Philosophy Michel de Montaigne
by
Manuel Bermúdez Vázquez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0270

Introduction

Michel de Montaigne (b. 1533–d. 1592) was a French essayist, generally regarded as one of the most influential 16th-century thinkers and as an important figure in the story of the development of Early Modern philosophy. The story of Michel de Montaigne is a story about a revolution of thought that emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity. There are no standard accounts regarding Montaigne’s philosophical approaches and the Essais are, in part, the product of a voyage of self-discovery set within the context of the tumultuous events of the later 16th century, which included the expansion of Europe’s physical and intellectual horizons in the Age of Discovery and the chaos brought on by the Protestant and Catholic Reformations and the Wars of Religion that spread all over the continent. In this journey, Montaigne sought guidance from different authors and wrestled with the relative merits of reason, experience, and faith in the search for knowledge. In this quest he encapsulated his emblem in the famous motto, “Que sçais je?” (What do I know?). Montaigne can be read from diverse perspectives, and philosophers, historians, and literary scholars have approached him in slightly different ways. This plurality of voices been somewhat beneficial, even though the different scholars do not always speak as one. The case of Montaigne is particularly challenging. He discusses philosophical, theological, and anthropological problems, but he rarely does so in a straightforward way, and he chose the essay, a model of discourse that allowed him the freedom to explore a wide range of topics in an unsystematic way. Indeed, in Montaigne’s time, “essay” was a word meaning an attempt, and was not yet a word describing a literary form. Montaigne lived a rich and varied life. He was a judge, a statesman, and a confidant of princes. He participated at the highest level in some of the most important events of his day. Nonetheless, he was also a scholar, not a university-trained philosopher or theologian, but rather an educated “man of letters,” perhaps one of the first and certainly one of the most popular among later generations. This popularity, and the fame of Montaigne, rests on his Essais. The Essais speak with multiple voices, but it must never be forgotten that all of them are Montaigne’s voice, and if we seem to encounter many different Montaignes in the Essais, it is only because Michel de Montaigne chose that we should.

General Overviews

There are many good introductions for Montaigne’s readers, but there is almost unanimity in considering Cave 2007 the best one. There is a wide range of other possibilities, from a good scholarly introduction to Montaigne, Langer 2005, to Henry 1994 and its short essays. Certainly, Henry 1994 would make a good starting point for introducing students to the Essais. We also have an excellent example of the difficulties of the figure of Michel de Montaigne in Jules, et al. 1994. Friedrich 1949 offers an excellent synthesis of Montaigne’s ideology that makes easier to understand the French thinker. Other examples of good studies about Montaigne can be found in works such as Frame 1965, which offers a vision that is as historical as it is critical, or Starobinski 1989, which focuses on Montaigne in a more critical way. On top of these, Tournon 1989 is still considered an important contribution on Montaigne’s studies, though Villey 1933 remains a classic book to start any study on Montaigne.

General Bibliographies

There are very good bibliographies that could be very useful for those interested in studying Montaigne. There are five different bibliographies that cover almost everything written about our French thinker until 1990. Bonnet 1983 and Clive and Bonnet 1990 cover most works on Montaigne until 1990. On the other hand, La Charité and Brush 1985 offers an annotated bibliography that covers more or less the same period. Regosin 1984 and Desan 1991 are excellent reference works that provide the bibliography of the critical period of innovation and transformation in Montaigne studies that began in the 1980s.

Editions

The Essais have had a difficult editorial history, and the attention of most of the scholars has been devoted to the status of the first posthumous edition in 1595 made by Marie de Gournay, overall since the arguments given in Sayce 1974 and Maskell 1978. These arguments were revisited and popularized in Simonin 1995 and, even though Tournon 2003 unleashed a full attack against them, the 1595 edition finally became the copy text of the prestigious new Pléiade edition in 2007. This edition was discussed and analyzed in the Nouveau Bulletin de la Société Internationale des Amis de Montaigne 2008.

  • Special Issue. Nouveau Bulletin de la Société Internationale des Amis de Montaigne 9.3 (2008).

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    This special issue was devoted to the debates originated by the new Pléiade edition and the decision taken to return to the 1595 version of the Essais in place of the Bordeaux copy, in which a good number of key editorial players made emphasis. André Tournon, Alain Legros, and Claude Blum were among the scholars who participated in this debate.

