Montaigne: Essays

53 pages • 1 hour read

Montaigne: Selected Essays

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  • Translator’s Preface-Book 1, Chapter 21
  • Book 1, Chapters 26, 28, 31, 39, and 50
  • Book 2, Chapters 6, 11, and 17
  • Book 2, Chapters 18, 28, and 30
  • Book 3, Chapters 2, 12, and 13
  • “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”
  • Key Figures
  • Symbols & Motifs
  • Important Quotes
  • Essay Topics

Summary and Study Guide

Montaigne: Selected Essays comes from the pen of Michel de Montaigne , a 16th-century French jurist, advisor, and diplomat whose many adventures would make a compelling autobiography. Instead, Montaigne writes a series of short works that examine his innermost thoughts and feelings, attitudes and beliefs, preferences and daily habits. This would seem a dull topic, but Montaigne’s charm, wit, and wisdom shine through and make the mundane seem fascinating. His attitude is tolerant and open-minded for his era, and his ideas and insights remain relevant today. The essays have entertained and enlightened readers worldwide for over 400 years.

This edition of his book features eighteen of Montaigne’s 107 essays, along with a well-known and influential discourse by Montaigne’s dearest friend, Étienne de la Boétie . The essays were first published as three Books; those chosen for this edition are organized by Book. Most of the essays discuss several topics, but each contains a central theme.

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In Book 1, the first essay, “By Differing Means We Attain the Same End,” describes two ways to win mercy after defeat in battle. The second essay, “Idleness,” explores the problem of a wandering mind. The third, “Through Philosophy We Learn How to Die,” suggests a proper attitude toward death. “The Power of the Imagination” shows how superstitions can kill, self-consciousness can defeat, and a doctor’s reassurance can cure.

“The Education of Children” lists Montaigne’s surprisingly modern ideas for how kids should be taught. In the process, we learn his prescription for how to help a young person grow into someone who will lead a worthwhile life.

“Friendship” explores the difference between ordinary companions and true friends. “The Cannibals” suggests that so-called “barbaric” tribes have lessons to teach Europeans. “Democritus and Heraclitus” finds common cause with famous pessimists.

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In Book 2, “Practice” gives tips on how to prepare for death; “Cruelty” talks about how hard it is to be virtuous; “Being Presumptuous” attacks vanity and putting on airs; “Correcting” rails against lying. In “To Everything There Is a Season,” Montaigne scoffs at old men who try to stay young. “A Malformed Child” opines that everything, even the strange or deformed, is part of Nature’s plan.

Three selections come from Book 3: “Repenting”, on the folly of apologizing for who you really are; “Physiognomy,” on the wars and plagues that visit Montaigne’s neighborhood; and “Experience,” which touts the virtues of common sense over fancy ideals.

The final section is the essay “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” a call to arms against tyranny that influences revolutionaries and philosophers for centuries. It also affects Montaigne’s thinking, as it comes from the man Montaigne loved most in the world, Étienne de la Boétie.

Montaigne’s style is direct, lively, humorous, and sometimes bawdy and coarse. He wanders from topic to topic in the style of a lively conversation. Though he cites frequently the sayings of ancient philosophers, he also trusts his own judgment, and the gist of the essays is that we, too, should trust ourselves—that life isn’t so much a problem to be solved as an experience to be enjoyed for what it is.

The book’s original French is translated into English for modern Americans; it contains extensive footnotes, many of which provide historical background and serve as annotations well worth consulting.

Editor’s note: This guide refers to the 2012 Hackett Classics edition, translated by James B. Atkinson and Martin Sices.

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michel de montaigne essays summary

Guide to the classics: Michel de Montaigne’s Essays

michel de montaigne essays summary

Associate Professor in Philosophy, Deakin University

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Matthew Sharpe is part of an ARC funded project on modern reinventions of the ancient idea of "philosophy as a way of life", in which Montaigne is a central figure.

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When Michel de Montaigne retired to his family estate in 1572, aged 38, he tells us that he wanted to write his famous Essays as a distraction for his idle mind . He neither wanted nor expected people beyond his circle of friends to be too interested.

His Essays’ preface almost warns us off:

Reader, you have here an honest book; … in writing it, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end. I have had no consideration at all either to your service or to my glory … Thus, reader, I myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason that you should employ your leisure upon so frivolous and vain a subject. Therefore farewell.

The ensuing, free-ranging essays, although steeped in classical poetry, history and philosophy, are unquestionably something new in the history of Western thought. They were almost scandalous for their day.

No one before Montaigne in the Western canon had thought to devote pages to subjects as diverse and seemingly insignificant as “Of Smells”, “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes”, “Of Posting” (letters, that is), “Of Thumbs” or “Of Sleep” — let alone reflections on the unruliness of the male appendage , a subject which repeatedly concerned him.

French philosopher Jacques Rancière has recently argued that modernism began with the opening up of the mundane, private and ordinary to artistic treatment. Modern art no longer restricts its subject matters to classical myths, biblical tales, the battles and dealings of Princes and prelates.

michel de montaigne essays summary

If Rancière is right, it could be said that Montaigne’s 107 Essays, each between several hundred words and (in one case) several hundred pages, came close to inventing modernism in the late 16th century.

Montaigne frequently apologises for writing so much about himself. He is only a second rate politician and one-time Mayor of Bourdeaux, after all. With an almost Socratic irony , he tells us most about his own habits of writing in the essays titled “Of Presumption”, “Of Giving the Lie”, “Of Vanity”, and “Of Repentance”.

But the message of this latter essay is, quite simply, that non, je ne regrette rien , as a more recent French icon sang:

Were I to live my life over again, I should live it just as I have lived it; I neither complain of the past, nor do I fear the future; and if I am not much deceived, I am the same within that I am without … I have seen the grass, the blossom, and the fruit, and now see the withering; happily, however, because naturally.

Montaigne’s persistence in assembling his extraordinary dossier of stories, arguments, asides and observations on nearly everything under the sun (from how to parley with an enemy to whether women should be so demure in matters of sex , has been celebrated by admirers in nearly every generation.

Within a decade of his death, his Essays had left their mark on Bacon and Shakespeare. He was a hero to the enlighteners Montesquieu and Diderot. Voltaire celebrated Montaigne - a man educated only by his own reading, his father and his childhood tutors – as “the least methodical of all philosophers, but the wisest and most amiable”. Nietzsche claimed that the very existence of Montaigne’s Essays added to the joy of living in this world.

michel de montaigne essays summary

More recently, Sarah Bakewell’s charming engagement with Montaigne, How to Live or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) made the best-sellers’ lists. Even today’s initiatives in teaching philosophy in schools can look back to Montaigne (and his “ On the Education of Children ”) as a patron saint or sage .

So what are these Essays, which Montaigne protested were indistinguishable from their author? (“ My book and I go hand in hand together ”).

It’s a good question.

Anyone who tries to read the Essays systematically soon finds themselves overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of examples, anecdotes, digressions and curios Montaigne assembles for our delectation, often without more than the hint of a reason why.

