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.

Aug 15, 2022By Rachel Ashcroft, MSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance Philosophy
chateau st michel de montaigne
Château Michel de Montaigne, rebuilt in the 1800s due to a devastating fire (only the original library tower remains)

 

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
Portrait of Michel de Montaigne as a young man, artist unknown, via Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

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
The famous library tower at Château Michel de Montaigne, via Wikimedia Commons.

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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
Portrait of Montaigne as an older man, artist unknown, via Aleteia.

 

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
Frontispiece of the 1588 Bordeaux edition of the Essays, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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
John Florio’s 1613 translation of the Essays, via PBA Galleries.

 

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
Portrait of Michel de Montaigne circa 1578, purportedly by artist Daniel Dumonstier, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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
Michel de Montaigne, portrait from 1590, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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.

 

Bibliography

 

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)



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By Rachel AshcroftMSc Comparative Literature, PhD Renaissance PhilosophyRachel 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.