During this time of the Wars of Religion, Montaigne, himself a Roman Catholic, acted as a mediating force, respected both by the Catholic Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre.
In 1578, Montaigne, whose health had always been excellent, started suffering from painful kidney stones, a sickness he had inherited from his father's family. From 1580 to 1581, Montaigne traveled in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, partly in search of a cure. He kept a detailed journal recording various episodes and regional differences. It was published much later, in 1774, under the title Travel Journal. While in Rome in 1581, Montaigne learned that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux; he returned and served until 1585, again mediating between Catholics and Protestants. His eloquence as a statesman and his ability to successfully negotiate between the warring Catholic and Protestant factions earned Montaigne a great deal of respect throughout France, and for most of his life he would be remembered for his excellence as a politician even more than for his writings.
Montaigne continued to extend, revise and oversee the publication of his Essays. In 1588 he met the writer, Marie de Gournay, who admired his work and would later edit and publish it. King Henry III was assassinated in 1589, and Montaigne then helped to keep Bordeaux loyal to Henry of Navarre, who would go on to become King Henry IV.
Montaigne died in 1592 at the Château de Montaigne and was buried nearby. Later his remains were moved to the Church of St. Antoine at Bordeaux. The church no longer exists: it became the Convent des Feuillants, which has also been lost. The Bordeaux Tourist Office says that Montaigne is buried at the Musée Aquitaine, Faculté des Lettres, Université Bordeaux 3 Michel de Montaigne, Pessac. His heart is preserved in the parish church of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, near his native land.
The Essais-translated literally from the French as "trials" or "attempts"-are Montaigne's magnum opus, and one of the most important single pieces of literature written during the French Renaissance. The Essais, as is clear even from their title, are remarkable for the humility of Montaigne's approach. Montaigne always makes it clear that he is only attempting to uncover the truth, and that his readers should always attempt to test his conclusions for themselves. Montaigne's essays, in their very form, are one of the highest testaments to the humanist philosophy to which Montaigne himself owed so much of his thought; honest, humble, and always open to taking in ideas from any source, the Essais are one of the first truly humane works of literature-literature written truly written for the sake of everyman.
The Essais consist of a collection of a large number of short subjective treatments of various topics. Montaigne's stated goal 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. Among the topics he addresses include descriptions of own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disdain for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for death; among these more philosophical topics there are also interspersed essays on lighter subjects, such as diet and gastronomy, and the enjoyments to be found in taking a walk through the countryside.
One of the primary themes that emerges in the Essais is Montaigne's deep distrust of dogmatic thinking. He rejects the belief in dogma for dogma's sake, stressing that one must always be skeptical and analytical so as to be able to tell the difference between what is true and what is not. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. In the "Apology," Montaigne argues that we cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us; we don't truly control them. We do not, he argues strongly, have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. Throughout the "Apology" Montaigne repeats the question "What do I know?." He addresses the epistemological question: what is it possible for one to know, and how can you be really sure that you know what you think you know? The question, and its implications, have become a sort of motto for Montaigne; at bottom, all of the Essais are concerned with the epistemological problem of how one obtains knowledge. Montaigne's approach is a simple one, yet it is remarkably effective and remains refreshingly new: all the subject can ever be certain of is what comes from the subject; therefore, Montaigne attempts in essay after essay to begin from his own observations-it is only through utmost concentration beginning from ones own thoughts and perceptions that any truth can ever arrive.
This attitude, for which Montaigne received much criticism in his own time, has become one of the defining principles of The Enlightenment and Montaigne's ideas, as well as his forthright style, would have a tremendous influence on essayists and writers of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries the world over.
Related writers and influence
Among the thinkers exploring similar ideas, one can mention Erasmus, Thomas More, and Guillaume Budé, all working about 50 years before Montaigne.
Montaigne's book of essays is one of the few books that scholars can confirm Shakespeare had in his library, and his great essay "On Cannibals" is seen as a direct source for "The Tempest."
Much of Blaise Pascal's skepticism in his Pensées was a result of reading Montaigne, and his influence is also seen in the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Friedrich Nietzsche was moved to judge of Montaigne: "That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this Earth." (from "Schopenhauer as Educator")
All links retrieved October 2, 2018.
- Works by Michel de Montaigne. Project Gutenberg
- Charles Cotton translation of some of Montaigne's essays Project Gutenberg
- Complete, searchable text of the Villey-Saulnier edition from the ARFTL project at the University of Chicago (French)
- The Montaigne Studies Journal at the University of Chicago
- Photos of his chateau, his personal belongings, and a memorial The photograph described as 'Montaigne's grave' is actually a memorial outside the parish church at St Michel de Montaigne, where his heart is preserved.
- Montaigne ein freier mensch (German)
- Biographie et citations de Montaigne (French)