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  • Maskell, David. “Quel est le dernier état authentique des Essais de Montaigne?” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 40.1 (1978): 85–103.

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    This well-argued essay was the first to extend Sayce’s arguments in favor of the authenticity of the variants of the 1595 edition.

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  • Sayce, Richard A. “L’édition des Essais de Montaigne de 1595.” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 36.1 (1974): 115–141.

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    This was the first widely recognized scholarly paper calling for returning to the 1595 posthumous edition of the Essais and provides the first arguments given to support the authenticity of the 1595 edition.

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  • Simonin, Michel. “Aux origins de l’edition de 1595.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 25.3 (1995): 313–343.

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    This paper eventually led to a return to the 1595 edition of the Essais as the copy text for the more recent editions. Sayce and Maskell’s arguments were recovered here.

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  • Tournon, André. “Du bon usage de l’édition posthume des Essais: Débat à la Bibliothèque Nationale de France sur les deux visages des Essais.” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 8.29–30 (2003): 77–91.

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    Tournon, an opponent of the 1595 edition as the copy text for modern critical editions, presented his arguments here.

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English Translations

Scholars seem to be divided in their preference between two translations, Frame 2003 and Screech 1991. Screech’s translation proved to be more accurate on individual words, but Frame’s gives a better sense of Montaigne’s style.

  • Frame, Donald, trans. Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Works. Everyman’s Library. New York: Knopf, 2003.

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    This translation was originally published by Stanford University Press in 1957 and is, probably, stylistically closest to our French thinker.

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  • Screech, M. A., ed. and trans. Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays. New York: Penguin, 1991.

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    This translation attempts to maintain the structure and diction of the original Latin. While this focus on a direct translation suffers stylistically, it manages to present a more accurate English rendition of Montaigne’s original words.

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Biographies and Other Documents

Donald Frame (Frame 1965) wrote what has become the standard account of Montaigne’s biography. Since then, several scholars have accepted the challenge of correcting and modifying some of Frame’s views. In recent years, there has been a veritable explosion of biographies on Montaigne. Since Frame 1965, biographies such as Marchand 1969, Desgraves 1995, Marcetteau-Paul 1995, Balsamo and Desan 2004, Bakewell 2010, and Frampton 2011 have been published. Marchand is notable for directly presenting important documents such as Montaigne’s father will and daughter’s marriage. Frampton gives in his book a human portrait of Montaigne and composes a fairly comprehensive view of him. Desgraves 1995 and Marcetteau-Paul 1995 are both elaborate biographies which describe, for instance, the routines and activities that Montaigne used to do. Desan 2014 is also one of the most recent works on Montaigne. This political biography questions the historicity of the Essais and their inclusion in the political and social practices of the late Renaissance. This book illuminates the contradictions between the various editions of the Essais (from 1572 to 1592), which correspond to different moments of the life of Montaigne and different political strategies.

  • Bakewell, Sarah. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. London: Random House, 2010.

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    This book is a conversation with Montaigne across the time. It is a good introduction to the life of our French thinker. Bakewell describes how Montaigne was given an independent mind instilled with some skepticism, all of which distanced him from other conventional ambitions.

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  • Balsamo, Jean, and Philippe Desan, eds. Special Issue: Documents sur Montaigne. Montaigne Studies 16 (2004).

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    This special issue presented an array of dispersed documents that ranged from how much Montaigne earned in the Bordeaux Parlement to a previously unpublished letter by Marie de Gournay.

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  • Desan, Philippe. Montaigne, une biographie politique. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2014.

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    In this book we discover a different Montaigne from the one we are familiar with. Desan presents a Montaigne detached and stoic, a thinker who did not separate his private life from his public life, a Montaigne that was caught in the turmoil of his time, a character that lived through no less than eight civil wars and that was sent to the Bastille by the Catholic League. Desan succeeds in displaying a Montaigne whose speeches and his silences obeyed strategic reasons; he was neither candid nor transparent.

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  • Desgraves, Louis, ed. Inventaire des fonds Montaigne conserves à Bordeaux. Études montaignistes. Paris: Champion, 1995.

