In the late sixteenth century the philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) felt drawn to express himself in energetic, playful meditations which he called “essais” — meaning “trials” or “attempts”. Thus a new literary genre was born. Though work-shy school children might have reason to hate the father of the essay, others have savoured the artistry of his creations. “This talking of oneself,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfection — this art belonged to one man only: to Montaigne.”
At the age of thirty-eight, Montaigne retreated from the public sphere in Bordeaux to the family chateaux thirty miles inland. He carved quotes by his favourite authors into the wooden beams of his library, and poured much of the remaining twenty years of his life into his meditations. The resulting Essais (1580–88) interrogate a dizzying array of subjects: grief, friendship, coaches, drunkenness, impotence, smells, theology, education, war, animal intelligence, music, the New World, idleness, death, thumbs. Montaigne called his Essais:
A register of varied and changing occurrences, of ideas which are unresolved and, when needs be, contradictory, either because I myself have become different or because I grasp hold of different attributes or aspects of my subjects. So I may happen to contradict myself but, as Demades said, I never contradict truth.
If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself. . . . Shamefaced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, labourious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, froward, humorous, debonaire, wise, ignorant, false in words, true-speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself.
In 1603, the Italian linguist John Florio translated the Essais into poetic, wildly inventive, but nonetheless idiomatic Elizabethan prose. Now “done into English” the Essayes made a real splash in the minds of the reading public. William Shakespeare’s attention was caught by a passage in “Of the Cannibals” in which Montaigne describes the people of the New World:
[They] hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority; no use of service, of riches, or of poverty; no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common; no apparel, but natural; no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal...
No kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too—but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty –
Thousands more early modern English readers were influenced by Florio’s Montaigne. In the marginal notes of their copies of the Essayes you will find agreement and disagreement, offence, and enjoyment — but never boredom. As the clergyman Abiel Borft put it in his copy: “Montaign hath the Art above all men to keep his Reader from sleeping.”
If you’d like to read Montaigne in modern English we recommend The Complete Essays translated by M.A. Screech (Penguin, 1993). As well as providing the clearest access to the more conceptually challenging passages, the edition includes an excellent introduction and footnotes revealing Montaigne’s sources. For a highly enjoyable take on his life, thought, and reception we recommend Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010). Phillipe Desan has written a more academic biography, Montaigne: A Life (2017), which draws attention to the political player behind the solitary philosopher.