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The Genius of Montaigne

Les Essais

by Michel de Montaigne, edited by Jean Balsamo, Michel Magnien, andCatherine Magnin Simon
Paris: Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,975 pp., e79.00


Montaigne remarked that when someone dwelt on the language, the style, of his Essays, “I would prefer that he shut up.”1 It was, above all, the objective content of which he was proud, more material and denser, he says, than in other writers. But, as he observes at once, his meaning is not always straightforward. To his essay “Considerations on Cicero,” published in 1580, he added the following passage many years later:

Neither my anecdotes nor my quotations are always employed simply as examples, for authority, or for ornament. I do not consider them only for the use that I make of them. They often carry, off the subject under discussion [hors de mon propos], the seed of a richer and more daring matter, and they resonate obliquely [à gauche] with a more delicate tone, both for me who do not wish to express at this point anything further, and for those who recognize my manner [mon air].

This open invitation to read between the lines is followed by a condemnation of style for style’s sake, but it nevertheless implies that the manner of presentation required stylistic virtuosity.

I speak to the paper the way I speak to the first man I meet,” Montaigne claimed; and the popular and easy familiarity of his style in the Essays was a radical novelty in serious writing about philosophy, morals, history, and politics. He could, of course, combine this simplicity, when he wanted, with all the resources of classical Latin rhetoric on which he had been raised as a child in the Périgord. (His ambitious father hired servants for the children who spoke only Latin, and little Michel never heard a word of French before he went to school.) He did not invent the essay, of course, but he was, indeed, the first to use the term to describe a short, informal prose discussion meant to instruct, stimulate, and entertain; his book became a model for almost every writer after him who attempted the form.

Born in 1533, Montaigne was the younger son of Pierre Eyquem, a recently ennobled, wealthy merchant of Bordeaux, who had immense respect for classical studies. Montaigne’s maternal grandfather came from a Spanish family, supposedly Jewish converts to Christianity, who in 1497 joined other members of the family who had already settled in Toulouse. His paternal great-grandfather acquired the Château of Montaigne, in Périgord, not far from Bordeaux. Trained as a lawyer, Montaigne became a magistrate in Bordeaux during a period of violent religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, with terrible atrocities on both sides. He began writing in the 1570s when the death of his closest friend, Étienne de La Boétie, made him wish to retire from public life; but the melancholy of solitude engendered such monstrous fantasies, he said, that he began writing them down to demonstrate their folly to himself. In fact, he started by modeling his writing on the moral reflections of the classical authors he loved best, Plutarch and Seneca, but soon his work took a new and radical turn.

It became an intimate and frank self-examination. Not an autobiography—the events of his life were too insignificant, he thought—but an account of his “fantasies,” his imagination, his whims, his ideas. This sounds modest, but it quickly became one of the most ambitious projects in the history of literature, and he claimed to be the first ever to attempt it. His idea of philosophy was not of an effort to reach the truth, but an investigation of the way the mind worked, fallibly, capriciously, and unpredictably. He studied himself:

I propose an unimportant life without luster. It’s all one. We can attach the whole of moral philosophy as easily to a common and private life as to a life of richer material. Each man carries the entire form of the human condition.

The originality of his approach was his conviction that nothing was too trivial to be examined, that the way the mind acted was dependent not so much on logic as on physical health (he made little distinction between body and mind), on the social environment, on minor distractions like sudden noises, on one’s dislike of the sound of a voice, on the disruption of a long-cherished habit, or on one’s occupations (he claimed to get his most interesting ideas while riding a horse, when it was inconvenient to write them down).

He could be very grand about the project of studying himself:

There were only one or two writers among the ancients [i.e., classical Greeks and Romans] who took this path, and we cannot say if their way was like mine, since we know only their names. No one since has tread in their tracks. It is a thorny enterprise, more so than it seems, to follow a pace as vagabond as that of our mind; to penetrate the opaque depths of our internal folds, to choose and fix so many minute appearances of its agitations…. It is many years since I have had myself as the target of my thoughts, that I investigate and study only myself, and, if I study something else, I immediately apply it to myself, or rather within myself.

That is why, he says amusingly, he can write about matters that he does not understand, because it is not these matters themselves but his ignorance of them that is his real subject.

Slightly restrained by the limits of decency (not too restrained, in fact), Montaigne reveals more about himself than anyone else I know of in the history of literature. He tells us that women were disappointed by the small size of his penis (particularly when compared with the monstrous members in the graffiti that children scrawled on palace walls); he admits to gobbling his food so fast sometimes that he bites his tongue and his fingers (forks were only recently introduced in Europe and not immediately very popular). He admits his virtues as well; it would be foolish not to, he claims.