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    The title is quite expressive and presents a useful list and a summary of documents from Montaigne and his family.

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  • Frame, Donald M. Montaigne: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965.

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    This has become the standard account of Montaigne’s biography. Not only does it show the historical background of Michel de Montaigne, but it also corroborates the picture of himself that Montaigne created in his Essais.

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  • Frampton, Saul. When I Am Playing with my Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.

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    Montaigne treated almost every topic under the sun in his Essais. The points discussed in this book are the same: friendship, war, love, sex, conscience, etc. Frampton does not merely glosses Montaigne’s words, he tries to extract a particular meaning in every detail. By linking Montaigne’s life with his writings, Frampton discovers associations and meanings in twelve chapters. In short, this book is a good representation of Montaigne’s character and life.

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  • Marcetteau-Paul, Agnès. Montaigne, propriétaire foncier: Inventaire raisonné du Terrier de Montaigne conserve à la Bibliothèque municipal de Bordeaux. Etudes montaignistes. Paris: Champion, 1995.

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    This book can be a good source to study how Montaigne used to conduct himself while running his estate. These documents are very helpful in order to understand Montaigne’s mundane activities.

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  • Marchand, Jean. “Documents originaux relatifs à Montaigne et à sa famille.” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 4.19 (1969): 9–42.

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    Here is contained Montaigne’s father’s final will among other documents. From this article, it became clear that in 1567 Pierre de Montaigne (Montaigne’s father) annulled his previous provisions and drafted a second will, probably a holograph.

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Montaigne and Skepticism

The standard account of Montaigne’s skepticism focused on the supposed influence of the writings of the ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus on Montaigne and his Essais. The principal responsible for this understanding of Montaigne’s skepticism was Pierre Villey (see Villey 1908, cited under Montaigne’s Career, Biography, and Sources). Important scholars like Richard Popkin, Donald Frame, Hugo Friedrich, and many others, such as the authors of Berven 1995 and Brahami 1997, followed Villey in this. Brahami’s treatment of Montaigne’s skepticism also follows Popkin in arguing that Montaigne was influenced by Sextus Empiricus in his skepticism, but unlike Popkin and others, Brahami maintains that Montaigne’s skepticism ultimately departed from that of Sextus Empiricus. Popkin 2003 (first published in 1960 with the title The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes) has been the threshold for the study of skepticism and it has been extended several times until its latest edition, which is the one cited here. According to Popkin, a “skeptical crisis” occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants and Catholic Reformers used skeptical arguments in their theological debates. Among the major early figures in this story were Erasmus and Montaigne, in the latter of whose writings Popkin saw the first example of a mature and fully developed skepticism. There is, however, a new interpretation given in Bermúdez 2007 and others that shows the complex relationship of Montaigne with the longstanding Christian commitment to the primacy of faith over reason and the important role played by the experience of self in the world of the later 16th century. The skepticism of the Essais is, in part, the product of a voyage of self-discovery and, for this journey Michel de Montaigne sought guidance from a number of ancient and Christian authors and wrestled with the relative merits of reason, experience, and faith in the search for verifiable knowledge. The question that arises now is if his model in this quest was the Pyrrho of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism, or his image of the Socrates created by Plato and Xenophon. Tournon 1983 also deals with the role of Sextus Empiricus, arguing in this book that skepticism was a basic feature of Montaigne’s thought. The author also claims that Montaigne’s juridical experience led him to embrace the Pyrrhonian suspension of judgment that he presumably encountered in the writings of Sextus Empiricus. For Nakam 1993 it was the study of history and culture that confirmed Montaigne’s Pyrrhonian and relativistic skeptical outlook. The author argues that Montaigne’s study of the past and of other societies convinced him of the contingent nature of moral values; that his experience of the events of the France of his day made him pessimistic about the ultimate fate of human society; and, finally, that his personal experience of government taught him compassion and tolerance. We should also mention the quality studies carried out in Demonet 2002, Curley 2005, and Desan 2008. Desan considers that, for Montaigne, skepticism was more an attitude rather than a real philosophical position.

  • Bermúdez, Manuel. Michel de Montaigne: La culminación del escepticismo en el Renacimiento. Córdoba, Spain: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Córdoba, 2007.

