Considered the first great humanist essayist, Michel de Montaigne was also the first to use the word “essay” for the casual, often meandering, frequently first-person explorations that now constitute the most prevalent literary form of our day. “Anyone who sets out to write an essay,” notes Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Times, “for a school or college class,” a magazine, newspaper, Tumblr, or otherwise, “owes something” to Montaigne, the French “magistrate and landowner near Bordeaux who retired temporarily from public life in 1570 to spend more time with his library and to make a modest memento of his mind.”
Montaigne’s resulting book, called the Essais—”trials” or “attempts”—exemplifies the classical and Christian preoccupations of the Renaissance; he dwelt intently on questions of character and virtue, both individual and civic, and he constantly refers to ancient authorities, the companions of his book-lined fortress of solitude. “Somewhat like a link-infested blog post,” writes Gottlieb, “Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations.” But he was also a distinctly modern writer, who skewered the overconfidence and blind idealism of ancients and contemporaries alike, and looked with amusement on faith in reason and progress.
For all his considerable erudition, Montaigne was “keen to debunk the pretensions of learning,” says Alain de Botton in his introductory School of Life video above. An “extremely funny” writer, he shares with countryman François Rabelais a satirist’s delight in the vulgar and taboo and an honest appraisal of humanity’s checkered relationship with the good life. Though we may call Montaigne a moralist, the description should not imply that he was strictly orthodox in any way—quite the contrary.
Montaigne’s ethics often defy the dogma of both the Romans and the Christians. He strenuously opposed colonization, for example, and made a sensible case for cannibalism as no more barbarous a practice than those engaged in by 16th century Europeans.
In a contrarian essay, “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”—its title a quotation from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations—Montaigne threads the needle between memento mori high seriousness and offhand witticism, writing, “Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word, which they so nauseate to hear.” But in the next sentence, he avows that we derive pleasure “more due to the assistance of virtue than to any other assistance whatever.”
The greatest benefit of practicing virtue, as Cicero recommends, is “the contempt of death,” which frees us to live fully. Montaigne attacks the modern fear and denial of death as a paralyzing attitude. Instead, “we should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go,” he breezily suggests. “The deadest deaths are the best…. I want death to find me planting cabbages.” The irreverence he brought to the gravest of subjects—making, for example, a list of sudden and ridiculous deaths of famous people—serves not only to entertain but to edify, as de Botton argues above in an episode of his series “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness.”
Montaigne “seemed to understand what makes us feel bad about ourselves, and in his book tries to make us feel better.” He endeavors to show, as he wrote in his first essay, “that men by various means arrive at the same end.” Like later first-person philosophical essayists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Montaigne addresses our feelings of inadequacy by reminding his readers how thoroughly we are governed by the same irrational passions, and subject to the same fears, conceits, and ailments. There is much wisdom and comfort to be found in Montaigne’s essays. Yet he is beloved not only for what he says, but for how he says it—with a style that makes him seem like an eloquent, brilliant, practical, and self-deprecatingly sympathetic friend.