To open the book is to venture into a world in which fortune consistently defies expectations; our senses are as uncertain as our understanding is prone to error; opposites turn out very often to be conjoined (“ the most universal quality is diversity ”); even vice can lead to virtue. Many titles seem to have no direct relation to their contents. Nearly everything our author says in one place is qualified, if not overturned, elsewhere.

Without pretending to untangle all of the knots of this “ book with a wild and desultory plan ”, let me tug here on a couple of Montaigne’s threads to invite and assist new readers to find their own way.

Philosophy (and writing) as a way of life

Some scholars argued that Montaigne began writing his essays as a want-to-be Stoic , hardening himself against the horrors of the French civil and religious wars , and his grief at the loss of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie through dysentery.

michel de montaigne essays summary

Certainly, for Montaigne, as for ancient thinkers led by his favourites, Plutarch and the Roman Stoic Seneca, philosophy was not solely about constructing theoretical systems, writing books and articles. It was what one more recent admirer of Montaigne has called “ a way of life ”.

Montaigne has little time for forms of pedantry that value learning as a means to insulate scholars from the world, rather than opening out onto it. He writes :

Either our reason mocks us or it ought to have no other aim but our contentment.
We are great fools . ‘He has passed over his life in idleness,’ we say: ‘I have done nothing today.’ What? have you not lived? that is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious of all your occupations.

One feature of the Essays is, accordingly, Montaigne’s fascination with the daily doings of men like Socrates and Cato the Younger ; two of those figures revered amongst the ancients as wise men or “ sages ”.

Their wisdom, he suggests , was chiefly evident in the lives they led (neither wrote a thing). In particular, it was proven by the nobility each showed in facing their deaths. Socrates consented serenely to taking hemlock, having been sentenced unjustly to death by the Athenians. Cato stabbed himself to death after having meditated upon Socrates’ example , in order not to cede to Julius Caesar’s coup d’état .

michel de montaigne essays summary

To achieve such “philosophic” constancy, Montaigne saw, requires a good deal more than book learning . Indeed, everything about our passions and, above all, our imagination , speaks against achieving that perfect tranquillity the classical thinkers saw as the highest philosophical goal.

We discharge our hopes and fears, very often, on the wrong objects, Montaigne notes , in an observation that anticipates the thinking of Freud and modern psychology. Always, these emotions dwell on things we cannot presently change. Sometimes, they inhibit our ability to see and deal in a supple way with the changing demands of life.

Philosophy, in this classical view, involves a retraining of our ways of thinking, seeing and being in the world. Montaigne’s earlier essay “ To philosophise is to learn how to die ” is perhaps the clearest exemplar of his indebtedness to this ancient idea of philosophy.

Yet there is a strong sense in which all of the Essays are a form of what one 20th century author has dubbed “ self-writing ”: an ethical exercise to “strengthen and enlighten” Montaigne’s own judgement, as much as that of we readers:

And though nobody should read me, have I wasted time in entertaining myself so many idle hours in so pleasing and useful thoughts? … I have no more made my book than my book has made me: it is a book consubstantial with the author, of a peculiar design, a parcel of my life …

As for the seeming disorder of the product, and Montaigne’s frequent claims that he is playing the fool , this is arguably one more feature of the Essays that reflects his Socratic irony. Montaigne wants to leave us with some work to do and scope to find our own paths through the labyrinth of his thoughts, or alternatively, to bobble about on their diverting surfaces .

A free-thinking sceptic

Yet Montaigne’s Essays, for all of their classicism and their idiosyncracies, are rightly numbered as one of the founding texts of modern thought . Their author keeps his own prerogatives, even as he bows deferentially before the altars of ancient heroes like Socrates, Cato, Alexander the Great or the Theban general Epaminondas .

michel de montaigne essays summary

There is a good deal of the Christian, Augustinian legacy in Montaigne’s makeup. And of all the philosophers, he most frequently echoes ancient sceptics like Pyrrho or Carneades who argued that we can know almost nothing with certainty. This is especially true concerning the “ultimate questions” the Catholics and Huguenots of Montaigne’s day were bloodily contesting.

Writing in a time of cruel sectarian violence , Montaigne is unconvinced by the ageless claim that having a dogmatic faith is necessary or especially effective in assisting people to love their neighbours :

Between ourselves, I have ever observed supercelestial opinions and subterranean manners to be of singular accord …

This scepticism applies as much to the pagan ideal of a perfected philosophical sage as it does to theological speculations.

Socrates’ constancy before death, Montaigne concludes, was simply too demanding for most people, almost superhuman . As for Cato’s proud suicide, Montaigne takes liberty to doubt whether it was as much the product of Stoic tranquility, as of a singular turn of mind that could take pleasure in such extreme virtue .

Indeed when it comes to his essays “ Of Moderation ” or “ Of Virtue ”, Montaigne quietly breaks the ancient mold. Instead of celebrating the feats of the world’s Catos or Alexanders, here he lists example after example of people moved by their sense of transcendent self-righteousness to acts of murderous or suicidal excess.

Even virtue can become vicious, these essays imply, unless we know how to moderate our own presumptions.

Of cannibals and cruelties

If there is one form of argument Montaigne uses most often, it is the sceptical argument drawing on the disagreement amongst even the wisest authorities.

If human beings could know if, say, the soul was immortal, with or without the body, or dissolved when we die … then the wisest people would all have come to the same conclusions by now, the argument goes. Yet even the “most knowing” authorities disagree about such things, Montaigne delights in showing us .

The existence of such “ an infinite confusion ” of opinions and customs ceases to be the problem, for Montaigne. It points the way to a new kind of solution, and could in fact enlighten us.

Documenting such manifold differences between customs and opinions is, for him, an education in humility :

Manners and opinions contrary to mine do not so much displease as instruct me; nor so much make me proud as they humble me.

His essay “ Of Cannibals ” for instance, presents all of the different aspects of American Indian culture, as known to Montaigne through travellers’ reports then filtering back into Europe. For the most part, he finds these “savages’” society ethically equal, if not far superior, to that of war-torn France’s — a perspective that Voltaire and Rousseau would echo nearly 200 years later.

We are horrified at the prospect of eating our ancestors. Yet Montaigne imagines that from the Indians’ perspective, Western practices of cremating our deceased, or burying their bodies to be devoured by the worms must seem every bit as callous.

And while we are at it, Montaigne adds that consuming people after they are dead seems a good deal less cruel and inhumane than torturing folk we don’t even know are guilty of any crime whilst they are still alive …

A gay and sociable wisdom

michel de montaigne essays summary

“So what is left then?”, the reader might ask, as Montaigne undermines one presumption after another, and piles up exceptions like they had become the only rule.

A very great deal , is the answer. With metaphysics, theology, and the feats of godlike sages all under a “ suspension of judgment ”, we become witnesses as we read the Essays to a key document in the modern revaluation and valorization of everyday life.

There is, for instance, Montaigne’s scandalously demotic habit of interlacing words, stories and actions from his neighbours, the local peasants (and peasant women) with examples from the greats of Christian and pagan history. As he writes :

I have known in my time a hundred artisans, a hundred labourers, wiser and more happy than the rectors of the university, and whom I had much rather have resembled.