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    Bermúdez defends that Montaigne was more a skeptical thinker in the line of Socrates or Saint Augustine than a pyrrhonist like Sextus Empiricus. Bermúdez sustains that Sextus was not relevant for Montaigne. This thesis is plausible, but it might be weakened by the author’s tour de force to dismiss the relevance of Sextus, which is simply undeniable. It is also true that if the Essais are considered as a whole there might be a different reading.

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  • Berven, Dikka, ed. Montaigne: A Collection of Essays. 5 vols. New York: Garland, 1995.

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    In this collection of essays, Berven, in his introduction, challenged the rigidity of Villey’s formal categories. Berven’s sentiment resembled more closely the traditional conception of the Essais common to literary readers like Emerson and Gide than it did that of Villey. Berven further agreed with Marcel Tetel’s essay in this same book that the idea of the evolutionary thesis is somehow inimical to Montaigne and his Essais.

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  • Brahami, Frédéric. Le scepticisme de Montaigne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.

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    The core of Brahami’s argument is that Montaigne, unlike Sextus Empiricus, should be read as an anti-rationalist. According to Brahami, Montaigne rejected the suspension of judgment of Sextus Empiricus and maintained that man has no choice but to exercise judgment in the face of an absolute incertitude. Brahami also considered in this book the problem of faith in Montaigne. Brahami’s book is subtle, but not without problems.

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  • Curley, Edwin M. “Skepticism and Toleration: The Case of Montaigne.” Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy 2 (2005): 1–33.

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    Curley offers an interesting analysis on the anachronism of considering Montaigne’s skepticism as an example of the modern standard of tolerance.

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  • Demonet, Marie-Luce. “À plaisir”: Sémiotique et scepticisme chez Montaigne. Orléans, France: Paradigme, 2002.

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    Demonet tries in her book to offer an analysis of the heterogeneity of the Early Modern period through Montaigne’s skepticism and semiotics. This book is a compilation of previous papers presented in several journals and conferences.

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  • Desan, Philippe. Montaigne: Les formes du monde et de l’esprit. Paris: Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2008.

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    Desan argues that, for Montaigne, everything is form because diversity is an inherent part of the human nature. Having found by experience that variety is the guiding principle of humanity, Montaigne tries to show himself as an observer of the human being and the world in their materiality. Form would be what is revealed to us first. These forms are always redefined by opinion, doubt, morality, ethics, and they become the main subject of his Essais.

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  • Nakam, Géralde. Montaigne et son temps. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

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    Nakam’s analysis of the circumstances that shaped the Essais is masterful and, to my knowledge, probably the most useful and detailed of such studies. There are, however, some questions that stir controversy: Nakam’s assertion that Montaigne rejected the absolute primacy of any particular set of religious teachings and embraced Catholicism as a matter of custom only. Also Nakam’s conviction of Montaigne’s absolute cultural relativism and her belief in Montaigne’s tolerant liberalism.

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  • Popkin, Richard. The History of Skepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Perhaps the major weaknesses of Popkin’s account are his tendency to dismiss the contributions of thinkers prior to Montaigne, his perhaps-exaggerated emphasis on the importance of Sextus Empiricus, and his lack of analysis of important personal and psychological factors and other general developments in the culture of the period. Despite these weaknesses, this book is a seminal work of major importance for the study of skepticism in general and the skepticism in Montaigne in particular.

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  • Tournon, André. Montaigne: La glosse et l’essai. Lyon, France: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1983.

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    Tournon maintains that like the legal literature of Montaigne’s day, the Essais abound in paradoxes, contrasts, discussions without limit, and a spirit of perpetual research that hearkens back to Socrates. Tournon’s conclusion is that Montaigne’s skepticism was not the result of a temporary crisis, but rather an essential and enduring feature of his thought. Tournon’s reading of Montaigne is appealing, and in general it offers valuable insight into the nature of Montaigne’s thought.

