Essays (Montaigne)  

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"His foolish project of describing himself!" --Blaise Pascal

"Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies"--Essays

"Nor in this do I glance at the composers of centos, who declare themselves for such; of which sort of writers I have in my time known many very ingenious, and particularly one under the name of Capilupus, besides the ancients. These are really men of wit, and that make it appear they are so, both by that and other ways of writing; as for example, Lipsius, in that learned and laborious contexture of his Politics."--Essays

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Essays is the title of a book written by Michel de Montaigne that was first published in 1580. Montaigne essentially invented the literary form of essay, a short subjective treatment of a given topic, of which the book contains a large number. Essai is French for "trial" or "attempt". Notable chapters include "Upon some verses of Virgil".



Montaigne wrote in a kind of crafted rhetoric designed to intrigue and involve the reader, sometimes appearing to move in a stream-of-thought from topic to topic and at other times employing a structured style which gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotes from classical Greek and Roman texts.


Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness, for example including large sections on bodily functions. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features. A typical quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." He describes his own poor memory, his ability to solve problems and mediate conflicts without truly getting emotionally involved, his disgust for man's pursuit of lasting fame, and his attempts to detach himself from worldly things to prepare for death.

Montaigne is disgusted with the violent and, in his opinion, barbaric conflicts between Catholics and Protestants of his time, and his writings show a pessimism and skepticism quite uncharacteristic for the Renaissance.

Overall, Montaigne was a strong supporter of humanism. He believed in God but declined to speculate about His nature.

He exhibited a quite modern cultural relativism, recognizing that laws, morals and religions of the various cultures, while often quite different, may all be equally valid. He opposed the conquest of the New World, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.

Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty, and he rejects general and absolute statements and all dogma. His skepticism is best expressed in the long essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" (Book 2, Chapter 12) which has frequently been published separately. We cannot trust our reasoning because thoughts just occur to us: we don't truly control them. We do not have good reasons to consider ourselves superior to the animals. He is highly skeptical of confessions obtained under torture, pointing out that such confessions can be made up by the suspect just to escape the torture he is subjected to (the first known use of this argument against torture). In the middle of the section normally entitled "Man's Knowledge Cannot Make Him Good," he wrote that his motto was "What do I know?". The essay on Sebond ostensibly defended Christianity. However, Montaigne eloquently employed so many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomist Lucretius, that it can be read as an argument to disregard all and any religious dogma.

Montaigne considered marriage necessary for the raising of children, but disliked the strong feelings of romantic love as being detrimental to freedom. One of his quotations is "Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside desperate to get out."

In education, he favored concrete examples and experience over the teaching of abstract knowledge that is expected to be accepted uncritically.

The remarkable modernity of thought apparent in Montaigne's essays, coupled with their sustained popularity, made them arguably the most prominent work in French philosophy until the Enlightenment. Their influence over French education and culture is still strong. The official portrait of former French president François Mitterrand pictured him facing the camera, holding an open copy of the Essays in his hands.


Montaigne heavily edited Essays at various points in his life. Sometimes he would insert just one word, while at other times he would insert whole passages. Many editions mark this with letters as follows:

  • A: passages written 1571-1580, published 1580
  • B: passages written 1580-1588, published 1588
  • C: passages written 1588-1592, published 1595 (posthumously)

Analysis of the differences and additions between editions shows how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Not unremarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.

English translation

There are two public domain translations, one by John Florio, one by Charles Cotton. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature of the early 20th century notes:

In translating Montaigne, Cotton was at a disadvantage, of which he himself was wholly unconscious. He followed in the footsteps of a far greater adept in the difficult art, John Florio. Florio had all the virtues, save accuracy. If his book fails to represent the style of Montaigne, and not infrequently distorts his meaning, it is none the less a piece of living prose. Perhaps, it tells you more of Florio than of Montaigne; but it has that enduring quality, character, and it is unlikely that fashion will ever drive it from the minds of admiring scholars. Cotton’s version is of other stuff. Though not always correct, though never close-knit as is the original, it is more easily intelligible than Florio’s, and gives, may be, a clearer vision of the French. That, indeed, was Cotton’s purpose. “My design,” says he, “in attempting this translation was to present my country with a true copy of a very brave original.” Both translators use too many words for their purpose, Florio because he delights in the mere sound of them, Cotton, because he had not acquired the gift of concise expression, because he did not always know how to discard the tiresome symbols which encumber his sentences as with pack-thread. Florio, on the one hand, wrote like a fantastic, to whom embroideries were essential, Cotton, on the other, wrote like a country gentleman, who, after a day’s fishing, turned an honest penny by the pursuits of scholarship. The one lacks precision, the other distinction, and each man will decide for himself which he prefers.

Both Florio's and Cotton's translations are expurgated. For example, "Fientent" (shit), from the dictum "Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies" is translated as "going to stool."


The Consolations of Philosophy, consolation for inadequacy


The Essays of Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

Translated by Charles Cotton

First published in 1686.

TOC from the edition published in 1877 by William Carew Hazilitt:

See also

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