Michel de Montaigne

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Montaigne, Michel de


Born Feb. 28, 1533, at the Montaigne chÂteau near Bordeaux; died there Sept. 13, 1592. French philosopher and writer.

Montaigne was a descendant of members of the Gascon bourgeoisie who had become nobles. He received a classical education at home, graduated from a collège, and studied the law. From 1580 to 1588 he published his main work, the Essays (books 1–3). The term “essay” and the philosophical and literary genre to which it refers—a work of mental reflection on specific historical and contemporary facts and on the mores of people of different positions, classes, and levels of culture—owe their origin to Montaigne. The creation of the essay form was stimulated by the troubling civil and religious wars between the feudal aristocracy and the developing monarchy, between the Catholics and the Huguenots. Montaigne’s broad freethinking and unique humanist skepticism were directed against church orthodoxy and the Scholasticism that dominated the medieval universities, against superstition and fanaticism, against the cruelty and cynicism of rulers, and against feudal anarchy and tyranny.

Montaigne criticized the moral structure of “civilized” society, which seemed barbaric in comparison to the primitive world of savages, in which social relationships rested on natural morality. To Montaigne, primitive societies seemed to embody a more sensible and a far more human way of life than the European societies of his time. Recounting his own experiences and expressing his personal inclinations and his dedication to common sense, Montaigne created a realistically truthful, self-critical self-portrait. He offered good sense mixed with skepticism as a suitable principle for society, the maladjustments of which inflict the greatest suffering on the common people, whose indignation and intensely French, Gallic humor are characteristic of Montaigne.

The age of classicism could not understand Montaigne, many of whose ideas foreshadowed those of Montesquieu, the 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, and Rousseau.


Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1–6. Paris, 1924–27.
In Russian translation:
Opyty, vols. 1–3. (Afterword by F. A. Kogan-Bernshtein.) Moscow, 1960.


Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946. Pages 321–24.
Rvkova, N. “M. Monten’.” In Pisateli Frantsii. Moscow, 1964.
Moreau, P. Montaigne: L’homme et I’oeuvre, 4th ed. Paris [1958].
Europe, January-February 1972, nos. 513–14. (Issue devoted to Montaigne.)
Joukovsky, F. Montaigne et le problème du temps. Paris, 1972.
Tannenbaum, S. A. M. E. de Montaigne (A Concise Bibliography). New York, 1942.


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It would be a nice break from the busy day to see a passage from Shakespeare or the Bible, or the Gettysburg Address in full, or an excerpt from a Michel Montaigne or a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay.
His emphasis is on how Joachim Du Belly (1522-60), Edmund Spenser (1552-99), Michel Montaigne (1533-92), and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) engaged in strategies of rewriting the literary work of other places and times, and it is to such texts that he turns his attention.
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