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Montaigne beyond Skepticism

Although Montaigne’s skepticism is probably one of the main features of his philosophy, the Essais cannot be reduced to that alone. There are other approaches to Montaigne that are equally valid and appropriate, such as the already-classic Conche 1987, Schmitt 1972, or Limbrick 1973. Limbrick defends here the importance of the figure of Socrates in the configuration of Montaigne’s thought. The Socratic “Know thyself” became the central pivot of Montaigne’s Essais, and according to our French thinker, self-knowledge is the beginning of all wisdom. We also have the dialectical reading of Hartle 2003. For example, to fully grasp Hartle’s thesis it is necessary to first understand the idea behind the concept of “accidental philosophy.” Accidental philosophy is a philosophy that both seeks the truth underlying pre- or non-philosophical moments and relies on a circular dialectic. Bencivenga 1990 takes a pragmatic approach and reveals that the fundamental category missing in the Cartesian conception of the self was practical effort. Works like Panichi 2009 and Maclean 1996, studies tied to classic figures such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch, should also be mentioned. Finally, it is important to mention two further interesting contributions, Schmitt 1972 and Screech 1983.

  • Bencivenga, Ermanno. The Discipline of Subjectivity: An Essay on Montaigne. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400860647Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Bencivenga contributed to the debate about the death of the subject by developing a view of the self as a project of continuous construction rather than the source and foundation of knowledge. The Cartesian conception of self-consciousness as a logical and epistemological starting point in Montaigne is, according to Bencivenga, delusive. Montaigne makes for a very interesting case study in this instance.

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  • Conche, Marcel. Montaigne et la philosophie. Villers-sur-Mer, France: Mégare, 1987.

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    This book became a classic shortly after its publication. It is a collection of articles and each one attempts to have a clear theme: among them we see topics ranging from Pyrrhonism and death to pleasure and the loneliness of his thought, etc. Conche offered a reading of Montaigne opposed to that of Lévi-Strauss. For Conche, Montaigne is the first theorist of universal morality and an inaugurator of human rights.

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  • Hartle, Ann. Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511498169Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hartle sets out a dialectical thought as a circular movement, reflecting Montaigne, who would initiate his thought in a certain manner and then return to his starting position after a long reflection and after consideration of those beginnings in a totally new way. To establish her ideas, Hartle uses only examples from of Montaigne’s essays, which she considers prove Montaigne’s circular movement of thought.

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  • Limbrick, Elaine. “Montaigne and Socrates.” Renaissance and Reformation 9 (1973): 46–57.

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    Limbrick uses the sources, ancient and modern, that Montaigne drew upon for his portrait of Socrates. The conclusion that Limbrick offers here is that the Socrates of the Essais is the ideal of the sage. His presence in Montaigne’s work is strong and it is easy to see that Socrates taught Montaigne that the first duty of a human being is to learn how to live and then how to act.

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  • Maclean, Ian. Montaigne philosophe. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996.

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    Maclean argues that Montaigne’s decision to write essays and the rhetorical strategies that he employed within the Essais reveal much about his thought. He maintains that Montaigne is not a philosopher, yet he clearly addresses philosophical issues, which he chooses to explore, like Plutarch, through the medium of the essay. In this book, the importance of jurisprudence, Cicero, and Aristotle are highlighted.

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  • Panichi, Nicola, ed. Special Issue: Montaigne et les philosophes. Montaigne Studies 21 (2009).

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    In this journal issue, several articles dealt with Montaigne’s relation to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Pyrrho, Seneca, etc. Along with these philosophers, problems like language, speech, ethics, politics, history, and the birth of philosophical historiography are treated.

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  • Schmitt, Charles B. Cicero Scepticus: A Study of the Influence of the Academica in the Renaissance. International Archives of the History of Ideas. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1972.

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    Among the many thinkers and scholars who have devoted themselves to the study of the importance of skepticism in the 15th and 16th centuries, Schmitt deserves special mention. This book is an important tool to understand the presence of academic skepticism in the Essais.

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  • Screech, M. A. Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays. London: Duckworth, 1983.

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    Screech suggests that Montaigne’s complexion was melancholic by nature and he became temperamental and unbalanced, and the only way to restore his balance was writing about himself. The main idea is that Montaigne was worried by the problems that his temperament could produce. Although sometimes the book takes the tone of a hagiography, most of the time it provides a very useful compendium of information that can be of interest to the scholar.

