this book at Amazon.com!
Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 (making
him about 30 years older than Shakespeare; 200 years younger than
Boccaccio), and died in 1592, at the age of 59. He came from
a prosperous family; they lived at the family estate, Château
de Montaigne, near Bordeaux (in southwest France), which his grandfather
had bought (not inherited, note) in 1477. Montaigne's mother, Antoinette
López, was a descendant of Spanish Jews; his father, Pierre
de Montaigne, a lawyer with very firm (and quite eccentric) ideas
regarding young Michel's education and upbringing: as a baby, Montaigne
was sent to live with a peasant family so that his earliest memories
would be of humble surroundings. He was brought up to speak Latin
before French (one of the very last people, if not the last,
to grow up with Latin as his native tongue). Montaigne received his
early education at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, and
then studied law at Bordeaux and Toulouse.
Some other useful dates:
1554 Pierre de Montaigne (Michel's father)
elected mayor of Bordeaux; Michel also becomes active in public
life as a counselor of the Court des Aides of Périgueux
1557 M. appointed counselor of the Bordeaux
1558 meets Étienne de la Boétie,
who becomes his dearest friend and the subject of "On Friendship"
(which we don't read).
1563 de la Boétie dies, aged thirty-two;
M. is devastated, and never again (by his own acount) forms a close
- 1565 M. marries Françoise de la Chassaigne, with whom
he has one daughter; four other children die in infancy.
- 1568 Pierre (Michel's father) dies
- 1571 M. retires to the family Château, where he lives
the life of a country gentleman, and writes the first two books of his
Essais (he is the inventor of this genre, incidentally: thus,
you owe your labours in L&R in part to him).
- 1581 M. leaves retirement to become mayor of Bordeaux.
- 1586 M. retires again; extensively and repeatedly revises his
first two books of essays, and writes a third
- 1588 Second (revised) edition of Essais published
- 1592 M. dies, aged 59
- 1595 Third (RE-revised) edition of Essais published
From about 1577 on, Montaigne suffered from kidney stones--called
in French la maladie de la pierre [pierre=stone], which,
you'll notice, has the interesting side effect of resurrecting Montaigne's
father as the avatar of Montaigne's pain and suffering in later life.
This pun did not escape Montaigne, and nor did the stones, which dominate
his imagery in the later essays.
About the Essais
As I noted above, Montaigne invented the genre of the essay, though
it has certain traits in common with its antecedent genres, the lettre
intime and the commonplace book (jotted notes from one's
reading, arranged under headings). The word itself comes from Fr. essayer,
"to try":they are, thus, attempts on the topics they
set out to address, rather than exhaustive treatments of them; each essay
constitutes an experiment in critical response, in which Montaigne
sets out a topic and tries himself on it, with the twin goals of measuring
himself against the topic and of ferreting out what ideas and impressions
the self can bring to bear on that context. Thus, the essay ultimately
reflects less on the topic (the purported object of the critique) than
on the critical subject: the "self" of the writer.
Montaigne's Essais appeared in successive editions, each one much
worked on and added to since the prior version; Montaigne never erased
or crossed anything out, but only added. (What does this say about
his concept of the self?) His motto, often quoted, was: Que sais-je?--"What
do I know?"
Unfortunately, the book we use does not indicate which paragraphs are
from which editions or when later material was added. Thus, we are effectively
reading the 1595 edition. As you read, bear in mind that though you are
deprived of the chance to see the seams, you are reading a perpetual work-in-progress.
What is the function of the note "To the
Reader" that precedes the essays? How does this preface compare
with Boccaccio's prologue, or other prologues that we've read?
How does it set the tone for the work that follows? What claims
does it make? Do you buy them? What dualities are implied
(e.g., "naked" vs. "clothed"), and what do
they mean--that is, how is Montaigne setting up a working vocabulary
- If this is again "self"-writing --like, on some level, all
the works we've read since Augustine--how can we make sense of it alongside
those other works? If Augustine looks within himself to find God, where
is Montaigne looking, and what does he find? How does he justify
this turn to the self as subject?
Pay attention to the way Montaigne writes
about the mind and the body. What is mind?
What is body? What relationships obtain between them? Track
the examples Montaigne uses, and chart the network of bodily
functions/allusions: eating, defecating, copulating, reproducing,
etc. Are there metaphors at work? How do they relate to
a third crucial category: text?
- What is the author's attitude towards cultural difference in "On
Cannibals"? What status does he give to "nature"? What
is the relationship between "nature" and "culture"?
How does Montaigne's position compare to those of other authors we've
read who describe the encounter with other cultures (Herodotus or Thucydides,
various books of the Bible, Euripides, Homer)?
What does the author mean by the terms "art,"
"nature" and "culture"? What relationships
obtain among these three terms? How do they interact with one
another? Which terms are privileged and why?