By the end of the Essays, Montaigne has begun openly to suggest that, if tranquillity, constancy, bravery, and honour are the goals the wise hold up for us, they can all be seen in much greater abundance amongst the salt of the earth than amongst the rich and famous:

I propose a life ordinary and without lustre: ‘tis all one … To enter a breach, conduct an embassy, govern a people, are actions of renown; to … laugh, sell, pay, love, hate, and gently and justly converse with our own families and with ourselves … not to give our selves the lie, that is rarer, more difficult and less remarkable …

And so we arrive with these last Essays at a sentiment better known today from another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the author of A Gay Science (1882) .

Montaigne’s closing essays repeat the avowal that: “ I love a gay and civil wisdom … .” But in contrast to his later Germanic admirer, the music here is less Wagner or Beethoven than it is Mozart (as it were), and Montaigne’s spirit much less agonised than gently serene.

It was Voltaire, again, who said that life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. Montaigne adopts and admires the comic perspective . As he writes in “Of Experience”:

It is not of much use to go upon stilts , for, when upon stilts, we must still walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are still perched on our own bums.
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An Animated Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

in Philosophy | October 17th, 2017 Leave a Comment

Considered the first great humanist essayist, Michel de Montaigne was also the first to use the word “essay” for the casual, often meandering, frequently first-person explorations that now constitute the most prevalent literary form of our day. “Anyone who sets out to write an essay,” notes Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Times , “for a school or college class,” a magazine, newspaper, Tumblr, or otherwise, “owes something” to Montaigne, the French “magistrate and landowner near Bordeaux who retired temporarily from public life in 1570 to spend more time with his library and to make a modest memento of his mind.”

Montaigne’s resulting book, called the Essais —”trials” or “attempts”—exemplifies the classical and Christian preoccupations of the Renaissance; he dwelt intently on questions of character and virtue, both individual and civic, and he constantly refers to ancient authorities, the companions of his book-lined fortress of solitude. “Somewhat like a link-infested blog post,” writes Gottlieb, “Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations.” But he was also a distinctly modern writer, who skewered the overconfidence and blind idealism of ancients and contemporaries alike, and looked with amusement on faith in reason and progress.

For all his considerable erudition, Montaigne was “keen to debunk the pretensions of learning,” says Alain de Botton in his introductory School of Life video above. An “extremely funny” writer, he shares with countryman  François Rabelais a satirist’s delight in the vulgar and taboo and an honest appraisal of humanity’s checkered relationship with the good life. Though we may call Montaigne a moralist, the description should not imply that he was strictly orthodox in any way—quite the contrary.

Montaigne’s ethics often defy the dogma of both the Romans and the Christians. He strenuously opposed colonization, for example, and made a sensible case for cannibalism as no more barbarous a practice than those engaged in by 16th century Europeans.

In a contrarian essay, “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”—its title a quotation from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations —Montaigne threads the needle between memento mori high seriousness and offhand witticism, writing, “Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear.” But in the next sentence, he avows that we derive pleasure “more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.”

The greatest benefit of practicing virtue, as Cicero recommends, is “the contempt of death,” which frees us to live fully. Montaigne attacks the modern fear and denial of death as a paralyzing attitude. Instead, “we should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go,” he breezily suggests. “The deadest deaths are the best…. I want death to find me planting cabbages.” The irreverence he brought to the gravest of subjects—making, for example, a list of sudden and ridiculous deaths of famous people—serves not only to entertain but to edify, as de Botton argues above in an episode of his series “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness.”

Montaigne “seemed to understand what makes us feel bad about ourselves, and in his book tries to make us feel better.” He endeavors to show, as he wrote in his first essay, “that men by various means arrive at the same end.” Like later first-person philosophical essayists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche , Montaigne addresses our feelings of inadequacy by reminding his readers how thoroughly we are governed by the same irrational passions, and subject to the same fears, conceits, and ailments. There is much wisdom and comfort to be found in Montaigne’s essays. Yet he is beloved not only for what he says, but for how he says it—with a style that makes him seem like an eloquent, brilliant, practical, and self-deprecatingly sympathetic friend.

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Josh Jones  is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at  @jdmagness

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Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Book Analysis)

Detailed summary, analysis and reading guide.

This practical and insightful  reading guide  offers a  complete summary  and  analysis  of the  Essays,  by  Michel de Montaigne . It provides a thorough exploration of the essay’s plot, context and main themes, including – to list but a few – medicine, knowledge and manners. The clear and concise style makes for easy understanding, providing the perfect opportunity to improve your literary knowledge in no time.

This clear and detailed 50-page reading guide is structured as follows:

  • Biography of Michel de Montaigne
  • Presentation of the  Essays
  • Summary of the  Essays
  • The composition and structure of the Essays
  • A self-portrait
  • Montaigne’s writing
  • A critical judgement
  • Human relationships
  • The search for wisdom

About the  Essays

The Essays  were first published in 1580 after ten years of writing. They deal with a huge variety of themes and subjects, including – but not limited to – medicine, knowledge, manners and reflections on life in general. In addressing such a wide range of questions, Montaigne hoped to discover the reality of the human condition. In the work, Montaigne paints himself as he truly is, so that his loved ones can find solace in his Essays after his death.

About Michel de Montaigne

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne, was a French writer, philosopher, politician and humanist during the Renaissance. He was born in 1533. He was a great traveler, particularly for his time – he journeyed through France, Switzerland, South Germany and Italy, to name but a few of the places he visited, and wrote about this time in his Journal de voyage en Italie .

Montaigne was also very involved in French politics; he even became the mayor of Bordeaux later on in his life. However, reading and writing were his passion and came before all other occupations, which is what led to his famous  Essays . He had a major work on many Western writers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and – possibly – William Shakespeare.

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Selections from the Essays of Montaigne Background

By michel de montaigne.

These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful for their contributions and encourage you to make your own.

Written by Sonia C

Selections from the Essays of Montaigne is a collection of essays written by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne was a French writer, philosopher, and statesman in the 1500s. Since he lived at the end of the century, he lived and wrote in the environment of the end of the European Renaissance, with the chaos erupting, as the Calvinist Reformation and the Wars of Religion took place during the latter half of his life. Though there were plenty of political, social, and religious issues that Montaigne could have written about, but he chose to focus his essay on himself.

The essays in this collection were written during a time that was particularly sensitive to controversial writing. There were quite a few disagreements during this time and “truth” was nothing but an illusion-filled and deceptive concept, Montaigne’s writing bore a unique sense of honesty and truthfulness in that he derived his writing from his own experiences, extrapolating that out to the general human condition.

Notable aspects of Montaigne’s writing in this collection is that it combines two different types of writing, anecdotes of his own life and philosophical concepts. Though this unique style of writing was not admired by his contemporaries, it made writing in the style of the essay more popular and was also highly emulated by later Western writers.

