of the ancient pagan Greek and Roman philosophers.

As a skeptic, he held that people should be even-tempered, tolerant, and not overly invested in their opinions. Montaigne’s skepticism was also informed by the growing knowledge of foreign cultures in 16th century Europe. This knowledge led him to doubt the intrinsic superiority of his own culture.

One of his most famous essays, “On Cannibals,” is about the contrast between some Native Americans who had been brought to France and French society and suggests that the “savage” custom of eating a man after he is dead is not worse, and perhaps better, than the European practices of torturing or burning people alive for their religious opinions.

Montaigne’s longest essay, “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” is devoted to a 15th_century Spanish theologian, the author of Natural Theology, which Montaigne had read on the advice of his father. Montaigne published a translation of Sebond’s work from Latin to French in 1569.

Sebond believed that, with a proper attitude toward the Catholic faith, the knowledge of God was attainable through reason. Montaigne doubted this thesis and suggested that there are many things about the world that the human intellect is simply inadequate to understand.

Montaigne’s travels were inspired by curiosity and the pain he suffered from kidney stones and hoped to relieve in foreign spas. The journal focuses on the six months he spent in Rome. Montaigne wrote the account of his Roman stay in Italian, as he believed that one of the best ways of understanding a foreign culture was learning and using its language.

Montaigne was particularly interested in ancient monuments and other reminders of the classical Romans including place names and festivals. He was less interested in the art and culture of the contemporary Italian Renaissance.

A Catholic, Montaigne took a politique stand in the French Wars of Religion, emphasizing the importance of civil peace and national unity over religious uniformity. He was a friend and correspondent of Henri of Navarre, the leader of the Protestant faction who after Montaigne’s death converted to Catholicism and became the tolerant Henry IV, king of France and Navarre.

Despite Montaigne’s skepticism, moderation, and occasional sympathy with Protestantism, he had little trouble with the Catholic Church, perhaps because his skepticism could be turned to Catholic ends by suggesting that faith in the authority of the church was the only source of certainty. His writings were not put on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books until 1676, and he was invited to write Catholic polemic.

Montaigne’s works were extraordinarily popular and influential, both in the original French and in the English translation by John Florio, published in 1603. William Shakespeare was among those who read Montaigne in Florio’s translation, and signs of the Frenchman’s influence can be found in Shakespeare’s later plays.

Although Montaigne’s use of French rather than Latin and of the new essay form rather than traditional philosophical genres such as the treatise or dialogue limited his effect on the community of the learned, his friend and disciple the priest Pierre Charron put forth Montaigne’s skepticism in a more systematic form aimed at refuting Protestants and atheists.