Montaigne, Michel, Seigneur De
Montaigne, Michel, Seigneur de a distinguished French moralist, remarkable for his deep insight into the principles of our common nature, was born February 28, 1533, and was a younger son of a nobleman, whose estate, from which the family name arose, was situated in the province of Perigord, near the river Dordogne. His father, an eccentric, blunt, feudal baron, placed him under the care of a German tutor who did not speak French, and the intercourse between tutor and pupil was carried on entirely in Latin; and even his parents made it a rule to address him in that language, of which they knew a sufficient number of words for common purposes. The attendants were enjoined to follow the same practice. "They all became Latinized," says Montaigne himself; "and even the villagers in the neighborhood learned words in that language, some of which took root in the country, and became of common use among the people." Thus, without the aid of scholastic teaching, Montaigne 'spoke Latin long before he could speak French, which he was afterwards obliged to learn like a foreign language. He studied Greek in the same manner, by way of pastime more than as a task. He was sent to the college of Guienne, at Bordeaux; and at the age of thirteen he completed his college education. He then studied law, and in 1554 he was made "conseiller," or judge, in the Parliament of Bordeaux. He repaired several times to court, and enjoyed the favor of Henri II, by whom, or, as some say, by Charles IX, he was made a gentleman of the king's chamber and a knight of the Order of St. Michael. When he was thirty-three years of age Montaigne married, to please his friends rather as he says, than himself, for he was not inclined to a married life. He, however, always lived on good terms with his wife, by whom he had a daughter. He managed his own estate, on which he generally resided, and from which he derived an income of about 6000 livres. In 1569 Montaigne translated into French a Latin work of Raymond de Sebonde or Sebon, a Spanish divine, on Natural Theology, at the request of his then recently deceased father, who had feared for his son's apostasy to Protestantism (comp. Fisher, Hist. Ref. page 6, note 2). France was at that time desolated by civil and religious war, and Montaigne, disapproving of the conduct of the court towards the Protestants, and yet being by education a Roman Catholic, and by principle and disposition loyal to the king, was glad to live in retirement, and take no part in public affairs except by exhorting both parties to moderation and mutual charity. By this conduct he became, as might be expected, obnoxious to both sides. The massacre of St. Bartholomew plunged him into a deep melancholy, for he detested cruelty and the shedding of blood. It was about this dismal epoch of 1572 that he began to write his Essais, which were published in March, 1580, and met with great success. (See below.) With a view to restoring his health, which was not good, Montaigne undertook a journey to Germany, Switzerland, and lastly to Italy. At Rome he was well received by several cardinals and other persons of distinction, and was introduced to pope Gregory XIII, and received the freedom of the city of Rome by a bull of the pope, an honor of which he appears to have been very proud. Montaigne was delighted with Rome; he there found himself at home among those scenes and monuments which were connected with his earliest studies and the first impressions of his boyish years. He wrote a journal of his tour, evidently not intended for publication; but the manuscript, when discovered after nearly two centuries in an old chest in the chateau of his family, was published (in 1774) under the title of Journal du Voyage de Michel de Montaigne en Italie, par la Suisse et l'Allemagne, en 1580-81. It is one of the earliest descriptions 'of Italy written in a modern language. While he was abroad he was elected mayor of Bordeaux by the votes of the citizens, an honor which he would have declined had not the king, Henri III, insisted upon his accepting the office. At the expiration of two years Montaigne was re-elected for an equal period. On his retiring from office he returned to his patrimonial estate. The war of the League was then raging in the country, and Montaigne had some difficulty in saving his family and property from the violence of the contending factions. At this time the plague also broke out in his neighborhood (in 1586), and obliged him to leave his residence and wander about various parts of the country. He was at Paris in 1588, busy with a new edition of the Essais. It appears from De Thou's account that about this time Montaigne was employed in negotiations with