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Selections from the Essays of Montaigne Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Selections from the Essays of Montaigne is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

Study Guide for Selections from the Essays of Montaigne

Selections from the Essays of Montaigne study guide contains a biography of author Michel De Montaigne, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About Selections from the Essays of Montaigne
  • Selections from the Essays of Montaigne Summary
  • Character List

Essays for Selections from the Essays of Montaigne

Essays of Montaigne literature essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of selected essays written by Michel De Montaigne.

  • Ontological Freedom in Montaigne’s Selections from the Essays
  • In Sickness and In Health: Exploring the Paradox of Pain in Cervantes and Montaigne
  • Preparations and Actions: Thought on Life and Death in Montaigne's Essays
  • On Which Cannibal? The Clever Rhetoric of Montaigne's "On the Cannibals"
  • Can Evil be Fought with Evil?: Analyzing the Works of Machiavelli, Erasmus, and Montaigne

Wikipedia Entries for Selections from the Essays of Montaigne

  • Introduction
  • Montaigne's influence on psychology
  • Related writers and influence

michel de montaigne essays summary

Book 2 · Chapter 10 On Books

I make no doubt but that I often happen to speak of things that are much better and more truly handled by those who are masters of the trade. You have here purely an essay of my natural parts, and not of those acquired: and whoever shall catch me tripping in ignorance, will not in any sort get the better of me; for I should be very unwilling to become responsible to another for my writings, who am not so to myself, nor satisfied with them. Whoever goes in quest of knowledge, let him fish for it where it is to be found; there is nothing I so little profess. These are fancies of my own, by which I do not pretend to discover things but to lay open myself; they may, peradventure, one day be known to me, or have formerly been, according as fortune has been able to bring me in place where they have been explained; but I have utterly forgotten it.

And if I am a man of some reading, I am a man of no retention.

So that I can promise no certainty, more than to make known to what point the knowledge I now have has risen. Therefore, let none lay stress upon the matter I write, but upon my method in writing it.

Let them observe, in what I borrow, if I have known how to choose what is proper to raise or help the invention, which is always my own. For I make others say for me, not before but after me, what, either for want of language or want of sense, I cannot myself so well express. I do not number my borrowings, I weigh them; and had I designed to raise their value by number, I had made them twice as many; they are all, or within a very few, so famed and ancient authors, that they seem, methinks, themselves sufficiently to tell who they are, without giving me the trouble. In reasons, comparisons, and arguments, if I transplant any into my own soil, and confound them among my own, I purposely conceal the author, to awe the temerity of those precipitate censors who fall upon all sorts of writings, particularly the late ones, of men yet living; and in the vulgar tongue which puts every one into a capacity of criticizing and which seem to convict the conception and design as vulgar also. I will have them give Plutarch a fillip on my nose, and rail against Seneca when they think they rail at me. I must shelter my own weakness under these great reputations.

I shall love any one that can unplume me, that is, by clearness of understanding and judgment, and by the sole distinction of the force and beauty of the discourse. For I who, for want of memory, am at every turn at a loss to, pick them out of their national livery, am yet wise enough to know, by the measure of my own abilities, that my soil is incapable of producing any of those rich flowers that I there find growing; and that all the fruits of my own growth are not worth any one of them.

For this, indeed, I hold myself responsible; if I get in my own way; if there be any vanity and defect in my writings which I do not of myself perceive nor can discern, when pointed out to me by another; for many faults escape our eye, but the infirmity of judgment consists in not being able to discern them, when by another laid open to us. Knowledge and truth may be in us without judgment, and judgment also without them; but the confession of ignorance is one of the finest and surest testimonies of judgment that I know. I have no other officer to put my writings in rank and file, but only fortune. As things come into my head, I heap them one upon another; sometimes they advance in whole bodies, sometimes in single file. I would that every one should see my natural and ordinary pace, irregular as it is; I suffer myself to jog on at my own rate. Neither are these subjects which a man is not permitted to be ignorant in, or casually and at a venture, to discourse of.

I could wish to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I will not buy it so dear as it costs. My design is to pass over easily, and not laboriously, the remainder of my life; there is nothing that I will cudgel my brains about; no, not even knowledge, of what value soever. I seek, in the reading of books, only to please myself by an honest diversion; or, if I study, ’tis for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of myself, and instructs me how to die and how to live well.

Has meus ad metas sudet oportet equus.

My horse must work according to my step.   ❦   Prop. (4)

I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over.

Should I insist upon them, I should both lose myself and time; for I have an impatient understanding, that must be satisfied at first: what I do not discern at once is by persistence rendered more obscure. I do nothing without gaiety; continuation and a too obstinate endeavor, darkens, stupefies, and tires my judgment. My sight is confounded and dissipated with poring; I must withdraw it, and refer my discovery to new attempts; just as, to judge rightly of the lustre of scarlet, we are taught to pass the eye lightly over it, and again to run it over at several sudden and reiterated glances.

If one book do not please me, I take another; and I never meddle with any, but at such times as I am weary of doing nothing. I care not much for new ones, because the old seem fuller and stronger; neither do I converse much with Greek authors, because my judgment cannot do its work with imperfect intelligence of the material.

Among books that are simply pleasant, of the moderns, Boccaccio’s Decameron , Rabelais, and the Basia of Johannes Secundus (if those may be ranged under the title) are worth reading for amusement. As to the Amadis , and such kind of stuff, they had not the credit of arresting even my childhood. And I will, moreover, say, whether boldly or rashly, that this old, heavy soul of mine is now no longer tickled with Ariosto, no, nor with the worthy Ovid; his facility and inventions, with which I was formerly so ravished, are now of no more relish, and I can hardly have the patience to read them.

I speak my opinion freely of all things, even of those that, perhaps, exceed my capacity, and that I do not conceive to be, in any wise, under my jurisdiction. And, accordingly, the judgment I deliver, is to show the measure of my own sight, and not of the things I make so bold to criticize. When I find myself disgusted with Plato’s Axiochus , as with a work, with due respect to such an author be it spoken, without force, my judgment does not believe itself: it is not so arrogant as to oppose the authority of so many other famous judgments of antiquity, which it considers as its tutors and masters, and with whom it is rather content to err; in such a case, it condemns itself either to stop at the outward bark, not being able to penetrate to the heart, or to consider it by sortie false light. It is content with only securing itself from trouble and disorder; as to its own weakness, it frankly acknowledges and confesses it. It thinks it gives a just interpretation to the appearances by its conceptions presented to it; but they are weak and imperfect. Most of the fables of Aesop have diverse senses and meanings, of which the mythologists chose some one that quadrates well to the fable; but, for the most part, ’tis but the first face that presents itself and is superficial only; there yet remain others more vivid, essential, and profound, into which they have not been able to penetrate; and just so ’tis with me.

