Born on February 28, 1533, in Château de Montaigne (near Bordeaux,France), the sixteenth-century French writer MICHEL EYQUEM DE MONTAIGNE perfected the art of the essay, a short written piece that conveys the author’s thoughts on a particular subject. His influence on many writers radiates across the centuries, from Voltaire to Virginia Woolf.
Montaigne, the son of a prominent Catholic landowner and a Spanish-Jewish mother, spent his childhood speaking nothing but Latin until age six. For seven years he studied at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux before embarking on a career in law. He married Françoise de la Chassaigne in 1565 and had one daughter. While serving as councillor of the Bordeaux Parliament, Montaigne met lawyer Étienne de La Boétie, with whom he formed an extremely close friendship. Some scholars have speculated that La Boétie’s death in 1563 led Montaigne to shun close relationships and focus instead on his writing career.
During the Renaissance, Europeans leaped forward while looking back. Their revived interest in the Greek and Roman culture and literary works flourished alongside the growth of scientific discovery. This expansion of knowledge widened Europeans’ horizons, and they began to question the relevance of long-held beliefs. Scientific advances provided skeptics with the arsenal they needed to dismantle medieval thought and replace it with a more modern outlook.
Montaigne, the first to use the term essai to describe his particular type of literary endeavor, tried to discover the nature of humankind by exploring himself. He covers a wide variety of subjects in a straightforward style and in a sincere yet skeptical voice, supporting many of his arguments with quotations from Roman and Greek literature. Montaigne’s topics range from the mundane, such as how to converse properly, to the sublime. “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” revolves around Montaigne’s skeptical view of human knowledge, an outlook uncharacteristic of most Renaissance thought and embodied by his motto, “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”). Refusing to accept the validity of any absolute statement, Montaigne writes that humans are unable to attain certainty about anything. He sees little, if any, difference between humans beings and animals.
Although Montaigne advocated humanism, he also strongly believed in fideism, or the skeptical technique that relies on faith rather than reason in probing religious truths. Montaigne deplored the way in which Europeans treated the native peoples they conquered, and he supported the view that each culture has its own inherent value, contrary to the prevailing notion of cultural superiority. His essays covered many other subjects, including the necessity of marriage, how to raise children, and the value of experience over abstract theory in education.
In 1581, while in Italy, Montaigne was elected the mayor ofBordeaux, a position that he held for four years. He died in his childhood home on September 13, 1592. Quoted by William Shakespeare and imitated by Francis Bacon, Michel de Montaigne has had an immeasurable influence that is readily demonstrated by René Descartes, who expanded upon Montaigne’s thoughts to reach his now-famous conclusion that “I think; therefore, I am.”