a view to conclude a peace between Henri of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, and the duke of Guise. At Paris he became acquainted with Mademoiselle de Gournay, a young lady who had conceived a kind of sentimental affection for him from reading his book. Attended by her mother she visited him, and introduced herself to him, and from that time he called her his "fille d'alliance," or adopted daughter, a title which she retained for the rest of her life, as she never married. Montaigne was then fifty-five years of age. This attachment, which, though warm and reciprocal, has every appearance of having been of a purely Platonic nature, is one of the remarkable incidents of Montaigne's life. At the time of his death, Mademoiselle Gournay and her mother crossed one half of France, notwithstanding the civil troubles and the insecurity of the roads, to repair to Montaigne's residence and mingle their tears with those of his widow and daughter. On his return from Paris in the latter part of 1588, Montaigne stopped at Blois with De Thou, Pasquier, and other friends. The States-General were then assembled in that city, in which the duke de Guise and his brother the cardinal were treacherously murdered, on the 23d and 24th of December of that year. Montaigne had long foreseen that the civil dissensions could only terminate with the death of one of the great party leaders. He had also said to De Thou that Henri of Navarre was inclined to adopt the Roman Catholic faith, but that he was afraid of being forsaken by his party; and that, on the other side, Guise himself would not have been averse to embracing the Protestant religion, if he could thereby have promoted his ambitious views. After the catastrophe Montaigne returned to his chateau. In the following year he became acquainted with Pierre Charron, a theological writer of considerable reputation, and formed an intimate friendship with him. Charron, in his book De la Sagesse, borrowed many ideas from Montaigne's Essais. Montaigne by his will empowered Charron to assume the coat of arms of his family, as he himself had no male issue. Montaigne's health was in a declining state for a, considerable time before his death; he was afflicted with the gravel and the colic, and he obstinately refused to consult medical men, of whom he had generally an indifferent opinion. In September 1592, he fell ill of a malignant quinsy, which kept him speechless for three days, during which he had recourse to his pen to signify his last wishes. He invited several gentlemen of the neighborhood, in order that he might take leave of them, and when they were all assembled in his room, a priest said mass, and at the elevation of the host, Montaigne,. while half raised up in his bed, with his hands joined together as in prayer, expired, September 13, 1592. His body was buried at Bordeaux in the church of the Feuillants. The character of Montaigne is amply delineated in his Essais. They contain much that an advanced Christianity can hardly approve, yet, notwithstanding these inconsistencies, it is impossible to avoid admiring the continued benignity and pensive gayety which distinguished his temper. The amiableness of his private life is attested by the fact that, under the five monarchs who during his time successively swayed the sceptre of a kingdom torn with fanatical divisions, his person and property were always respected by both parties; and few at an advanced age can say, like him, that they are yet untainted with a quarrel or a lawsuit.
Montaigne's Essais have been the subject of much conflicting criticism. If we reflect upon the age and the intellectual condition of the country in which the author lived, we must consider them a very extraordinary production, not so much on account of the learning contained in the work, although that is very considerable, as for the clear good-sense, philosophical spirit, and frank, liberal tone which pervades their pages, as well as for the attractive simplicity of the language. Literature was then at a very low ebb in France, the language was hardly formed, the country was disturbed by feudal turbulence, ignorant fanaticism, deadly intolerance, and civil factions, and yet in the midst of all this a country gentleman, living in a remote province, himself belonging to the then rude, fierce, feudal aristocracy, composed a work full of moral maxims and precepts, conceived in the spirit of the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome, and founded on a system of natural ethics, on the beauty of virtue and of justice, and on the lessons of history; and this book was read with avidity amid the turmoil of factions, the din of civil war, and the cries of persecution and murder. "The