But, to pursue the business of this essay, I have always thought that, in poetry, Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus, and Horace by many degrees excel the rest; and signally, Virgil in his Georgics , which I look upon as the most accomplished piece in poetry; and in comparison of which a man may easily discern that there are some places in his Aeneids , to which the author would have given a little more of the file, had he had leisure: and the fifth book of his Aeneids seems to me the most perfect. I also love Lucan, and willingly read him, not so much for his style, as for his own worth, and the truth and solidity of his opinions and judgments. As for good Terence, the refined elegance and grace of the Latin tongue, I find him admirable in his vivid representation of our manners and the movements of the soul; our actions throw me at every turn upon him; and I cannot read him so often that I do not still discover some new grace and beauty. Such as lived near Virgil’s time complained that some should compare Lucretius to him. I am of opinion that the comparison is, in truth, very unequal: a belief that, nevertheless, I have much ado to assure myself in, when I come upon some excellent passage in Lucretius. But if they were so angry at this comparison, what would they say to the brutish and barbarous stupidity of those who, nowadays, compare him with Ariosto? Would not Ariosto himself say?

O seclum insipiens et inficetum!

O stupid and tasteless age.   ❦   Catull. (43.8)

I think the ancients had more reason to be angry with those who compared Plautus with Terence, though much nearer the mark, than Lucretius with Virgil. It makes much for the estimation and preference of Terence, that the father of Roman eloquence has him so often, and alone of his class, in his mouth; and the opinion that the best judge of Roman poets has passed upon his companion. I have often observed that those of our times, who take upon them to write comedies (in imitation of the Italians, who are happy enough in that way of writing), take three or four plots of those of Plautus or Terence to make one of their own, and, crowd five or six of Boccaccio’s novels into one single comedy. That which makes them so load themselves with matter is the diffidence they have of being able to support themselves with their own strength. They must find out something to lean to; and not having of their own stuff wherewith to entertain us, they bring in the story to supply the defect of language. It is quite otherwise with my author; the elegance and perfection of his way of speaking makes us lose the appetite of his plot; his refined grace and elegance of diction everywhere occupy us: he is so pleasant throughout,

liquidus, puróque simillimus amni,

Liquid, and likest the pure river.   ❦   Hor., Epist. ( 2.2.120 )

and so possesses the soul with his graces that we forget those of his fable.

This same consideration carries me further: I observe that the best of the ancient poets have avoided affectation and the hunting after, not only fantastic Spanish and Petrarchic elevations, but even the softer and more gentle touches, which are the ornament of all succeeding poetry. And yet there is no good judgment that will condemn this in the ancients, and that does not incomparably more admire the equal polish, and that perpetual sweetness and flourishing beauty of Catullus’s epigrams, than all the stings with which Martial arms the tails of his. This is by the same reason that I gave before, and as Martial says of himself: minus illi ingenio laborandum fuit, in cujus locum materia successerat. He had the less for his wit to do that the subject itself supplied what was necessary.   ❦   Mart. ( 8.pr ) The first, without being moved, or without getting angry, make themselves sufficiently felt; they have matter enough of laughter throughout, they need not tickle themselves; the others have need of foreign assistance; as they have the less wit they must have the more body; they mount on horseback, because they are not able to stand on their own legs. As in our balls, those mean fellows who teach to dance, not being able to represent the presence and dignity of our noblesse, are fain to put themselves forward with dangerous jumping, and other strange motions and tumblers tricks; and the ladies are less put to it in dance; where there are various coupees, changes, and quick motions of body, than in some other of a more sedate kind, where they are only to move a natural pace, and to represent their ordinary grace and presence. And so I have seen good drolls, when in their own everyday clothes, and with the same face they always wear, give us all the pleasure of their art, when their apprentices, not yet arrived at such a pitch of perfection, are fain to meal their faces, put themselves into ridiculous disguises, and make a hundred grotesque faces to give us whereat to laugh. This conception of mine is nowhere more demonstrable than in comparing the Aeneid with Orlando Furioso ; of which we see the first, by dint of wing, flying in a brave and lofty place, and always following his point: the latter, fluttering and hopping from tale to tale, as from branch to branch, not daring to trust his wings but in very short flights, and perching at every turn, lest his breath and strength should fail.

Excursúsque breves tentat.

And he attempts short excursions.   ❦   Verg., G. (4.194)

These, then, as to this sort of subjects, are the authors that best please me.

As to what concerns my other reading, that mixes a little more profit with the pleasure, and whence I learn how to marshal my opinions and conditions, the books that serve me to this purpose are Plutarch, since he has been translated into French, and Seneca. Both of these have this notable convenience suited to my humor, that the knowledge I there seek is discoursed in loose pieces, that do not require from me any trouble of reading long, of which I am incapable. Such are the minor works of the first and the epistles of the latter, which are the best and most profiting of all their writings. ’Tis no great attempt to take one of them in hand, and I give over at pleasure; for they have no sequence or dependence upon one another. These authors, for the most part, concur in useful and true opinions; and there is this parallel betwixt them, that fortune brought them into the world about the same century: they were both tutors to two Roman emperors: both sought out from foreign countries: both rich and both great men. Their instruction is the cream of philosophy, and delivered after a plain and pertinent manner. Plutarch is more uniform and constant; Seneca more various and waving: the last toiled and bent his whole strength to fortify virtue against weakness, fear, and vicious appetites; the other seems more to slight their power, and to disdain to alter his pace and to stand upon his guard. Plutarch’s opinions are Platonic, gentle, and accommodated to civil society; those of the other are Stoical and Epicurean, more remote from the common use, but, in my opinion, more individually commodious and more firm. Seneca seems to lean a little to the tyranny of the emperors of his time, and only seems; for I take it for certain that he speaks against his judgment when he condemns the action of the generous murderers of Caesar. Plutarch is frank throughout: Seneca abounds with brisk touches and sallies; Plutarch with things that warm and move you more; this contents and pays you better: he guides us, the other pushes us on.

As to Cicero, his works that are most useful to my design are they that treat of manners and rules of our life. But boldly to confess the truth (for since one has passed the barriers of impudence, there is no bridle), his way of writing appears to me negligent and uninviting: for his prefaces, definitions, divisions, and etymologies take up the greatest part of his work: whatever there is of life and marrow is smothered and lost in the long preparation. When I have spent an hour in reading him, which is a great deal for me, and try to recollect what I have thence extracted of juice and substance, for the most part I find nothing but wind; for he is not yet come to the arguments that serve to his purpose, and to the reasons that properly help to form the knot I seek. For me, who only desire to become more wise, not more learned or eloquent, these logical and Aristotelian dispositions of parts are of no use. I would have a man begin with the main proposition. I know well enough what death and pleasure are; let no man give himself the trouble to anatomize them to me. I look for good and solid reasons, at the first dash, to instruct me how to stand their shock, for which purpose neither grammatical subtleties nor the quaint contexture of words and argumentations are of any use at all. I am for discourses that give the first charge into the heart of the redoubt; his languish about the subject; they are proper for the schools, for the bar, and for the pulpit, where we have leisure to nod, and may awake, a quarter of an hour after, time enough to find again the thread of the discourse. It is necessary to speak after this manner to judges, whom a man has a design to gain over, right or wrong, to children and common people, to whom a man must say all, and see what will come of it. I would not have an author make it his business to render me attentive: or that he should cry out fifty times Oyez! as the heralds do. The Romans, in their religious exercises, began with Hoc age as we in ours do with Sursum corda ; these are so many words lost to me: I come already fully prepared from my chamber. I need no allurement, no invitation, no sauce; I eat the meat raw, so that, instead of whetting my appetite by these preparatives, they tire and pall it.

