Essays Montaigne Text

The Essays (French: Essais, pronounced [esɛ]) of Michel de Montaigne are contained in three books and 107 chapters of varying length. Montaigne's stated design in writing, publishing and revising the Essays over the period from approximately 1570 to 1592 was to record "some traits of my character and of my humours." The Essays were first published in 1580 and cover a wide range of topics.[1]


Montaigne wrote in a rather 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 that gives more emphasis to the didactic nature of his work. His arguments are often supported with quotations from Ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts such as De rerum natura by Lucretius[2] and the works of Plutarch.


Montaigne's stated goal in his book is to describe himself with utter frankness and honesty ("bonne foi"). The insight into human nature provided by his essays, for which they are so widely read, is merely a bi-product of his introspection.Though the implications of his essays were profound and far-reaching, he did not intend, nor suspect his work to garner much attention outside of his inner circle[3], prefacing his essays with, "I am myself the matter of this book; you would be unreasonable to suspend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject [4]."

Montaigne's essay topics spanned the entire spectrum of the profound to the trivial, with titles ranging from "Of Sadness and Sorrow" and "Of Conscience" to "Of Smells" and "Of Posting" (referring to posting letters). Montaigne wrote at a time preceded by Catholic and Protestant ideological tension. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant authors consistently attempted to subvert Church doctrine with their own reason and scholarship. Consequently, Catholic scholars embraced skepticism as a means to discredit all reason and scholarship and accept Church doctrine through faith alone[5]. Montaigne never found certainty in any of his inquiries into the nature of man and things, despite his best efforts and many attempts[5]. He mistrusted the certainty of both human reason and experience. He reasoned that while man is finite, truth is infinite; thus, human capacity is naturally inhibited in grasping reality in its fullness or with certainty[5]. Though he did believe in the existence of absolute truth, an attribute which distinguishes him from a pure skeptic, he believed that such truth could only be arrived at by man through divine revelation, leaving us in the dark on most matters[5]. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature to be its most basic features, which resonates to the Renaissance thought about the fragility of humans. According to the scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller, "the writers of the period were keenly aware of the miseries and ills of our earthly existence". A representative quote is "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself."

He opposed European colonization of the Americas, deploring the suffering it brought upon the natives.

Citing the case of Martin Guerre as an example, he believes that humans cannot attain certainty. 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. 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 defended Christianity. Montaigne also eloquently employed many references and quotes from classical Greek and Roman, i.e. non-Christian authors, especially the atomistLucretius.

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. Montaigne's essay "On the Education of Children" is dedicated to Diana of Foix.

English journalist and politician J. M. Robertson argued that Montaigne's essays had a profound influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, citing their similarities in language, themes and structures[6].

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.[7]


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)[8][9]

A copy of the fifth edition of the Essais with Montaigne's own "C" additions in his own hand exists, preserved at the Municipal Library of Bordeaux (known to editors as the "Bordeaux Copy").[10] This edition gives modern editors a text dramatically indicative of Montaigne's final intentions (as opposed to the multitude of Renaissance works for which no autograph exists). Analyzing the differences and additions between editions show how Montaigne's thoughts evolved over time. Remarkably, he does not seem to remove previous writings, even when they conflict with his newer views.

The Essays[edit]

English translations[edit]

  • John Florio (1603)
  • Charles Cotton (1685–6)
    • Later edited by William Carew Hazlitt (1877)
  • George B. Ives (1925)
  • E.J. Trechmann (1927)
  • Jacob Zeitlin (1934–6)
  • Donald M. Frame (1957–8)
  • J.M. Cohen (1958)
  • M.A. Screech (1991)

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

  1. ^Montaigne, Michel de (1580). Essais de messire Michel de Montaigne,... livre premier et second (I ed.). impr. de S. Millanges (Bourdeaus). Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica. 
  2. ^"Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libri sex (Montaigne.1.4.4)". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  3. ^"Guide to the Classics: Michel de Montaigne's Essay". Observer. 2016-11-15. Retrieved 2018-02-17. 
  4. ^Kritzman, Lawrence. The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne's Essays. Columbia University Press. 
  5. ^ abcdScreech, Michael (1983). Montaigne & Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays. Penguin Books. pp. 1–5. 
  6. ^Robertson, John (1909). Montaigne and Shakespeare: And Other Essays on Cognate Questions. University of California. pp. 65–79. 
  7. ^
  8. ^Montaigne, Michel de. The Complete Essays. Trans. M. A. Screech. London: Penguin, 2003 (1987), p. 1284
  9. ^Les Essais (1595 text), Jean Céard, Denis Bjaï, Bénédicte Boudou, Isabelle Pantin, Hachette, Pochothèque, 2001, Livre de Poche, 2002.
  10. ^Montaigne, Michel de (1588). Essais de Michel seigneur de Montaigne. Cinquiesme edition, augmentée d'un troisiesme livre et de six cens additions aux deux premiers (5 ed.). A Paris, Chez Abel L'Angelier, au premier pillier de la grand Salle du Palais. Avec privilege du Roy. Retrieved 1 June 2017 – via Gallica. 


Florio che fai? Vai cosi ardito di Monte?
    Al monte piu scoscese che Parnasso,
    Ardente piu che Mingibello?
    Plino qui muore prima, che qui monte.
Se'l Pegaso non hai, che cavi'l fonte,
    Ritirati dal preiglioso passo.
    L'hai fatto pur', andand' hor' alt' hor baffo:
    Ti so ben dir', tu sei Bellerophonte.
Tre corpi di Chimera di Montagna
    Hai trapassato, scosso, rinversato.
    Del' honorat' impres' anch' io mi glorio.
Premiar' to potess' io d'or' di Spagna,
    Di piu che Bianco-fior' saresti ornato.
        Ma del' hono' ti basti, che sei Florio.