Essais of Montaigne," says Hallam, "make in several respects an epoch in literature, less on account of their real importance than of their influence on the taste and opinions of Europe... No prose writer of the 16th century has been so generally read, nor, probably, given so much delight. Whatever may be our estimate of Montaigne as a philosopher a name which he was far from arrogating — there will be but one opinion of the felicity and brightness of his genius" (Introduction to the Literature of Europe, 2:29). "The author of these Essais," says Leo Joubert, "is certainly the most independent spirit that ever existed-independent without revolt, and detached from the systems of others without having any system of his own... We recognise in his Essais a nature well endowed, not heroic, perhaps, but generous, exquisitely sensible, not aspiring to the sublime, capable of devotion, and incapable of a base act-in fine, a model of what we may call average virtue" (la vertu moyenne) (Nouvelle Biographie Generale, s.v.). Sprightly humor, independence, naivete, and originality are the characteristics of his mind; and his style is admired for its graceful simplicity. His works are highly seasoned with his own individuality, and afford much insight into his character. "The Essais," says Emerson, "are an entertaining soliloquy on every random topic that came into the author's head — treating everything without ceremony, yet with masculine sense. There have been men with deeper insight, but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thoughts: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for... This book of Montaigne the world has endorsed by translating it into all tongues and printing seventy-five editions of it in Europe — and that, too, a circulation somewhat chosen, namely, among courtiers, soldiers, princes, men of the world, and men of wit and generosity" (Representative Men). John Morley, the eminent English writer and most recent biographer of Jean Jacques Rousseau (Lond. 1873, 2 volumes, 8vo), frequently turns aside to pay a tribute to Montaigne, and acknowledges that the author of Enile had read Montaigne's Essais "with that profit and increase which attends the dropping of the good ideas of other men into fertile minds" (2:198; comp. 1:144).
The morality of the Essais has been called — and not unreasonably, though not correctly in the expression — a pagan morality: it is not founded on the faith and the hopes of Christianity, and its principles are in many respects widely different from those of the Gospel. Montaigne was a sceptic, but not a determined infidel; his philosophy is in a great measure that of Seneca and other ancient writers, whose books were the first that were put into his hands when a child. Accordingly Pascal, Nicole, and other Christian moralists, while they do justice to Montaigne's talents, and the many good sentiments contained in his work, are very severe upon his ethics, taken as a system. "Ancient scepticism," says Ueberweg, "was revived, and, in part, in a peculiar manner further developed by Montaigne. The scepticism of this clever man of the world was more or less directed to doctrines of Christianity, but was generally brought in the end, by whether sincere or merely prudent-recognition of the necessity of a revelation, on account of the weakness of human reason, into harmony with theology" (Hist. Philos. [N.Y. 1874, 2 volumes, 8vo] 2:14; comp. Fisher, Hist. Ref. [N.Y. 1873, 8vo] page 251). One of the ablest of moralists of our own time, Prof. Vinet, has given, we think, a very fair analysis of the spirit of Montaigne's ethics (Essais de Philosophie Morale Reeligieuse suivis de quelques
Essais de Critique Litteraire, Paris, 1828). In the fifty-fourth chapter of the first book of the Essais, Montaigne, after distinguishing two sorts of ignorance, the one which precedes all instruction, and the other which follows partial instruction, goes on to say that "men of simple minds, devoid of curiosity and of learning, are Christians through reverence and obedience; that minds of middle growth and moderate capacities are most prone to doubt and error; but that higher intellects, more clear-sighted, and better grounded in science, form a superior class of believers, who, through long and religious investigations, arrive at the fountain of light of the Scriptures, and feel the mysterious and divine meaning of our ecclesiastical doctrines. And we see some who reach this last stage through the second, with marvellous fruit and confirmation, and who, having attained the extreme boundary of Christian intelligence, enjoy their success with modesty and thanksgiving; unlike those men of another stamp, who, in order to clear themselves of the