Will the licence of the time excuse my sacrilegious boldness if I censure the dialogism of Plato himself as also dull and heavy, too much stifling the matter, and lament so much time lost by a man, who had so many better things to say, in so many long and needless preliminary interlocutions? My ignorance will better excuse me in that I understand not Greek so well as to discern the beauty of his language.

I generally choose books that use sciences, not such as only lead to them.

The two first, and Pliny, and their like, have nothing of this Hoc age; they will have to do with men already instructed; or if they have, ’tis a substantial Hoc age; and that has a body by itself.

I also delight in reading the Epistles ad Atticum , not only because they contain a great deal of the history and affairs of his time, but much more because I therein discover much of his own private humors; for I have a singular curiosity, as I have said elsewhere, to pry into the souls and the natural and true opinions of the authors, with whom I converse. A man may indeed judge of their parts, but not of their manners nor of themselves, by the writings they exhibit upon the theater of the world. I have a thousand times lamented the loss of the treatise Brutus wrote upon Virtue, for it is well to learn the theory from those who best know the practice. But seeing the matter preached and the preacher are different things, I would as willingly see Brutus in Plutarch, as in a book of his own. I would rather choose to be certainly informed of the conference he had in his tent with some particular friends of his the night before a battle, than of the harangue he made the next day to his army; and of what he did in his closet and his chamber, than what he did in the public square and in the senate.

As to Cicero, I am of the common opinion that, learning excepted, he had no great natural excellence. He was a good citizen, of an affable nature, as all fat, heavy men, such as he was, usually are; but given to ease, and had, in truth, a mighty share of vanity and ambition. Neither do I know how to excuse him for thinking his poetry fit to be published; ’tis no great imperfection to make ill verses, but it is an imperfection not to be able to judge how unworthy his verses were of the glory of his name. For what concerns his eloquence, that is totally out of all comparison, and I believe it will never be equalled. The younger Cicero, who resembled his father in nothing but in name, whilst commanding in Asia, had several strangers one day at his table, and, among the rest, Cestius seated at the lower end, as men often intrude to the open tables of the great. Cicero asked one of his people who that man was, who presently told him his name; but he, as one who had his thoughts taken up with something else, and who had forgotten the answer made him, asking three or four times, over and over again; the same question, the fellow, to deliver himself from so many answers and to make him know him by some particular circumstance; “’tis that Cestius,” said he, “of whom it was told you, that he makes no great account of your father’s eloquence in comparison of his own.” At which Cicero, being suddenly nettled, commanded poor Cestius presently to be seized, and caused him to be very well whipped in his own presence; a very discourteous entertainer! Yet even among those, who, all things considered, have reputed his, eloquence incomparable, there have been some, who have not stuck to observe some faults in it: as that great Brutus his friend, for example, who said ’twas a broken and feeble eloquence, fractam et elumbem. The orators also, nearest to the age wherein he lived, reprehended in him the care he had of a certain long cadence in his periods, and particularly took notice of these words, esse videatur , which he there so often makes use of. For my part, I more approve of a shorter style, and that comes more roundly off. He does, though, sometimes shuffle his parts more briskly together, but ’tis very seldom. I have myself taken notice of this one passage: Ego vero me minus diu senem mallem, quam esse senem, antequam essem. I had rather be old a brief time, than be old before old age.   ❦   Cic., Sen. ( 10 )

The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else: the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me. I am very sorry we have not a dozen Laertii, or that he was not further extended; for I am equally curious to know the lives and fortunes of these great instructors of the world, as to know the diversities of their doctrines and opinions.

In this kind of study of histories, a man must tumble over, without distinction, all sorts of authors, old and new, French or foreign, there to know the things of which they variously treat. But Caesar, in my opinion, particularly deserves to be studied, not for the knowledge of the history only, but for himself, so great an excellence and perfection he has above all the rest, though Sallust be one of the number. In earnest, I read this author with more reverence and respect than is usually allowed to human writings; one while considering him in his person, by his actions and miraculous greatness, and another in the purity and inimitable polish of his language, wherein he not only excels all other historians, as Cicero confesses, but, peradventure, even Cicero himself; speaking of his enemies with so much sincerity in his judgment, that, the false colors with which he strives to palliate his evil cause, and the ordure of his pestilent ambition excepted, I think there is no fault to be objected against him, saving this, that he speaks too sparingly of himself, seeing so many great things could not have been performed under his conduct, but that his own personal acts must necessarily have had a greater share in them than he attributes to them.

I love historians, whether of the simple sort, or of the higher order. The simple, who have nothing of their own to mix with it, and who only make it their business to collect all that comes to their knowledge, and faithfully to record all things, without choice or discrimination, leave to us the entire judgment of discerning the truth. Such, for example, among others, is honest Froissart, who has proceeded in his undertaking with so frank a plainness that, having committed an error, he is not ashamed to confess and correct it in the place where the finger has been laid, and who represents to us even the variety of rumors that were then spread abroad, and the different reports that were made to him; ’tis the naked and inform matter of history, and of which every one may make his profit, according to his understanding. The more excellent sort of historians have judgment to pick out what is most worthy to be known; and, of two reports, to examine which is the most likely to be true: from the condition of princes and their humors, they conclude their counsels, and attribute to them words proper for the occasion; such have title to assume the authority of regulating our belief to what they themselves believe; but certainly, this privilege belongs to very few. For the middle sort of historians, of which the most part are, they spoil all; they will chew our meat for us; they take upon them to judge of, and consequently, to incline the history to their own fancy; for if the judgment lean to one side, a man cannot avoid wresting and writhing his narrative to that bias; they undertake to select things worthy to be known, and yet often conceal from us such a word, such a private action, as would much better instruct us; omit, as incredible, such things as they do not understand, and peradventure some, because they cannot express good French or Latin. Let them display their eloquence and intelligence, and judge according to their own fancy: but let them, withal, leave us something to judge of after them, and neither alter nor disguise, by their abridgments and at their own choice, anything of the substance of the matter, but deliver it to us pure and entire in all its dimensions.