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Montaigne’s Political Thought

Montaigne was at the center of a huge political turmoil. In his time, one of the most important concepts in the political thought was that of the state, and this is the period in which most historians traditionally place the birth of the modern state. The emergence of Calvinism contributed to the development of theories of armed resistance to that state. In Lutheran Germany, the Protestant Reformation led to a redefinition of secular and clerical authority and a reworking of traditional German law along the lines of old Roman civil law. Within the Catholic Church, the Reformation saw the emergence of a new constitutionalism which all but put to rest traditional struggles between conciliarists and papal absolutists. The legal and constitutional traditions of Spain, England, France, and various Italian states also evolved during this period, although the role of Reformation and Counterreformation is more complicated in these cases. All of this, however, contributed to the confusion and chaos of the period. Montaigne was a witness to all of these events and a participant in many of them. They shaped his thought and conditioned his outlook likely contributing to his skepticism. His basic reaction to this situation was shock and dismay, and he was appalled at what he perceived as the corruption of the age. Even in his grief he saw some signs of light, however, and his very indignation signals a belief in the possibility of the existence of something better than what he saw around him. Montaigne’s political thought was always linked with ethics. Sometimes he seems to join politics with ethics. Zalloua 2005 proposes a “return” to these questions against more historicized readings. Henry 2002 offers some examples of a wide range of possibilities from conscience to justice. Desan 2006 tries to solve whether the Essais were written as leisure or as a political statement in the middle of the French Wars of Religion. Quint 1998 defends that the concept of “mercy,” or compassion, was Montaigne’s master virtue. Fontana 2008 starts by declaring that Montaigne is a difficult subject to portray. It acknowledges that there is nothing that anyone can say about Montaigne that has not been said more interestingly and effectively by himself. Fontana defends that the Essais reflect Montaigne’s involvement with contemporary politics, particularly the politics of the civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. Laursen 1992 discusses the conflict between liberalism/conservatism in politics and offers a fine tool with clear definitions of different skeptical concepts. Nakam 1984 shows Montaigne’s thought is constantly illuminated by that of his contemporaries. Each topic is studied in multiple facets and the last part of each chapter strives to bring together these different parts. Sometimes, however, Nakam’s text gives the impression of being repetitive, although more often we can find new details that bring nuances to a thought that was believed to have been already fully analyzed. Schaefer 1990 had the purpose of writing a work of political philosophy in the broadest sense of the term.

  • Desan, Philippe, ed. Montaigne politique: Actes du colloque international tenu à University of Chicago les 29 et 30 avril 2005. Colloques, congrès et conferences sur la Renaisssance européenne 55. Paris: Champion, 2006.

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    There is an unclear complexity about Montaigne’s attitude toward the politics of his time. It seems that there is a contradiction between Montaigne’s retreatment when he was thirty-eight and his subsequent election as Mayor of Bordeaux. All these complexities, from the idea of political necessity to the role of politics in the private life, are studied in the different sections of this book.

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  • Fontana, Biancamaria. Montaigne’s Politics: Authority and Governance in the Essais. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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    The main thesis sustained by Fontana is that Montaigne’s Essais are more a major critique of the ancien régime in France than a mere record of Montaigne’s personal experiences. Fontana talks about the reform of legal institutions, the prospects of religious tolerance, the role of public opinion, and the legitimacy of political regimes. She considers Montaigne an antecedent of the main themes of the Enlightenment.

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  • Henry, Patrick, ed. Special Issue: Montaigne and Ethics. Montaigne Studies 14 (2002).

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    In this special issue of the journal Montaigne Studies there are articles on conscience, virtue, legal ethics, fortitude, ethos, justice, etc.

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  • Laursen, John Chris. The Politics of Skepticism in the Ancients: Montaigne, Hume and Kant. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004246843Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Montaigne is considered here within the context of skepticism and, even though this book is perhaps a better tool for the study of skepticism, it is also a worthy material to study different political approaches that can be intuited in our French thinker. In addition, Laursen includes a selected bibliography that may be helpful for scholars.

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  • Nakam, Géralde. Les Essais de Montaigne, miroir et procès de leur temps: Témoignage historique et creation littéraire. Publications de la Sorbonne: Littérarture 2. Paris: Nizet, 1984.