suspicions arising from their past errors, become violent, indiscreet, unjust, and throw discredit on the cause they pretend to serve." A few lines farther on Montaigne modestly places himself in the second class, namely, of those who, disdaining the first state of uninformed simplicity, have not yet attained the third and last exalted stage, "and who," he says, "are thereby rendered inept, importunate, and troublesome to society. But I, for my part, endeavor, as much as I can, to fall back upon my first and natural condition, from which I have idly attempted to depart." In his chapter on prayers (book 1:56) he recommends the use of the Lord's Prayer in terms evidently sincere; and in the journal of his travels, which was not intended for publication, he manifested Christian sentiments in several places. Montaigne has been censured for several licentious and some cynical passages in his Essais. This licentiousness, however, appears to be rather in the expressions than in the meaning of the author. He spoke plainly of things which are not alluded to in a more refined state of society, but he did so evidently without bad intentions, and only followed the common usage of his time. Montaigne combats earnestly the malignant feelings frequent in man- injustice, oppression, inhumanity, uncharitableness. His chapters on pedantry, on the education of children, and on the administration of justice, are remarkably good. He also throws much light on the state of manners and society in France in his time. The Essais have gone through very many editions, and been translated into most European languages: the edition of Paris (1725, 3 volumes, 4to) was perhaps the most complete until the appearance of the recent edition, Avec les notes de tous les commentateurs
choisies et completees par M.J.V. Le Clerc, et une nouvelle etude sur Montaigne pars Prevost-Paradol (Paris, 1865). Cotton's, the best and oldest English translation, is somewhat coarse, though characteristic. It has frequently been revised, and in the form given it by the learned Hazlitt is pronounced a superior work. Very recently an edition of the Complete Works of Montaigne, ctc., was brought out at London (1873). Vernier published in 1810 Notices et Observations pour faciliter la Lecture des Essais de Montaigne (Paris, 2 volumes, 8vo). It is a useful commentary. Meusnier de Querlon published his journal under the title Journal du Voyage de Michel de Montaigne (Rome, 1774, 4to). Extracts from the Essais have at various times been published, as Pensees de Montaigne, propres aὰ former l'esprit et les maeurs, par Artaud (Paris, 1700, 12mo); L'Esprit de Montaigne, ou les maximes, pensees, jugements, et reflexions de cet auteur redigees par ordre de matieres, par Pesselier (Berlin [Paris], 1753, 2 volumes, 12mo); Christianisme de Montaigne, ou pensees de ce grand homme sur la religion, par M. l'Abbe L. (Labouderie) (Paris, 1819, 8vo). See De Thou, historia sui temporis; E. Pasquier, Lettres; La Croix du Maine, Bibliotheque Francaise; J. Bouhier, Memoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de Montaigne, avec une comparaison d'Epictete et de Montaigne (by B. Pascal); Talbert, Eloge de Mich. de Montaigne (Paris, 1775, 12mo) ; Dom Devienne, Eloge historique de Mich. de Montaigne (Paris, 1775, 12mo); La Dixmerie, Eloge analytique et historique de Montaigne (Paris, 1781, 8vo); Mme. de Bourdie-Viot, Eloge de Montaigne (Paris, 1800, 8vo); Jay, Eloge de Montaigne (1812, 8vo); Droz, Eloge de Michel Montaigne (1812, 8vo); Villemain, Eloge de Montaigne (Journal des Savans, July and October, 1855); Payen, Notice bibliographique sur Montaigne (new ed. Paris, 1856, 8vo); Documents inedits ou peu connus sur Montaigne (1847, 8vo); Nouveaux documents (1850, 8vo); Documents inedits (1855, 8vo); Recherches sur Montaigne (1856, 8vo); Grun, La vie publique de Michel Montaigne (Paris, 1855, 8vo); Vinet, Essai de Philosophie morale; Emerson, Representative Men; Sainte Beuve, Port-Royal; Causeries du lundi, volume 4; Clement, Revue Contemporaine, August 31, 1855; Bayle St. John, Montaigne, the Essayist (Lond. 1858); De Laschamps, M. de Montaigne (2d ed. Paris, 1860, 12mo); Brinbenet, Les Essais de Montaigne dans leurs rapports avec la legislation moderne (Orleans, 1864, 8vo); Mrs. Shelley, Lives of the most eminent French Writers; Tennemann, Geschichte der Philosophie, 9:443; Church, in Oxford Essays (1857); Morell, History of Modern Philosophy, page 199; Lewes, History of Philosophy (see Index in volume 2); the Histories of France by Michelet and Martin; English Cyclopaedia; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Generale, 36:55-71; Retrospective Review, volume 2 (1820); Quart. Rev. (Lond.) October 1856; Westm. Rev. July 1838.