For the most part, and especially in these latter ages, persons are culled out for this work from among the common people, upon the sole consideration of well-speaking, as if we were to learn grammar from them; and the men so chosen have fair reason, being hired for no other end and pretending to nothing but babble, not to be very solicitous of any part but that, and so, with a fine jingle of words, prepare us a pretty contexture of reports they pick up in the streets. The only good histories are those that have been written themselves who held command in the affairs whereof they write, or who participated in the conduct of them, or, at least, who have had the conduct of others of the same nature. Such are almost all the Greek and Roman histories: for, several eye-witnesses having written of the same subject, in the time when grandeur and learning commonly met in the same person, if there happen to be an error, it must of necessity be a very slight one, and upon a very doubtful incident. What can a man expect from a physician who writes of war, or from a mere scholar, treating of the designs of princes? If we could take notice how scrupulous the Romans were in this, there would need but this example: Asinius Pollio found in the histories of Caesar himself something misreported, a mistake occasioned; either by reason he could not have his eye in all parts of his army at once and had given credit to some individual persons who had not delivered him a very true account; or else, for not having had too perfect notice given him by his lieutenants of what they had done in his absence. By which we may see, whether the inquisition after truth be not very delicate, when a man cannot believe the report of a battle from the knowledge of him who there commanded, nor from the soldiers who were engaged in it, unless, after the method of a judicial inquiry, the witnesses be confronted and objections considered upon the proof of the least detail of every incident. In good earnest the knowledge we have of our own affairs, is much more obscure: but that has been sufficiently handled by Bodin, and according to my own sentiment

A little to aid the weakness of my memory (so extreme that it has happened to me more than once, to take books again into my hand as new and unseen, that I had carefully read over a few years before, and scribbled with my notes) I have adopted a custom of late, to note at the end of every book (that is, of those I never intend to read again) the time when I made an end on it, and the judgment I had made of it, to the end that this might, at least, represent to me the character and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it; and I will here transcribe some of those annotations.

I wrote this, some ten years ago, in my Guicciardini (of what language soever my books speak to me in, I always speak to them in my own): “He is a diligent historiographer, from whom, in my opinion, a man may learn the truth of the affairs of his time, as exactly as from any other; in the most of which he was himself also a personal actor, and in honorable command. There is no appearance that he disguised anything, either upon the account of hatred, favor, or vanity; of which the free censures he passes upon the great ones, and particularly those by whom he was advanced and employed in commands of great trust and honor, as Pope Clement VII, give ample testimony. As to that part which he thinks himself the best at, namely, his digressions and discourses, he has indeed some very good, and enriched with fine features; but he is too fond of them: for, to leave nothing unsaid, having a subject so full, ample, almost infinite, he degenerates into pedantry and smacks a little of scholastic prattle. I have also observed this in him, that of so many souls and so many effects, so many motives and so many counsels as he judges, he never attributes any one to virtue, religion, or conscience, as if all these were utterly extinct in the world: and of all the actions, how brave soever in outward show they appear in themselves, he always refers the cause and motive to some vicious occasion or some prospect of profit. It is impossible to imagine but that, among such an infinite number of actions as he makes mention of, there must be some one produced by the way of honest reason. No corruption could so universally have infected men that some one would not escape the contagion which makes me suspect that his own taste was vicious, whence it might happen that he judged other men by himself.”

In my Philip de Commines there is this written: “You will here find the language sweet and delightful, of a natural simplicity, the narration pure, with the good faith of the author conspicuous therein; free from vanity, when speaking of himself, and from affection or envy, when speaking of others: his discourses and exhortations rather accompanied with zeal and truth, than with any exquisite sufficiency; and, throughout, authority and gravity, which bespeak him a man of good extraction, and brought up in great affairs.”

Upon the Memoirs of Monsieur du Bellay I find this: “’Tis always pleasant to read things written by those that have experienced how they ought to be carried on; but withal, it cannot be denied but there is a manifest decadence in these two lords from the freedom and liberty of writing that shine in the elder historians, such as the Sire de Joinville, the familiar companion of St. Louis; Eginhard, chancellor to Charlemagne; and of later date, Philip de Commines. What we have here is rather an apology for King Francis, against the Emperor Charles V, than history. I will not believe that they have falsified anything, as to matter of fact; but they make a common practice of twisting the judgment of events, very often contrary to reason, to our advantage, and of omitting whatsoever is ticklish to be handled in the life of their master; witness the proceedings of Messieurs de Montmorency and de Biron, which are here omitted: nay, so much as the very name of Madame d’Estampes is not here to be found. Secret actions an historian may conceal; but to pass over in silence what all the world knows and things that have drawn after them public and such high consequences, is an inexcusable defect. In fine, whoever has a mind to have a perfect knowledge of King Francis and the events of his reign, let him seek it elsewhere, if my advice may prevail. The only profit a man can reap from these Memoirs is in the special narrative of battles and other exploits of war wherein these gentlemen were personally engaged; in some words and private actions of the princes of their time, and in the treaties and negotiations carried on by the Seigneur de Langey, where there are everywhere things worthy to be known, and discourses above the vulgar strain.”

Related pages

  • Next chapter On Cruelty
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  • In French Des livres
  • Florio Of Bookes
  • Updated November 6, 2023
  • Translation Charles Cotton (with revisions by W. Carew Hazlitt)
  • License Public domain
  • Source Montaigne, Michel de. Essays of Montaigne. Edited by William Carew Hazlitt. Translated by Charles Cotton. London: Reeves and Turner, 1877.
  • Word Count 1580:  5,182   1588:  5,349   BC:  5,427   1595:  5,437. Word count in French editions.
  • Comp. Date 1578–79 Composition dates are estimates based on Villey, Pierre. Les sources & l’évolution des Essais de Montaigne: Les sources & la chronologie des Essais. France: Hachette, 1908.
  • Alt. Titles Of Books

How to cite this page

  • Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” Translated by Charles Cotton. HyperEssays.net. Last modified November 6, 2023. https://hyperessays.net /essays/book/II/chapter/10/
  • Corrections

Michel de Montaigne and the Art of the Personal Essay

Montaigne invented the essay genre after deciding he wanted to write a literary self-portrait of himself. This turned out to be an impossible task.

chateau st michel de montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is one of France’s most celebrated literary giants . Born into a noble Catholic family from South West France, he spent many years sitting in Bordeaux’s parliament. But after 15 years working in the legal and political sphere, Montaigne retired to his country estate in Dordogne.

It was here, inside a small library within one of his chateau towers , that Montaigne began writing the Essays . He published the first two volumes of these essays in 1580, followed by a third in 1588. Within their pages he wrote chapters of varying lengths (sometimes only a few paragraphs, sometimes hundreds of pages long) on a wide array of topics ranging from architecture to child-rearing. His writing style was unusual in the 16th century for its complete honesty and informality.

The Essays: Michel de Montaigne’s Personal and Historical Context

Michel de Montaigne portrait

Before we dive into the essays themselves, it’s helpful to understand Montaigne’s mindset when he first began writing in 1571. The nobleman had already suffered a series of personal tragedies by the time he put quill to parchment. His close friend Étienne de la Boétie passed away in 1563, followed by Montaigne’s beloved father Pierre only a few years later in 1568.

In fact, Montaigne was arguably surrounded by death throughout his life. He and his wife Françoise had several children, but only one daughter, Léonore, survived childhood. Furthermore, France was embroiled in a bloody civil war between Catholic and Protestant factions for much of the latter half of the 16th century. This violence reached the walls of Montaigne’s chateau on many occasions. Montaigne himself was twice accosted by spies and soldiers who wanted to kidnap or kill him, but in both cases he managed to talk his way out of trouble.

chateau michel de montaigne

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In this context of grief and bloody violence, Montaigne began to look inwardly to himself. After all, his external reality, which was filled with family tragedy and religious massacres, didn’t seem to be making much sense. It’s hardly surprising that in his famous preface to the Essays , the author expresses a belief that his own death will occur fairly soon. Therefore his writing will serve as a legacy, a reminder of his character and personality once he is dead.

