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Summary Article: Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

French writer. He is regarded as the creator of the essay form. In 1580 he published the first two volumes of his Essais; the third volume appeared in 1588, and the definitive edition was issued posthumously in 1595. In his writings Montaigne considers all aspects of life from an urbanely sceptical viewpoint. He is critical of human pride and suspicious of philosophy and religion, seeking his own independent path to self-knowledge. Francis Bacon was among the thinkers who have been challenged and stimulated by his work, and through the translation by John Florio in 1603, he influenced Shakespeare and other English writers.

He was born at the Château de Montaigne near Bordeaux, studied law, and in 1554 became a counsellor of the Bordeaux parlement. Little is known of his earlier life, except that he regularly visited Paris and the court of Francis II. In 1569 he published his translation of the Theologia Naturalis of Raymond Sebond (a 15th-century professor of Toulouse), and in the same year edited the works of his friend Etienne de La Boétie. In 1571 he retired to his estates, relinquishing his magistracy, and began to write his Essais (1572). The ironical Apologie de Raymond Sebond (c. 1576) reveals the full extent of his sceptical philosophy, refusing to trust the reasoning and rationality of other philosophies. He toured Germany, Switzerland, and Italy (1580–81), returning upon his election as mayor of Bordeaux, a post he held until 1585.

Montaigne's essay titles frequently give little indication of their content; he talks in a disconnected way on innumerable topics, often completely losing sight of his original theme, but more and more a clear object comes into focus; the search for self-knowledge, leading to a fully humane and natural way of life. The essays seem unduly egoistic, but this is Montaigne's way of arriving at general rules of conduct. In the search for self-knowledge he lays bare his own moral and psychological outlook, caring as little about exposing his own weaknesses as for revealing those virtues upon which he prided himself.

Born in a disillusioned age when the splendid dawn of the Renaissance had faded, he hated all innovations, and condemned the Reformation as an arrogant revolution. All his attention was given to points of practical morality, in the constant discussion of which he ranges himself on the side of antiquity as opposed to medievalism. His views on education are of interest: he regards it as an essentially moral and practical rather than academic process – training for life through experience, social contacts, and travel, with book-learning taking a secondary place.

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Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de

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