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    This book was originally part of Nakam’s doctoral thesis. It focused on Montaigne’s writings as reflections of a humanist engaged with the political thought of his time. The thematic organization of the book involves, essentially, money, religion, justice, war, the king and the law, persecution against heretics, Jews, and sorcerers, freedom of conscience, rejection of xenophobia, etc.

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  • Quint, David. Montaigne and the Quality of Mercy: Ethical and Political Themes in the Essais. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400864805Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Quint takes a twofold road: on the one hand he uses literary analysis, and on the other hand philosophical inquiry to defend that Montaigne transcended his skepticism and turned his stoicism into a positive message to his fellow contemporaries, a whole new approach to ethics. This book is an important tool for understanding the political and ethical dimensions of the Essais.

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  • Schaefer, David Lewis. The Political Philosophy of Montaigne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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    Schaefer compares Montaigne with Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hobbes and describes the author of the Essais as a figure far more systematic and radical than previously recognized. In this book, the author tries to demonstrate that Montaigne is essential to understand the theoretical foundations of modern politics and morality and that he was an antecedent of Locke’s and Montesquieu’s political thought.

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  • Zalloua, Zahi. Montaigne and the Ethics of Skepticism. Charlottesville, VA: Rookwood, 2005.

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    Zalloua approaches Montaigne’s skepticism from the perspective of ethics. He considers that the command “take care of yourself” is an ethical one. He therefore tries to explore Montaigne’s practice of self-care and self-knowledge as a way to analyze the ethical implications contained in the Essais. One of the most interesting things in this work is the attention paid to the changes and additions across the editions of Montaigne’s Essais.

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Montaigne’s Moral Philosophy and Law

Morality and law, the obverse and reverse of human society, were in the balance in the Essais. In his time, Montaigne lived through a period of not only philosophical and theological crisis, but also ethical and political. He explores a wide variety of subjects in his Essais and he assays his judgment on all of them. The general topics that concern him most are ethics and government, public law, and private morality. Knee 2003, in particular, focuses on this question of Montaigne as thinker and politician. Dionne 2014 considers the issue also raised by Montaigne of the separation of morality and politics—a question present in intellectual forums since Machiavelli. Sève 2007 offers a different approach to Montaigne. It provides a new interpretation of the Essais where Montaigne builds a reflection on the original disorder of the mind and the rules that custom requires. Westerwelle 2002 discusses issues in the Essais such as imagination and aesthetics and considers how these themes suffered a lack of attention after their exclusion from the Cartesian philosophy.

  • Dionne, Valérie M. Montaigne, écrivain de la conciliation. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014.

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    For Dionne, Montaigne seemed committed to the path of reconciliation as the remedy for the disorders of his time, and he did so by revealing the diverse nature of men. He positioned his ethos to redeem the useful and the honest and upheld these in opposition to the separation of morality from politics.

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  • Knee, Philip. La parole incertaine: Montaigne en dialogue. Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2003.

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    Philip Knee focuses on Montaigne’s perennial exercise of his judgment as thinker and politician and the ethical consequences of this very exercise. The author here sees that Montaigne set a dialogue with himself and the result of that was the essay, the act of trying.

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  • Sève, Bernard. Montaigne: Des règles pour l’esprit. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007.

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    This books stands that against most conventional readings of the Essais, Montaigne should not be reduced to a skeptical revival. On the contrary, Montaigne’s thought was organized around a major problem, that of the disordered mind.

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  • Westerwelle, Karin. Montaigne, die Imagination und die Kunst des Essays. Munich: Fink, 2002.

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    The author pays attention to the origin of the concept of imagination. This book is a good starting point for the study of the aesthetic genealogy of modernity.