This is where the unique nature of Montaigne’s writing comes into play.  In the Essays he wants to try and pin down his own thoughts and feelings on paper, amid the uncertainty and violence of the world around him. He accepts that there are plenty of things he knows very little about, which is why he often defers to other people by including direct quotations from ancient philosophers and historians in his writing. But what he can do is draw on his own experience, i.e. his memories, personal events etc. and combine it with the books and philosophies that have shaped him, in order to try and sketch a self-portrait of himself.

The Essays were printed and widely disseminated throughout Europe, bringing Michel de Montaigne a large degree of fame during his lifetime. He continued to write and rewrite previous editions of his work, resulting in several versions of the Essays in circulation. Eventually, after some brief periods of travel across France and Italy, ill health confined Montaigne to his chateau once again. He died of quinsy at the age of 59.

The Unique Composition of the Essays

montaigne portait

As you may have guessed, the Essays (in French: Essais ) are an unusual collection of writing. The word ‘essay’ itself comes from the French verb ‘essayer’ i.e. ‘to attempt’. Each chapter is Montaigne’s attempt to explore a particular topic, whether it be child-rearing or suicide , by capturing the natural flow of his thoughts as they enter his mind. In a chapter on politeness, for example, he might begin by discussing a famous quote on being polite, then compare this with what various philosophers say on the matter, before finally reflecting on his own attitude towards politeness.

Despite being a member of the upper classes, Montaigne discusses historical events and philosophical questions alongside personal anecdotes and health issues (including his bowel movements and napping schedule!). Although it’s now a common literary genre, this free-flowing essay form was completely new to 16th century audiences. The Essays represented the origins of an entirely new way of writing.

What makes Michel de Montaigne’s writing even more unique was his insistence on constantly revising what he had already published. In later editions, he added hundreds of annotations (sometimes several paragraphs long) or hastily deleted sentences and quotes he no longer liked. In fact, this constant rewriting highlights just how difficult it is to paint a literary self-portrait. Our ideas and opinions on subjects are constantly changing over the course of our lifetime. The Essays are a record of how Montaigne’s own mindset evolved as he grew older, read more books and experienced even more of life.

Montaigne and the Act of (Re)writing

michel de montaigne essays frontispiece

Indeed, the rewriting process feeds into this problem which Montaigne encounters during his writing. In a chapter entitled ‘On Repentance’, he ends up discussing how difficult he finds it to record himself through the medium of writing: “I can’t pin down my object. It is tumultuous, it flutters around” (Montaigne, 2007). Then he asserts one of his most famous dictums: “I don’t paint the being. I paint the passage” (Montaigne, 2007). Here he illustrates what he believes to be one of the key conditions of human existence: that all human beings are constantly in flux.

Michel de Montaigne can never truly give a single self-portrait of himself through his writing. Because he, like us, is constantly changing over time. His body is aging, his emotions change from day to day, his favorite authors and philosophers evolve as he reads more books. He cannot write the ‘being’ because it’s constantly in flux, so he can only record the ‘passage’ of himself as it changes from day to day, minute to minute.

The Philosophical Significance of the Essays

english edition montaigne essays

So if we’re constantly in flux, how can we ever do what a philosopher wants to do best and try to find truth? After all, Montaigne acknowledges that learning and attempting to find truth in the world is often portrayed as the most distinguished way to spend one’s time: “We are born to seek out truth…the world is nothing but a school of learning” (Montaigne, 2007).

Montaigne suggests that we humans possess a strong desire to fulfill our curiosity. Furthermore, when Michel de Montaigne discusses truth, he often uses verbs such as ‘to seek’ or ‘to search’ but never claims to have finally ‘found’ the truth. This suggests that he believes truth-seeking to be an open-ended journey, one which will never quite be fully realized. This is mirrored in the writing of the Essays themselves, which were edited and re-edited by their author, before subsequently spawning a long tradition of academic scholarship which still debates the meaning of Montaigne’s writing today.

portrait michel de montaigne dumonstier

In a temporal world , learning and accessing truth is challenging. Montaigne often uses the French word branle (which roughly translates as ‘inconstant movement’) to describe time. Time’s inconstancy affects us every single day. Montaigne points out that each new day brings new feelings and flights of imagination, leading us to flit between different opinions. Time’s inconstancy isn’t just reflected in the external world i.e. through the changing seasons, but it also affects the inner essence of our being. And we humans allow ourselves to drift along in this way, stating an opinion then changing it an hour later, for the entirety of our lives on earth: “It’s nothing but inconstancy” (Montaigne, 2007).

When it comes to pinning down a literary self-portrait, Montaigne struggles due to the impermanence of living in time: “If I speak of myself in different ways, it’s because I view myself differently” (Montaigne, 2007). However, his commitment to writing and rewriting his thoughts shows his determination to try and find truth in the world despite all of its uncertainty. Even though human beings exist in temporal flux, we still have a brain and rational tools which allow us to live in time. Truth-seeking means doing what Montaigne is doing with his writing: drawing on your own experience and writing down your thoughts to try and know yourself. After all, the one thing that humans can reliably claim to know about is themselves.

Michel de Montaigne’s Literary and Philosophical Legacy

michel de montaigne 1590 portrait

The Essays are celebrated due to their inventive nature. In the end, Montaigne didn’t care that he would never be able to represent himself faithfully through writing. He accepts that this is the way of the world, and puts quill to parchment anyway. Scholar Terence Cave once described the Essays as “the richest and most productive thought-experiment ever committed to paper” (Cave, 2007). Furthermore, as stated above, the clue is in the name essay , which means ‘attempt’: as he reflects on the French civil war or the nature of custom, his thoughts shift and change. He is trying, and that’s all we can ever do.

Montaigne has also defied classification as a philosopher. Sometimes he favors Stoicism as a world view, at other times he prefers the Skeptics. And unlike many philosophers who are seeking a way to live in the world , Michel de Montaigne refuses to give a final judgment on whatever topic he is writing about. His personal anecdotes and moral reflections always lead towards open-ended conclusions. He doesn’t seek to provide his readers with absolute answers to life’s major questions. What he does do is attempt to record himself searching for those answers in vain.


Terence Cave, How to Read Montaigne (London: Granta, 2007)

Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais , ed. by Jean Balsamo, Michel Magnien & Catherine Magnien-Simonen (Paris: Gallimard, 2007)

michel de montaigne essays summary

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By Rachel Ashcroft MSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance Philosophy Rachel is a contributing writer and journalist with an academic background in European languages, literature and philosophy. She has an MA in French and Italian and an MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Rachel completed a PhD in Renaissance conceptions of time at Durham University. Now living back in Edinburgh, she regularly publishes articles and book reviews related to her specialty for a range of publications including The Economist.

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