In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Michel de Montaigne

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Language Reference
  • Bibliographies
  • Montaigne, the Person
  • Montaigne as Philosopher
  • Philosophical Skepticism
  • Alternatives to Skepticism
  • Political Thought
  • Ethical Thought
  • Influence of Legal Thinking
  • Personal Networks and the Social Value of Knowledge
  • Questions of Class and Status
  • Editorial Contexts
  • Translations in English
  • Montaigne’s Library
  • Fortunes of the Essays
  • Reception of the Essays
  • Relation to Sources
  • Language
  • Figures of Style
  • Style in General
  • The Essays as Satire
  • Genre of the Essays
  • Overall Structure of the Essays
  • The Significance of Writing

Renaissance and Reformation Michel de Montaigne
George Hoffmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0107


No other early modern European author except Shakespeare has attracted so much scholarship or lent himself or herself to such a wide array of approaches as has Michel de Montaigne (b. 1533–d. 1592). The sprawling, miscellaneous character of the Essays, combined with the book’s uniquely personal tone, has encouraged readers to find their own preoccupations wondrously anticipated in Montaigne. Eric Hoffer proved far from alone in his feeling that “here was a book written by a French nobleman hundreds of years ago about himself, yet I felt all the time that he was writing about me. I recognized myself on every page. He knew my innermost thoughts” (Truth Imagined [New York: Harper and Row, 1983], pp. 52–53). Scholars too respond to the affective pull of the Essays, but they have tried to qualify and refine this tendency to identify with the author. Their efforts divide into three overlapping phases. First came an attempt to reemphasize Montaigne’s dialogue with the ancients (as opposed to simply with us). Next, post-structuralist approaches highlighting paradoxes, dislocations, and the indetermination of the text played a significant role in muting the impulse to see in Montaigne a bigger-than-life version of readers themselves. Finally, most recently historical approaches have taken aim at “Montaigne, our contemporary” by trying to resituate the author within his immediate social context. This has involved a fair degree of demystification (attendant with its own risks of exaggeration). If some of the traditional humanistic justifications for reading Montaigne exert less direct attraction than they once did, he remains a labile writer capable of engaging new conversations. More recently, there has been a surprising—and welcome—resurgence of interest by philosophers, especially in Europe. Their return to Montaigne no doubt responds to a desire to broaden the scope of philosophy in the wake of Pierre Hadot’s influential arguments about how classical philosophy addressed itself to the “care of the self.” Political scientists, encouraged by Judith Sklar, have also picked up Montaigne as a significant interlocutor regarding political philosophy. Moreover, the rise of animal studies has made readers take a second look at the long pages that Montaigne devoted to animals early in his “Apology of Raymond Sebond.” Naturally, the risk remains of rebuilding anew “Montaigne, our contemporary.” Nonetheless, the creative tension between Montaigne’s enduring familiarity and the need to recognize him as a person belonging to a specific time and moment promises to keep the Essays a productive site for scholarship and thinking.

General Overviews

It is hard to imagine a better introduction for most readers than Cave 2007. Henry 1994 offers sound advice to the teacher looking for ways to bring new readers to a demanding, complex work. For a longer, intensive, more scholarly introduction to Montaigne, look to Langer 2005. The quality and enduring influence of Friedrich 1991 make this book an excellent summation of how the Essays were approached until the critical upheavals later in the 20th century. Those began with the important intervention of Pouilloux 1969. The more philosophically inclined will prefer Starobinski 1985; the more literary, Sayce 1972. Latest approaches can be found in Desan 2016. Finally, André Tournon generally stands as the most respected modern exegete of Montaigne. Although his analyses make for challenging reading, Tournon and Le Flanchec 2002 and Tournon 1989 attempt to summarize and condense his views for a broader university audience.

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

    Wonderfully accessible and light-handed introduction filled with fine, revealing close readings. Written so clearly that undergraduates can read it with no preparation and so perceptively that seasoned specialists will read it with great benefit.

  • Desan, Philippe, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Montaigne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Thorough overview that provides the latest scholarly consensus on nearly every aspect of Montaigne’s life and work.

  • Friedrich, Hugo. Montaigne. Translated by Dawn Eng. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    Originally published Bern, Switzerland: Francke, 1949. This work long served as a standard, classic study of Montaigne. It thus provides a useful background against which to assess more recent trends and scholarship.

  • Henry, Patrick, ed. Approaches to Teaching Montaigne’s Essays. Approaches to Teaching World Literature 48. New York: Modern Language Association, 1994.

    Diverse array of short essays, each offering a particular approach used in teaching; some focus on a particular essay, others on a wider challenge students encounter when reading the Essays. Suggestive and inspiring, an excellent starting point for the teacher.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521819539

    Evenhanded and representative picture of the state of the field. Topics covered include political context, legacy, relation to Antiquity, the New World, law, prudence, Renaissance philosophy, naturalism, skepticism, and moral philosophy.

  • Pouilloux, Jean-Yves. Lire les “Essais” de Montaigne. Paris: Maspéro, 1969.

    Influential work that shifted French criticism away from attempts to reconstruct the “system” of Montaigne’s thought toward readings that engaged the Essays on a more direct, ethical level by emphasizing the immanent experience of reading Montaigne. Included, with additional material, in Montaigne, l’éveil de la pensée (Paris: Champion, 1995).

  • Sayce, R. A. The Essays of Montaigne: A Critical Exploration. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972.

    A number of careful and finely executed studies that provide an excellent introduction, particularly on issues of style and literary form.

  • Starobinski, Jean. Montaigne in Motion. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Originally published Paris: Gallimard, 1982. A phenomenological approach that will feel familiar to those versed in Continental philosophy. Works systematically through a thesis-antithesis-synthesis model; excellent on medical influences on Montaigne.

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

    Study of Montaigne’s skepticism as it extends to the problem of writing. Helpful index keyed to individual essays. Intended for a French undergraduate audience, this work brings together in condensed form many of Tournon’s valuable insights scattered across a large array of often difficult-to-locate journal articles.

  • Tournon, André, and Vân Dung Le Flanchec. Essais de Montaigne, Livre III. Neuilly, France: Atlande, 2002.

    Intended as a study guide for the challenging French national agrégation (qualifying) exam, Tournon offers close readings of each of the essays in Book 3, its relation to the preceding books, Montaigne’s nuanced relation to his sources, the notion of “essay,” and the problem of writing skepticism. Le Flanchec produces a highly detailed linguistic study of Montaigne’s writing, broken down by parts of speech.

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