Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, singlehandedly responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. This Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Essays is translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech. In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. There he wrote his constantly expanding ‘assays’, inspired by the ideas he found in books contained in his library and from his own experience. He discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. But, above all, Montaigne studied himself as a way of drawing out his own inner nature and that of men and women in general. The Essays are among the most idiosyncratic and personal works in all literature and provide an engaging insight into a wise Renaissance mind, continuing to give pleasure and enlightenment to modern readers. With its extensive introduction and notes, M.A. Screech’s edition of Montaigne is widely regarded as the most distinguished of recent times. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1586) studied law and spent a number of years working as a counsellor before devoting his life to reading, writing and reflection. If you enjoyed The Complete Essays, you might like Francois Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, also available in Penguin Classics. ‘Screech’s fine version … must surely serve as the definitive English Montaigne’ A.C. Grayling, Financial Times ‘A superb edition’ Nicholas Wollaston, Observer
The Essays (French: Essais, pronounced [esɛ]) of Michel de Montaigne are contained in three books and 107 chapters of varying length. Montaigne's stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record "some traits of my character and of my humours." The Essays were first published in 1580 and cover a wide range of topics.
Montaigne wrote in a rather crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style that gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotations from Ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts such as De rerum natura by Lucretius and the works of Plutarch.
Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe himself with utter frankness and honesty ("bonne foi"). The insight into human nature provided by his essays, for which they are so widely read, is merely a bi-product of his introspection.Though the implications of his essays were profound and far-reaching, he did not intend, nor suspect his work to garner much attention outside of his inner circle, prefacing his essays with, "I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject ."
Montaigne's essay topics spanned the entire spectrum of the profound to the trivial, with titles ranging from "Of Sadness and Sorrow" and "Of Conscience" to "Of Smells" and "Of Posting" (referring to posting letters). Montaigne wrote at a time preceded by Catholic and Protestant ideological tension. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant authors consistently attempted to subvert Church doctrine with their own reason and scholarship. Consequently, Catholic scholars embraced skepticism as a means to discredit all reason and scholarship and accept Church doctrine through faith alone. Montaigne never found certainty in any of his inquiries into the nature of man and things, despite his best efforts and many attempts. He mistrusted the certainty of both human reason and experience. He reasoned that while man is finite, truth is infinite; thus, human capacity is naturally inhibited in grasping reality in its fullness or with certainty. Though he did believe in the existence of absolute truth, an attribute which distinguishes him from a pure skeptic, he believed that such truth could only be arrived at by man through divine revelation, leaving us in the dark on most matters. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features, which resonates to the Renaissance thought about the fragility of humans. According to the scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, "the writers of the period were keenly aware of the miseries and ills of our earthly existence". A representative quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself."
He opposed European colonization of the Americas, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.
Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to. In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond defended Christianity. Montaigne also eloquently employed many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomistLucretius.
Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."
In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that is expected to be accepted uncritically. Montaigne's essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix.
English journalist and politician J. M. Robertson argued that Montaigne's essays had a profound influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, citing their similarities in language, themes and structures.
The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.
Montaigne heavily edited Essays at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:
- A: passages written 1571–1580, published 1580
- B: passages written 1580–1588, published 1588
- C: passages written 1588–1592, published 1595 (posthumously)
A copy of the fifth edition of the Essais with Montaigne's own "C" additions in his own hand exists, preserved at the Municipal Library of Bordeaux (known to editors as the "Bordeaux Copy"). This edition gives modern editors a text dramatically indicative of Montaigne's final intentions (as opposed to the multitude of Renaissance works for which no autograph exists). Analyzing the differences and additions between editions show how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Remarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.
- John Florio (1603)
- Charles Cotton (1685–6)
- Later edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877)
- George B. Ives (1925)
- E.J. Trechmann (1927)
- Jacob Zeitlin (1934–6)
- Donald M. Frame (1957–8)
- J.M. Cohen (1958)
- M.A. Screech (1991)
- ^Montaigne, Michel de (1580). Essais de messire Michel de Montaigne,... livre premier et second (I ed.). impr. de S. Millanges (Bourdeaus). Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica.
- ^"Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libri sex (Montaigne.1.4.4)". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
- ^"Guide to the Classics: Michel de Montaigne's Essay". Observer. 2016-11-15. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
- ^Kritzman, Lawrence. The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne's Essays. Columbia University Press.
- ^ abcdScreech, Michael (1983). Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays. Penguin Books. pp. 1–5.
- ^Robertson, John (1909). Montaigne and Shakespeare: And Other Essays on Cognate Questions. University of California. pp. 65–79.
- ^Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2003 (1987), p. 1284
- ^Les Essais (1595 text), Jean Céard, Denis Bjaï, Bénédicte Boudou, Isabelle Pantin, Hachette, Pochothèque, 2001, Livre de Poche, 2002.
- ^Montaigne, Michel de (1588). Essais de Michel seigneur de Montaigne. Cinquiesme edition, augmentée d'un troisiesme livre et de six cens additions aux deux premiers (5 ed.). A Paris, Chez Abel L'Angelier, au premier pillier de la grand Salle du Palais. Avec privilege du Roy. Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica.