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.

At one point in the third volume, he almost invites the reader to compare versions. He claims, with only a little truth, that he adds to his book but does not correct; he did revise, although most of the changes are, indeed, additions—because once an author has published, or, as he put it in 1588, “has mortgaged his work to the world, it seems to me that he has no further right to it.” Second, he is not sure that his revisions are any better than the original, and insists that the changes

do not condemn the original version…. I do not trust my thoughts more because they are second or third, instead of first. Often we correct ourselves as stupidly as we correct others. My first publication was in 1580. After a long stretch of time, I have become older, but certainly not an inch wiser. Me now and me then are two, but which is better I could not say at all. It would be great to be old if we always progressed toward improvement. It is like a drunken movement, tottering, vertiginous, shapeless, like reeds moved fortuitously by the wind.


Much critical effort has been expended on trying to determine the outlines of Montaigne’s philosophy.2 This is not absolutely futile: he was at the start largely influenced by the Stoic school of Seneca, then showed more sympathy for the Epicureans. However, he is likely to contradict any position he takes a few pages later, but without rejecting it. It is rarely a final position that interests him, but the movement of thought—how one arrives at a conclusion, rather than where. Sometimes the idea he arrives at is incompatible with the first, just as the ideas of Stoics are incompatible with the ideas of the Epicureans; but it is the trajectory that is fascinating. Poets and historians meant more to him than philosophers, he said, and his style reveals the stamp of poetry, as we saw above when he illustrates the unstable movement of reality with the astonishing image of the rocks of the Caucasus and the pyramids of Egypt.

On a few points Montaigne never wavered: most important of all was his hatred of cruelty. On this he based his condemnation of the use of torture in judicial proceedings, and his attack on the horrifying Spanish destruction of Mexican civilization (he assumed that it was still young, and that we, the representatives of a dying culture, had destroyed it before it could mature). Along with his insistence that women should receive the same education as men, his refusal to accept the existence of witchcraft has given him the reputation, at least partially deserved, of being a precursor of Enlightenment thought. Hundreds of witches were burned at the stake during his time.

Just what Montaigne derived from his reading has an ambiguous status. He mocks writers who quote frequently from the classics, although this was certainly his own obsessive practice. But he boasts of deforming his citations to fit their new contexts:

I hide my thefts and disguise them. [Pedantic writers] parade them and are proud of them…. Like horse thieves, I paint the tail and the mane.

He later canceled the picturesque reference to horse thieves. However, he boasts elsewhere of concealing his borrowings from the classics, since it amused him to be attacked by those who did not realize when he was citing some famous authority—so that, as he says, the critics who mock him are really “thumbing their noses” at Plutarch or Seneca without knowing it.

At his most characteristic, Montaigne does not use his quotations or his anecdotes as authority but only as steps in a movement of thought that leads elsewhere—and the conclusion itself is rarely a place of rest. In “On Cripples,” for example, he takes up the antique belief that sexual intercourse is most enjoyable with a cripple:

Apropos or not apropos, it doesn’t matter, there is a popular Italian proverb that says that he who has not slept with a lame woman does not know the perfect sweetness of Venus. Chance or some particular event put this saying into common use, and it is said of males as well as females.

Montaigne speculates on the reason for this belief: perhaps the eccentric movement of the lame person gives a new taste or pleasure to the action, he suggests, but quickly adds that he has just learned that ancient philosophy gives a different reason (he got this from the pseudo-Aristotle of The Problems): since the thighs and the calves of the lame do not get enough nourishment, the genital parts are fuller and more vigorous. This leads Montaigne to the first of double conclusions:

What can we not reason about at this price?… Do not these examples prove what I said at the beginning that our speculations about the cause often anticipate the effect, and have the range of their jurisdiction so infinite that they judge and act in the inane itself and in nonbeing?

The second conclusion, however, turns around full circle:

For, simply by the authority of the old and public saying, in the past I made myself believe to have received more pleasure from a woman because she was not straight, and counted that as one of her attractions.

