Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) – The Inventor of the Essay

«Mon métier et mon art, c’est vivre.»

The French nobleman Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born on the family estate Château de Montaigne, some 60 kilometers northeast of Bordeaux in the Périgord region. He spent most of his life there and also wrote his so-called Essais in the tower of his castle, which he had converted into a studiolo to work in undisturbed. 

Michel de Montaigne was still a child when he started learning Latin and then studying law in Bordeaux and Paris. He maintained excellent contacts with the royal court in Paris. Since he knew how to strike a balance between Catholics and Protestants, even during the French Wars of Religion, he was regularly summoned as a royal advisor. Like his father before him, he held the office of mayor in nearby Bordeaux for several years. 

Starting in the 70s of the 16th century, Montaigne worked on his Essais, short texts on all conceivable questions of life. There is no issue he didn’t tackle in an intelligent way, thus creating a vademecum for anything your heart desires. Montaigne’s advice stems from his «common sense» in combination with his very personal worldly experiences. His most important source of inspiration, moreover, were the ancient writers of Rome and Greece, all of whose books he kept in his extensive library. 

The topics of his more than 100 essays and treatises reach from «On vanity», «On the inconveniences of a high position», «On the lame», to such as «How our judgment hinders itself», «Cowardice, the mother of cruelty», «One should not fake illness», «Of a deficiency in our public administration», «Our sense of good and evil depends largely on our attitude», and all the way to his reflections «Of Sleep» or «Of Smells». 

Michel de Montaigne basically established the literary genre of the «Essai» (j’essaie = I try), ranging from today’s perspective somewhere between commentary, column, treatise, aphorism, and practically applied philosophy. He was a humanist to the core, an extremely educated yet utterly down-to-earth nobleman, a cosmopolitan attached to nature, to whom nothing in the world was alien and who was intimately familiar with all social classes. With both skepticism and affection, he savored life to the full, keenly taking in all and any (!) of its facets and nuances, and then soaking it all up into his writing. Almost 500 years have passed since Montaigne first published his essays in French in 1580. They nevertheless have a feel as fresh as a witty chat over dinner with him last night. But then again, only twenty generations have passed since then, a mere blink of the eye, really.

Protagonist of my blog

Michel de Montaigne, doubter and critic, above all a man of freedom and tolerance, understood life as a process of perpetual renewal. He said of himself that he wanted to become wiser, not more learned or eloquent. He didn’t care about heaping up knowledge for its own sake, but rather about gaining knowledge of our world for practical use: «I had rather form my mind than furnish it; widen it rather than clutter it up.» This is probably why he was—and is—so popular with many of his colleagues, such as Goethe, Nietzsche, and Stefan Zweig.

Michel de Montaigne’s text passages that I will quote in the future are based on Hans Stilett’s excellent translation into German which will be rendered in English and Spanish to the best advantage by my two congenial translators Andrea Thode and Adrienne Samos.

«L’homme d’entendement n’a rien à perdre.» (A man of understanding has nothing to lose.)

  1. Mein lieber Hans, nicht erst jetzt – schon für die Reflektionen über Schönheit – chapeau!! Ich hoffe bald auf ein Wiedersehen – nach vielen Verwerfungen – und sei herzlichst gegrüßt – Karin

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