Il Candido.

A reply upon Maister Florio's answere to the Lady of Bedfords
Invitation to this worke, in a Sonnet of like terminations. Anno. 1599.

 Thee to excite from Epileptic fits,
    Whose lethargie like frost benumming bindes
    Obstupefying sence with sencelesse kindes,
    Attend the vertue of Minervas wittes;
Colde sides are spurrd, hot muthes held-in with bittes;
    Say No, and grow more rude, then rudest hindes;
    Say No, and blow more rough, then roughest windes.
    Who never shootes, the marke he never hitt's.
To take such taske, a pleasure is no paine;
    Vertue and Honor (which immortalize)
    Not stepdame Iuno (who would wish thee slaine)
Calls thee to this thrice-honorable prize;
    Montaigne, no cragg'd Mountaine, but faire plaine.
    And who would resty rest, when SHEE bids rise?

Il Candido

To my deere friend M. Iohn Florio,
concerning his translation of Montaigne.

Bookes the amasse of humors, swolne with ease,
The Griefe of peace, the maladie of rest,
So stuffe the world, falne into this disease,
As it receives more than it can digest:
And doe so evercharge, as they confound
The apetite of skill with idle store:
There being no end of words, nor any bound
Set to conceipt, the Ocean without shore.
As if man labor'd with himself to be
As infinite in words, as in intents,
And draws his manifold incertaintie
In ev'ry figure, passion represents;
That these innumerable visages,
And strange shapes of opinions and discourse
Shadowed in leaves, may be the witnesses
Rather of our defects, then of our force.
And this proud frame of our presumption,
This Babel of our skill, this Towre of wit,
Seemes onely chekt with the confusion
Of our mistakings, that dissolveth it.
And well may make us of our knowledge doubt,
Seeing what uncertainties we build upon,
To be as weake within booke or without;
Or els that truth hath other shapes then one.
    But yet although we labor with this store
And with the presse of writings seeme opprest,
And have too many bookes, yet want we more,
Feeling great dearth and scarsenesse of the best;
Which cast in choiser shapes have bin produc'd,
To give the best proportions to the minde
To our confusion, and have introduc'd
The likeliest images frailtie can finde.
And wherein most the skill-desiring soule
Takes her delight, the best of all delight,
And where her motions evenest come to rowle
About this doubtful center of the right.
    Which to discover this great Potentate,
This Prince Montaigne (if he be not more)
Hath more adventur'd of his owne estate
Than ever man did of himselfe before:
And hath made such bolde sallies out upon
Custome, the mightie tyrant of the earth,
In whose Seraglio of subjection
We all seeme bred-up, from our tender birth;
As I admire his powres, and out of love,
Here at his gate do stand, and glad I stand
So neere to him whom I do so much love,
T'applaude his happie setling in our land:
And safe transpassage by his studious care
Who both of him and us doth merit much,
Having as sumptuously, as he is rare
plac'd him in the best lodging of our speach.
And made him now as free, as if borne here,
And as well ours as theirs, who may be proud
That he is theirs, though he he be every where
To have the franchise of his worth allow'd.
    It being the portion of a happie Pen,
Not to b'invassal'd to one Monarchie,
But dwells with all the better world of men
Whose spirits are all of one communitie.
Whom neither Ocean, Desarts, Rockes nor Sands
Can keepe from th'intertraffique of the minde,
But that it vents her treasure in all lands,
And doth a most secure commercement finde.
    Wrap Excellencie up never so much,
In Hierogliphicques, Ciphers, Caracters,
And let her speake nver so strange a speach,
Her Genius yet finds apt decipherers:
And never was she borne to dye obscure,
But guided by the Starres of her owne grace,
Makes her owne fortune, and is aever sure
In mans best hold, to hold the strongest place.
And let the Critic say the worst he can,
He cannot say but that Montaige yet,
Yeeldes most rich pieces and extracts of man;
Though in a troubled frame confus'dly set.
Which yet h'is blest that he hath ever seene,
And therefore as a guest in gratefulnesse,
For the great good the house yeelds him within
Might spare to taxe th'unapt convayances.
But this breath hurts not, for both worke and frame,
Whilst England English speakes, is of that store
And that choyse stuffe, as that without the same
The richest librarie can be but poore.
And they unblest who letters do professe
And have him not: whose owne fate beates their want
With more sound blowes, then Alcibiades
Did his pedante that did Homer want.



To the Right Ho-
norable and all praise-worthie Ladies,
Elizabeth Countesse of Rutland, and Ladie Penelope Rich

    Give me leave 


EADER, loe here a well-meaning Booke. It doth at the first entrance forewarne thee, that in contriving the same I have proposed unto my selfe no other than a familiar and private end: I have no respect or consideration at all, either to thy service, or to my glory: my forces are not capable of any such desseigne. I have vowed the same to the particular commodity of my kinsfolk and friends: to the end, that losing me (which they are likely to do ere long), they may therein find some lineaments of my conditions and humours, and by that meanes reserve more whole, and more lively foster the knowledge and acquaintance they have had of me. Had my intention beene to forestal and purchase the world's opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned myselfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave and solemne march. I desire thereun to be delineated in mine own genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is myselfe I pourtray. My imperfections shall thus be read to the life, and my naturall forme discerned, so farre-forth as publike reverence hath permitted me. For if my fortune had beene to have lived among those nations which yet are said to live under the sweet liberty of Nature's first and uncorrupted lawes, I assure thee, I would most willingly have pourtrayed myselfe fully and naked. Thus, gentle Reader, myselfe am the groundworke of my booke: it is then no reason thou shouldest employ thy time about so frivolous and vaine a subject. Therefore farewell,
    The First of March, 1580.

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