It is evident that neither the proverb nor the various steps of reasoning nor even the conclusions have a permanent value for Montaigne. It is the voyage that counts; it leads from ancient and popular authority through empty speculation to the final, ironic, and basically worthless rehabilitation of the proverbial view, and it demonstrates the weakness of rational thought as it is generally practiced.

This is the essential set piece in the chapter that questions the belief in witchcraft, and demonstrates how the mind (including Montaigne’s own mind) will reason with vacuous ingenuity. Contemporaries of Montaigne complained that he flitted from one subject to another, but he insisted that it all hangs together if you know how to read it. The opening words of this discussion, “Apropos or not apropos, it doesn’t matter,” are a signal that we must reconstruct the reason for ourselves.

Fundamental to Montaigne is the conclusion that casts doubt upon itself, and this reveals him at his most profound. The first chapter of the third book deals with the still relevant problem of living in a society so corrupt that we cannot behave decently. At the opening he launches into a catalog of the vices that foreshadows the “Préface” to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal:

Our being is cemented with pathological qualities: ambition, jealousy, envy, vengeance, superstition, despair, lodge within us so naturally that the image can be recognized in animals: indeed, and cruelty, so unnatural a vice: since, in the middle of compassion, we feel within us an indefinable bittersweet prick of malignant delight at seeing someone else suffer, and children feel it.

This poetic description of cruelty is immediately followed by political reflections inspired by an age torn apart by religious strife:

If you remove the seeds of these qualities in man, you would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life. Similarly, in every political state, there are necessary offices not only abject but even vicious…. If they become excusable, in so far as we need them and common necessity effaces their true quality, let these parts be played by more vigorous and less fearful citizens, who sacrifice their honor and their conscience like those ancients who sacrificed their lives to save their country. Those of us who are weaker, let us play easier and less hazardous roles. The public good demands that one lie, betray, and massacre: let us resign this commission to those who are more obedient and more supple than we are.

The word “massacre” was added after 1588 as the political situation worsened. The last words “more supple” strike with greater force if one reflects that it is difficult to be more supple than Montaigne, but the coarseness of the irony reaffirms the contempt that is naked in the previous clauses. The comparison of those heroes of the past who sacrificed their lives for their country with their modern counterparts who sacrifice their honor and their conscience may, I suspect, have been remembered by Edward Gibbon in one of the most extraordinary works of English polemics, A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he attacked the claim that an ecclesiastical historian had the right to cover up the defects of the early Christian church. He wrote: “The historian must indeed be generous, who will conceal, by his own disgrace, that of his country, or of his religion.”

The irony and the contempt are similar. In Montaigne, however, the irony is also directed paradoxically against virtue and honesty: the very words “fearful,” “easy,” and “weaker” undermine the position of decency. The attempt to balance the utility of treason, murder, and vice with the feeble and cowardly exercise of virtue is intended to be deeply unsatisfactory and inconclusive. The result is a devastating indictment of the political order. Montaigne was a conservative who believed that one should never attempt to change the religion or the government of a country, but he was in no way the dupe either of religion or of politics. (Firmly a Catholic, he was imprisoned by the extremist Catholic League, and had to be released by Catherine de Médicis.)

Trying to define Montaigne’s religious position has always entailed controversy. The nineteenth-century belief that he was secretly a skeptical freethinker describes unfairly someone who said “I was born a Roman Catholic and I shall die a Roman Catholic” and insisted on practicing the Catholic rites at home in a predominantly Protestant neighborhood. Nevertheless (given the present academic fashion of imposing on students a devout and impeccably orthodox Catholic Montaigne), we might reflect on the passage that opens this review. An author who is unwilling to express himself completely and expects the happy few (the readers who understand his manner or “air“) to guess at his oblique resonances “à gauche” is not likely to hold the most respectable opinions.

