Montaigne Essays| Introspective, Elaborate & Powerful
“I am myself the matter of this book”. You’ve probably heard this simple and yet famous saying but might not know the name behind it. Michel de Montaigne is the man to whom this is credited, and you are more familiar with his work than you may realise. The popularisation of the essay as a literary form can be widely attributed to this Frenchman. His ability to elaborately examine subjects which most times were thought trivial and yet being able to resonate with everybody from the common man to the highest ranking noble make valid his consideration as a literary genius. He has influenced other great minds in renascent history such as René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, and even Shakespeare himself. And yet, his work wasn’t created to impose his didactic knowledge on anyone else. In fact, he is the originator of another famous saying which you’ve probably heard too: “What do I know?”
The great characteristic of Montaigne essays is that they are in introspective, and not necessarily intended to educate, unlike medieval and ancient Greek philosophical literature which were aimed at imparting a certain brand of knowledge on readers. This made the ‘bonne foi’ approach of his writings quite unfamiliar to the world which had all but given itself to classical Aristotelian and Platonic literature. Thought this peculiar quality about his works gave him the god-like writing quality and status that we know him for today.
Montaigne as the Father of the Essay
The prominence of Montaigne’s works covers several contemporary spheres. He mused about everything from religion and spirituality, marriage, slavery and colonisation, to education and leisure. He also lavished his work with numerous anecdotes, quotations, paradoxes, and other personal examples. His writing ranged from the most frivolous of things to subjects of profound importance. Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher, attests to Montaigne becoming a true voice of modernism, because his subject matter moved beyond the restricted content of his time, often focusing on himself, something for which he often apologised. He didn’t believe in ‘absolute truths’ instead proposing that any revelation of fact as it really was was nothing short of divine intervention as given by an Almighty Creator.
You might be wondering why as a Literature or French Renaissance student, it is important to learn about the works of Montaigne. To answer this question, you must first ask yourself what the proper definition of an essay is. Most high school and college students know about the various essay categories such as descriptive, narrative, expository, etc. These are not definitions of the essay, rather variants of it. Montaigne essays are lauded because they do not serve as reproductions or summaries of any previous scholarly works, even though Montaigne himself found great inspiration in the writings of classical scholars such as Plutarch and Lucretius.
Essays are generally defined as pieces of writing which give the author’s argument or perspectives on issues. This definition seemingly overlaps with most other types of writing such as short stories or articles. Generally, essays are used to test your understanding of a certain subject, literary criticism, reflections, and learned arguments. Furthermore, essays may be factual and objective, abstract and universal, or personal and more autobiographical.
The latter category is what best fits the vast collection of Montaigne’s body of work. He thought of his work as an outlet for all the knowledge that he had accumulated, not to parrot or to measure himself as wiser than the next man. He wanted to make room for more knowledge and prevent what he knew from going stale or being gospel, for in his own words: “Knowledge is a good drug, but no drug is strong enough to preserve itself without alteration or corruption…”
Therefore, while Montaigne’s work isn’t the only primary definition of an essay, he does embody the spirit of the first true essayist because his work does not serve to preach or educate, but rather to reflect.
Montaigne as a Mirror of Renascent and Present Society
A lot of materials created by Montaigne was written during some of the most tumultuous times in the French Renaissance. The religion wars of the middle to late 1500’s between the Catholics and the Huguenots of which he eventually became a moderator clearly affected his writing. He mistrusted human understanding beyond anything that was divinely revealed and this human malady he quipped, was key to the problems that society faced. The volatility of the human nature he supposed was responsible for a great deal of suffering which he witnessed in his own time. He mused that the human tendency to find one’s own culture and beliefs superior to those of others was at the centre of conflict and violence that he saw meted out in his own time with deathly consequence. He reminds readers of the inversion and relativity of culture in different parts of the world, in the essay “Of some ancient customs”, alluding that no particular belief system is wrong or right, but that all is dependent on the perspective of the beholder.
Montaigne contributed a great deal to modern Psychology with his effort to understand the human mind and position. His views on education and his own pedagogical experiences are evident in “On the Education of Children” where he says:
“Let the tutor make his pupil examine and thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his head upon simple authority and trust…let the diversity of opinions be…laid bare before him, he will choose himself…”
He thus disagreed with the educational methods of his time which seemed to inundate students with classical knowledge which they didn’t understand and could do nothing with. As a learned sceptic, Montaigne held views on most social subjects, from marriage, happiness, politics and other important issues in the contemporary sphere.
As an undergraduate or graduate student, Montaigne’s rich literary contributions will help build up your own introspection and understanding of the subject matter regardless of your discipline. If you are a student in the UK and need a reliable writing service for your Montaigne assignment, GradeMiners.com is your best bet for an A+ paper.