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.

  • Cave, Terence. How to Read Montaigne. London: Granta, 2007.

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    It is a marvelous book, with a good introduction for both students and specialists. Cave, taking passages from many different chapters of the Essais, guides the reader through Montaigne’s disquisitions. In its barely more than a hundred pages, this book shows the context of Montaigne’s thought, his political circumstances, and the philosophical problems of the age. It is, probably, the best way to initiate contact with our French thinker.

  • Frame, Donald. Montaigne. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

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    Montaigne is a classic study on the philosophy of the Essais. Frame is among the most significant scholars writing on Montaigne.

  • Friedrich, Hugo. Montaigne. Bern, Switzerland: Francke, 1949.

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    Friedrich’s classic study of Montaigne set the standard for a long period and is a very good background to evaluate recent studies. There is an English translation by Dawn Eng (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

  • Henry, Patrick, ed. Approaches to Teaching Montaigne’s Essays. New York: Modern Language Association, 1994.

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    This is a good guide for professors wanting to introduce Montaigne to their students.

  • Jules, Brody, Terence Cave, Fausta Garavini, Michel Jeanneret, and André Tournon. Carrefour Montaigne. Paris: ETS, 1994.

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    Carrefour Montaigne is an extraordinary study written by some of the most conspicuous scholars on Montaigne. It is a good way to gain a deeper understanding of several issues raised by the critical upheavals of the second half of the 20th century.

  • Langer, Ullrich, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521819539E-mail Citation »

    This book presents a perfect picture of the state of the field. It covers topics ranging from skepticism to moral philosophy, law, prudence, political context, etc.

  • Starobinski, Jean. Montaigne en mouvement. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

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    Starobinski, historian of ideas and literary critic, wrote an extraordinary book following a dialectical model: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. There is an English version published (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985).

  • Tournon, André. Montaigne en toutes letters. Paris: Bordas, 1989.

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    This book deals with the problem of writing in Montaigne. It has a helpful index keyed to different essays. It is a perfect approximation to Montaigne for a broad university audience.

  • Villey, Pierre. Montaigne. Paris: Les Editions Rieder, 1933.

    E-mail Citation »

    Villey’s book, although heavily criticized in the past, is a good way to start the study of Montaigne. It is a classic among classics.

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