Sainte-Beuve’s summary observation that Montaigne would have been a very good Catholic if he had been a Christian was a cogent formula. It is unsatisfactory, but helps to explain his importance for Pascal: Pascal did not need Montaigne to find out how to argue with his enemies; he already knew that better than any writer in history, as he demonstrated in the crushing attack he mounted on the Jesuits in his Provincial Letters. What he learned from Montaigne was how to argue with himself, to discover within himself that incredulity has an attraction as powerful as faith—an impeccably orthodox Montaigne would have been of little use to him. The power and the originality of Pascal’s Pensées are based on his recognizing the seduction of disbelief and indifference.

Montaigne may have thought himself an orthodox Catholic, but he had little faith in the power of prayer (he could only remember one, anyway, the Paternoster), and he did not share in the Mariolatry popular at that time. Absolutely unacceptable to the Church, indeed, was his essay on repentance, a virtue he found extremely dubious: it is rarely sincere, he thought, and not very useful even then (he was asked by the clergy to change this, but he never did).

Even his friends were shocked by the outspoken essay on sex called “On Some Verses of Virgil,” first published in 1588, and they suggested he remove it. Instead, he considerably enlarged it. He wrote it, he said, so that women would not leave his book lying around publicly in their salons but would keep it for a more private room. In fact, his discussion takes its point of departure from the fact that sexual intercourse cannot be discussed openly in polite society:

What has the genital action done to men, an action so necessary and just, that we dare not speak of it without shame and we exclude it from serious and respectable conversation? We can bravely pronounce the words: kill, rob, betray; and this we only dare to mumble between our teeth. Should we say that the less we exhale the words, the more we have the right to magnify the thought?

He then added in the Bordeaux Copy:

For it is good that the words the most rarely used, the least written and the most kept silent, are the best known and the most generally recognized. No age and no way of life ignores them, no more than bread. They are imprinted in everyone without being expressed, either audibly or by image.

The essay is his farewell to sex, now that he has become old.3 He still, he says, “remembers its power and its merits; there are some remnants of emotion and heat after the fever.” He was, in fact, only fifty-five years old, but he was already experiencing the sense of old age. In another essay, he describes what the advancing years have done to him: among other things “I can no longer make children when standing up” (perhaps that was considered a proof of virility in his time).

He returns consistently to the sexual difficulties of old age. “Nature should have been content to have made old age wretched without making it ridiculous as well.” He mocks the elaborate rituals of sex and courtship in society (after all, “it is just a way of emptying our vessels”). Then he reverses himself: when one reaches his age, he says, and it is hard to get it up even three times a week, these rituals are useful in the end, and allow a more leisurely pace (besides, women were not always pleased with him, because he went at it too quickly).

The greatest distress concerning his age arises from his conviction that an old man making love to a young woman destroys the balance necessary to love:

It is a business that needs relation and correspondence: the other pleasures we receive can be rewarded in different ways; but this one has to be paid in the same money…. There is no generosity in one who receives pleasure where he gives none…. If women can only gratify us by pity, I should rather not live than live by accepting alms.

After 1588, he added, “I find more pleasure just seeing the proper and sweet mingling of two young beauties, or just imagining it, than taking part myself in a sad and shapeless melange.”

The acceptance here of voyeurism and even of a masturbation fantasy reveals the most extraordinary aspect of this long essay: the refusal to treat sex as in any way sinful or obscene. It is true that in an earlier essay on friendship, he endorses the contemporary disapproval of homosexuality—however, not because it is unnatural or even physically repugnant, but only because it lacks the reciprocity and equality necessary to friendship as to love. For Montaigne, homosexuality could only exist between an older man and a very young one. A relation between two men of the same age seems not to have been conceivable for him (perhaps that came from his reading of pederasty in the Greek classics). In “On Some Verses of Virgil,” on the other hand, Socrates’ relations with young men are treated with consistent sympathy.

A view of adultery as completely natural is developed at length. (Montaigne himself, who married somewhat late in life, kept his marriage vows much to his own surprise—“I gave more than I promised or expected.”) At one point he astonishingly addresses all his male readers directly: “All of you have cuckolded somebody”—and that logically means that it will eventually happen to you. In the East Indies, he reports, a married woman is expected to be chaste but she is allowed to abandon herself to any man who gives her an elephant. This essay best reveals an essential trait of Montaigne: he had almost no sense of guilt—regret, often enough, of course, but not guilt. It is no wonder that he thought repentance more of a nuisance than a virtue.