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Montaigne’s Career, Biography, and Sources

There are several contributions that deserve to be mentioned here rather than in any other section. Caron 1993 is devoted to Montaigne’s writing. Hoffmann 1998 showed us how Montaigne managed to deal with his estate, his secretaries, and the printing of his Essais. Surprisingly enough, Hoffman’s study casts new light on the issues that made the first edition of the Essais so unreliable, analyzing why some essays were omitted, or how others were stolen by the secretary. Limbrick 1972 and Limbrick 1977 cast new light on several questions behind the figure and the philosophy of Michel de Montaigne and his connections with previous philosophies and philosophers. The intellectual clarity of Pouilloux 1995 and the literary value of Zweig 2008 need to be mentioned here. It is also important to mention the classic critique Horkheimer 1938. The tremendous influence of Villey 1908 is still present in many scholars’ work. This book is a very important one for Montaigne’s scholars. Originally Villey’s doctoral thesis, this is also a seminal work. The “evolutionary thesis” was first articulated by Pierre Villey here and since then many scholars have subscribed to it. According to this theory, there were three phases to Montaigne’s thought, the Stoic, the Skeptical, and the Epicurean. The main issue with this evolutionary thesis is that it makes skepticism a mere phase in Montaigne’s thought, against a modern current of research that offers a different interpretation. According to Villey’s interpretation, Montaigne’s skepticism was inspired by a study of the works of Sextus Empiricus some time around 1575, just before the composition of the longest and most straightforwardly skeptical of the Essais, the “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” by Villey’s dating.

  • Caron, Élisabeth. Les Essais de Montaigne ou les échos satiriques de l’humanisme. Montreal: Ceres, Inedita et Rara, 1993.

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    Caron does her analysis from a twofold perspective, humorous on one hand and serious on the other. Caron challenges the traditional view and says that philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Saint Augustine are antipodal to Montaigne’s worldly and open disposition. Caron recognizes, on the other hand, Montaigne’s affinities with a deceptively entertaining writer like Apuleius, who is not, of course, merely entertaining.

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  • Hoffmann, George. Montaigne’s Career. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198159629.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hoffmann examines the practical world in which Montaigne wrote his Essais, how he spent his time and how he managed his family estate, as well as how Montaigne had to finance, proofread, and revise his own book. All these roles intertwined with his positions as a magistrate, diplomat, and mayor. One of the theses sustained by Hoffman is that there was an interdependent relationship between writing and politics in Montaigne’s time.

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  • Horkheimer, Max. “Montaigne und die Funktion der Skepsis.” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7 (1938): 1–52.

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    Published in English as “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 265–312), this classic critique deals with questions that go from the absolutism of the bourgeois property rights of Montaigne’s day to the state as a guarantor of secure commerce and transit.

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  • Limbrick, Elaine. “Montaigne et Saint Augustin.” Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 34 (1972): 49–64.

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    In this article Limbrick examines the relation between Montaigne’s and Saint Augustine’s thought. Augustine, a main source for academic skepticism, left important traces on Montaigne’s philosophy.

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  • Limbrick, Elaine. “Was Montaigne Really a Pyrrhonian?” Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 39 (1977): 67–80.

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    In this controversial paper, Limbrick showed that the importance of the Academic Skeptics is essential in the formulation of Montaigne’s skepticism. This text is highly appealing because it helped to overcome some misconceptions and presented new evidences upon the sources, ancient and contemporary, that shaped Montaigne’s skepticism.

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  • Pouilloux, Jean-Yve. Montaigne: L’eveil de la pensee. Paris: Champion, 1995.

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    Pouilloux brings together, in this volume, his studies on Montaigne. As some scholars have pointed out, this issue justifies a certain melancholy in the first pages. And melancholy is definitely a good inspiration. He approaches Montaigne’s studies with a new way of thinking and writing. This book is also a critical work on some of the things that have already been said and thought regarding Montaigne. It is a work remarkable for its clarity and intellectual rigor.

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  • Villey, Pierre. Les sources et l’evolution des Essais de Montaigne. Paris: Hachette, 1908.

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    The influence of this book has been enormous, and the debt to it is significant. Villey’s dating of the composition of the individual essays, and the various recensions of them and interpolations within them, remains an important tool for anyone engaged in a serious study of Montaigne. The same is also true of Villey’s attempt to trace the influences on Montaigne’s thought.

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  • Zweig, Stephan. Montaigne. Barcelona: Acantilado, 2008.

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    Before committing suicide in Brazil in 1943, Zweig wrote this marvelous biography of Michel de Montaigne. In this short and interesting book the literary merits of the author and a clear statement of the facts that surrounded the life of Montaigne are intertwined, making for enjoyable reading. Surprisingly, there is no English version available yet.

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