|Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533-92), French writer, who introduced the essay as a literary form. His essays, which range over a wide variety of topics, are characterized by a discursive style, a lively conversational tone, and the use of numerous quotations from classical writers.
Montaigne was born February 28, 1533, in the Château de Montaigne (near Libourne) of a wealthy family, and educated at the Collège de Guyenne. He studied law, probably in Toulouse. His first literary undertaking was a translation, published in 1569, of Theologia Naturalis by the Spanish theologian Raymond of Sebond.
In 1571 Montaigne inherited the family estate, including the Château de Montaigne. He spent most of the rest of his life there, following the pursuits of a country gentleman, studying his favorite classical authors, and writing the essays that constitute his great collection, Essais. The first two books of his work appeared in 1580. Subsequently, Montaigne traveled in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. After his return, he served two terms (1581-85) as mayor of Bordeaux. He wrote a third book of essays, which was included in the 1588 edition of Essais. During his last years Montaigne remained in retirement except for visits to Paris and Rouen. His only other work is an account of his travels that appeared in 1774.
As a thinker Montaigne is noted for his investigation of institutions, opinions, and customs and for his opposition to all forms of dogmatism that have no rational basis. Montaigne observed life with philosophical skepticism; he emphasized the contradictions and incoherences inherent in human nature and behavior. His basic morality tended towards Epicureanism, however, revealing the attitudes of a scholar and humanist who refused to be enslaved by passions and desires. His longest essay, Apologie de Raymond de Sebond, is an inquiry into the rational powers and religious aspirations of the individual.
Montaigne’s view on most subjects is conservative. In literature and philosophy he admired the ancient writers, and in politics he preferred monarchy as the form of government most likely to ensure peace and order. On education, Montaigne, who was interested in the training of the aristocrat, held that the pupil should be taught the art of living. This art is mastered through developing the powers of observation and conversation and through travel. Reading should serve to aid in arriving at correct judgments and not in merely improving the memory. Montaigne insisted on rigorous physical training as part of the development of the whole person, mind and body.
Montaigne’s essays were first translated (3 books, 1603) by the English lexicographer John Florio. the definitive English translation, by the American scholar Donald Frame, of the complete works and letters of Montaigne appeared in 1957.1