“On Some Verses of Virgil” is not only a nostalgic and frank discussion of sex but also a collection of misogynist anecdotes and jokes, banalities of medieval and classical traditions, largely to establish that it is absurd to force women to live by the rules fashioned by men, and to require them to pretend to believe that they are not interested in sex, when they are in fact even more lascivious than men—having so much less to occupy them. But when, on the last page, he writes, “I say that male and female are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, there is little difference,” the declaration gains power from the mass of the preceding misogyny. It is not compromised by it, nor does it erase it. They coexist happily. And the idea is reinforced by further commonplaces:

It is easier to attack one sex than to excuse the other: As we say: the pot calls the kettle black. [More literally, the poker makes fun of the shovel.]

This declaration is more persuasive than the fashionable and generally insipid feminism of many of Montaigne’s contemporaries precisely because it follows hard upon the lively vigor of the popular medieval tradition.

The coexistence of opposites and the refusal of a logical synthesis are essential to Montaigne. After 1588, he added without further explanation the cryptic remark: “Perhaps I have a personal reason to speak only half my thought, to speak confusedly and discordantly.” When this is not acknowledged, we lose the vivacity and the abundant sense of life that makes him so close to the readers of his own and later times. A famous sentence on the last page of his book is sometimes tortured to remove the discord it creates. The final essay, “Of Experience,” ends with a plea for an acceptance of the world as it is given us for “a life that conforms to the common and human model, but without miracle and without extravagance.”

It is the ultimate message of Montaigne, and entails a frontal attack on the extremist religious factions that were tearing apart his society. He mounts a sustained and comic protest against the religious moralist of great austerity, who believes

that pleasure is a bestial quality, unworthy of the philosopher. The only pleasure he takes from the enjoyment of a beautiful young wife is the pleasure of being conscious of doing something according to the rules. Like putting on his boots for a necessary ride on horseback.

After this mockery of the ascetic, Montaigne prudently separates out the truly devout from “the childish mob of ordinary men like ourselves,” setting apart “those venerable souls raised by their fervor of piety and religion to a constant and conscientious meditation on divine matters.” (After 1588 he expanded this description of the saintly life that “disdained all necessary commodities, fluid and ambiguous, to concentrate on the eternal nourishment of Christian desires.”) In 1588, the section had been rounded off simply: “This is a privileged study.”

After that in the Bordeaux Copy he added the famous provocative sentence:

Between you and me [entre nous], these are things I have always seen of singular accord: supercelestial opinions and subterranean behavior.

Scholars who would prefer an orthodox Montaigne have assured us that, of course, he is not talking here about those venerable souls to whose religious ardor he has just paid such eloquent tribute, and that it is a misunderstanding to apply it to them.

This attempt to resolve the contradiction pays no attention to two important details of the text. Montaigne exempts no one. The first detail is an interesting variant: in the Bordeaux Copy, Montaigne originally crossed out the word “subterranean,” and then wrote it back in. He understood that it would shock and lead to a reading that critics would deplore, and he decided that he would risk or even welcome the provocation. Second, the opening words “between you and me” signal that what follows will be found unacceptable to many, taking the reader who is on his side into his confidence. And the whole train of thought is vigorously reinforced a few sentences later:

They want to get outside themselves and escape from humanity. It’s madness: instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts…. And on the highest throne in the world, we are still seated on our ass.

The contradictions do not cancel each other, and cannot be resolved. Montaigne submits, but does not capitulate, to religious and social authority.4

He gloried in the contradictions. His oppositions reflect the tensions of his age. His method was, by displaying the casual, hidden workings of the mind, to show how the profound is mixed with the trivial, the corporal with the spiritual, the capricious with the reasonable. In so doing, he revealed what he saw as the disintegration of his society.

This Issue

February 14, 2008