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.” 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 …

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