Most radical of all is his sense of the instability of the mind and, indeed, of the universe. “The world is a perennial motion,” he wrote:

everything in it moves without cease: the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt, with the general movement of the whole and with their own individual movement. Even constancy itself is nothing else than a more languishing movement…. I do not portray being; I portray passing; not a passage of one age toanother, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute…. [These essays are] an examination of diverse and changeable events and irresolute fancies, and—when it so happens—contradictory: either I am a different myself, or I seize the matter from other circumstances and considerations.

Montaigne did not completely withdraw from public life after the death of La Boétie: he became mayor of Bordeaux for a short time, and aided the Catholic king, Henri III, in his negotiations with the heir to the throne, the leader of the Protestants, Henri of Navarre, later Henri IV. His last years before his death in 1592 were taken up with a large-scale revision of the Essays.

Two books of Essays were published in 1580, and a third book followed in 1588 with the first two books heavily rewritten and considerably enlarged. His own copy of this expanded edition (called the “Bordeaux Copy”) has revisions in his hand throughout, with indications of inserts that are sometimes many pages in length. The posthumous edition of 1595, overseen by his disciple Marie de Gournay, incorporated these changes with relative fidelity. Most twentieth-century editions are based on the Bordeaux Copy, and it is traditional to indicate the variants—what was printed in 1580, what was added and rewritten in 1588, and what was altered in the Bordeaux Copy.

The book was an immediate success: his neighbors in Périgord, however, thought it was a joke to see him published, and at first he had to pay locally for the printing, but afterward, he boasted, publishers elsewhere in France paid him. The Essays have remained a success for more than four centuries; few books of that age both can be so moving and still make one laugh aloud. Their influence over the centuries has been immense: Shakespeare and other Jacobean dramatists borrowed from them; Pascal called him “incomparable,” and at least a third of the long opening section of his Pensées on religion are directly inspired by Montaigne. (“What I find in Montaigne, I find in myself,” he is supposed to have said, and that is true for so many readers of the Essays.) The influence continued with Voltaire. Even Rousseau, who disliked him (it must have been disconcerting to find someone else who could write so frankly and honestly about himself without shame), borrowed some of Montaigne’s views on primitive societies. Later, Emerson, Nietzsche, Gide, and many others would profit by his example.


A new modern edition was perhaps worth attempting. It is now known that there was another copy of the 1588 edition annotated in Montaigne’s own hand; this copy has disappeared, but was used for the 1595 posthumous printing by Marie de Gournay, and this revision, different in many minor details, has therefore more authority than was granted it by previous editors. Two policy decisions were made with the new one-volume edition in the large series of classics published by Gallimard called the Pléiade. The first decision was to eliminate the paragraphing added by almost all modern editors for readability, and the second was not to indicate on the page of text what came from the first version of 1580, or the new version of 1588, or was added in the margins or between the lines of the Bordeaux Copy, indications that had become standard for all twentieth-century editions. The variants are relegated to the back of the book.

The rationale for the latter decision is that the division of the text into three distinct layers, 1580, 1588, and post-1588, gives a false impression, since the revision must have been fairly continuous over the years. The version chosen is largely that of the posthumous edition of 1595, and variants are now signaled by tiny letters in the text. One has to turn to the back pages where the variants are reproduced in a way that renders them almost totally unreadable. Slight crossings-out in Montaigne’s handwriting are listed pell-mell with major published revisions, and these are often explicated simply (and not always accurately) as being “the next 17 lines from the Bordeaux Copy,” and then we have to return to the main text and count seventeen lines after having located the tiny letter that marks the beginning of the variant.

This is a pity. The variant readings of no other author are so delightful to read and so important for an understanding of his thought. The major changes in Montaigne’s outlook are more intelligible when one knows where each passage first appeared. Above all, the realization that an idea is an afterthought changes its character and often enhances its effect. Perhaps the most sublime phrase of the book is a manuscript addition to the essay on friendship. In the tribute to Étienne de La Boétie, whom he knew for only three years, the greatest emotional experience of his life, Montaigne originally wrote: “If you ask me why I loved him, I could not give an answer.” A decade later, he added: “Parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi” (“Because it was him, because it was me”). Identifying the variants as one reads can give us the feeling that Montaigne himself is reading over our shoulder with comments.

  1. 1

    There is an excellent modern translation by Donald M. Frame (Everyman’s Library, 2003), which I highly recommend. I have, however, preferred to translate less gracefully what I quote here, to bring out different aspects of Montaigne.

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