An Animated Introduction to Michel de Montaigne

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Goethe, Germany’s “Renais­sance Man”

Watch Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to 25 Philoso­phers by The School of Life: From Pla­to to Kant and Fou­cault

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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