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Michel de Montaigne

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Michel de Montaigne

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (February 28, 1533September 13, 1592) was an influential French Renaissance writer, generally considered to be the inventor of the personal essay. In his main work, the Essays, unprecedented in its candidness and personal flavor, he takes mankind and especially himself as the object of study. He was a skeptic and a humanist.

Life

Montaigne was born in P鲩gord, on the family estate Chⴥau de Montaigne near Bordeaux. The family was very rich; his grandfather had made a fortune as a herring merchant and had bought the estate in 1477. His father was a soldier in Italy for a time, and developed some very progressive views on education there, and he and had been the mayor of Bordeaux. His mother, Antoniette de Lopez, came from a Spanish Jewish family, but was herself raised Protestant. Montaigne was sent to a small cottage with a peasant family and a tutor until he was six, and while he lived there he spoke exclusively in Latin, the language of the educated class.

After his six years in the country, he was sent to study at a prestigious boarding school in Bordeaux, the Coll觥 de Guyenne, and afterwards he studied law in Toulouse and entered a career in the legal system. He was a counsilor of the Court des Aides of P鲩gueaux, and in 1557 he was appointed councilor of the Parlement in Bordeaux (a high court). From 1561 to 1563 he was at the court of Charles IX. While serving at the Bordeaux Parlement, he became very close friends with the humanist writer Étienne de la Boétie whose death in 1563 deeply influenced Montaigne.

Montaigne married in 1565; he had five daughters, but only one survived childhood. In 1568 his father died and Montaigne inherited the Château de Montaigne, to which he moved back in 1570.

He started to write in 1569, first a translation of the Spanish monk Raymond Sebond's Theologia naturalis, then a posthumous edition of Boétie's works. In 1571 he retired to the Château where in his library he began work on his Essays, first published in 1580.

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Michel de Montaigne

During this time of the Wars of Religion in France, Montaigne, himself a Roman Catholic, acted as a moderating force, respected both by the Catholic King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre.

Beginning in 1578, Montaigne suffered from painful kidney stones. From 1580 to 1581, Montaigne travelled in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, partly in search for a cure. He kept a detailed journal recording various episodes and regional differences. It was published much later, in 1774, under the title Travel Journal.

While in Rome in 1581, he learned that he was elected mayor of Bordeaux; he returned and served until 1585, again moderating between Catholics and Protestants. The plague broke out in Bordeaux toward the end of his term.

Montaigne continued to extend, revise and oversee the publication of his Essays. In 1588 he met the writer Marie de Gournay who admired his work and would later edit and publish it. King Henry III was assassinated in 1589, and Montaigne then helped to keep Bordeaux loyal to Henry of Navarre, who would go on to become King Henry IV.

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Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne died in 1592 at the Château de Montaigne and was buried nearby. Later his remains were moved to the church of a Commandery of St. Antoine at Bordeaux.

The humanities branch of the University of Bordeaux is named after him: Universit頍ichel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3.

Essays

See the main article: Essays.

The book is a collection of a large number of short subjective treatments of various topics. Montaigne's stated goal is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disdain for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for death.

He writes about his disgust with the religious conflicts of his time, his belief that humans are not able to attain true certainty (skepticism), and even alludes to cultural relativitism, all rather modern notions.

Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to true freedom. In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that has to be accepted uncritically.

Related writers

Among the thinkers exploring similar ideas, one can mention Erasmus, Thomas More, and [[Guillaume Bud靝, all working about 50 years before Montaigne.

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