Get to know Montaigne and one of the most influential books ever written.
What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the word “essay”?
For many of us, it’s probably one of those formulaic papers we had to write back in our school days. But those snooze fests are a far cry from the original Essays – the first works of writing to be given that name. Written by Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, they were bold, experimental, confessional, messy, and controversial pieces that turned him into one of the most influential authors who ever lived. After living a fairly unremarkable life and retiring in his 30s, Montaigne started writing in order to give his mind some focus, and ward off the “melancholy” he felt, now that he didn’t have much to do. Calling his pieces of writing a collection of “Essays,” he wrote in a raw, personal, digressive, and off-the-cuff way that gave birth to the genre of writing that bears their name.
We’ll learn the story of the man behind the Essays – the motivations that led him to write the way he did, the reasons his writing was so impactful, and the lessons we can still learn from him today. You’re going to discover how Montaigne’s approach to life and death, as well as to everyone and everything around him, can help you become more open to alternative ways of quantifying your existence and experiences. Hopefully that’ll inspire in you a fresh perspective on what it means to be you in the world around us.
A Morbid Obsession.
As a young man, Montaigne had a problem. It was making him miserable – but you wouldn’t know that if you looked at him from the outside.
On the surface, he seemed to be living a pretty nice life. For starters, he was a nobleman, born into a wealthy family in 1533. He had a cushy childhood, received a classical education, and then began a successful career in law and politics at the age of 24. For the next 13 years, he worked as a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux in southwestern France.
He also inherited a profitable winemaking business, a large chateau, and a sprawling country estate full of vineyards, about 30 miles from Bordeaux. He split his time between the estate and the city, living a double life: one urban, dedicated to public service; the other rural, dedicated to wine-growing.
Well, sort of. By his own admission, he was incompetent at managing the estate and neglectful of his duties. To avoid them, he’d often go horse riding instead. He spent the rest of his time visiting neighbors, socializing, and reading classical works by ancient Greek and Roman historians, poets, and philosophers.
But that’s where the problem began. Those ancient philosophers wrote a lot about death, and Montaigne became increasingly obsessed with the subject as he read them in his 20s.
The obsession grew even deeper in his 30s, as more and more of his loved ones passed away. First, his best friend died from the plague. Then, his father died, probably from complications arising from a kidney stone. Then, his younger brother died after getting hit in the head by a ball while playing a game of jeu de paume – the Renaissance-era predecessor of tennis. Then, his first child died when she was only two months old.
Meanwhile, people in France were keeling over left and right for all sorts of terrible reasons: famine, civil war, witch trials, smallpox – the list went on and on. Death was lurking everywhere, able to strike anyone at any time from anywhere. Montaigne’s preoccupation with it therefore seemed not only natural but rational and inescapable. With so much death around him, how could he stop thinking about it? And if he couldn’t stop thinking about it, how could he enjoy anything else in life? The idea spoiled everything, and there was no way of shaking it.
Or so he thought. But then something happened that would forever change his attitude toward death and give him a second lease on life.
A Life-Changing Accident.
The year was 1569 or ’70 – the exact date is unknown. Montaigne was about 36 – already middle age, relative to the average lifespan of his era.
He was out on one of his horse rides, accompanied by his servants and lost in his thoughts like usual. A few miles away from his chateau, they were winding their way down a forest path, when all of a sudden – wham! He felt a tremendous weight slam into him from behind. He went flying through the air, hit the ground, and lost consciousness.
He’d been shot by an arquebus – a sixteenth-century firearm.
Or at least that’s what he thought when he regained consciousness. It was a reasonable assumption; the French countryside was full of bandits in those days, and what happened to him felt like a gunshot. But in reality, one of his servants – a rather burly man – had spurred his horse into a full gallop, perhaps to show off to his companions, and accidentally run into Montaigne at full speed.
However, Montaigne didn’t know that as he lay there in what he thought to be his deathbed, after his servants carried his limp body back to the chateau. His vision was blurry, he was vomiting blood, and his body was thrashing around involuntarily.
From the outside, he seemed to be writhing in agony. But on the inside, he felt surprisingly calm, even though he also felt he was on the verge of death. He was filled with a sense of lightness and buoyancy, as if he were sliding, drifting, or floating over the surface of the experience he was having. He didn’t feel any pain; he just felt a sense of laziness, weakness, and pleasure in resting. It was like that nice feeling you get when you’re exhausted and let yourself slip away into sleep.
In the end, he survived and recovered a few days later. But the incident taught him there was nothing to fear about death. By nature, our minds are set up to experience the process of dying in a painless, even pleasant way – so we shouldn’t waste our lives worrying about it.
In fact, we should learn from it and apply its lessons to life itself. We can inject that same sense of lightness and buoyancy into our day-to-day existence: sliding, drifting, or floating over the surface of life, especially when we come to the rough patches.
In other words, lighten up; you don’t have to take life so seriously.
An Uneasy Retirement.
Thanks to his almost fatal accident and the lessons he learned from it, Montaigne felt liberated from his fear of death and ready to enjoy the rest of his life with his newfound sense of lightness.
And so, soon after his recovery, he decided to retire from his career in law and politics and withdraw to his country estate. There, he wanted to spend the remainder of his days living a quiet, carefree life of contemplation – a life dedicated to “freedom, tranquility, and leisure,” as he wrote in an inscription he put on the wall of his library.
Or at least that was his dream of retirement. But the reality proved to be another story. Without much work to do, he fell into what he called a “melancholy humor.” His mind was wandering all over the place, with no sense of purpose or direction, filling his head with “chimeras and fantastic monsters,” as he later described his thoughts.
Try as he might, he couldn’t get rid of them – but, eventually, he realized he could do something else with them: observe them, follow them, and see where they went. And what better way of doing that than by writing them down? After all, if you want to capture something in words, you have to pay attention to it as closely as possible. And so, in 1572, at the age of 39, he began to compose the pieces of writing that he dubbed his Essays – a word deriving from the French verb essayer, which means to attempt something.
In pursuing this course of action, Montaigne was following the advice of Seneca, one of his favorite Stoic philosophers. According to Seneca, the best cure for post-retirement boredom or depression was to look at the world, find things that were interesting to you, and focus your mind on them. The more you paid attention to them, the more you could appreciate them. This advice was echoed by other Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, whose works and ideas were some of the primary influences on the way Montaigne thought and lived his life.
But in applying this advice to himself, Montaigne gave it a twist. The way he saw it, the world wasn’t just everything outside of himself. It was also him. He was part of the world, too – and not just any part, but the closest one around for him to study. So why not make himself one of the focal points of his reflections and writing?
Well, there was one obvious reason – an objection that would have stopped most of his contemporaries from undertaking such an endeavor and that Montaigne had to find a way around to become the writer of the Essays.
In Praise of Mediocrity.
Montaigne might have been a nobleman by birth, but, by his own estimation, he was just an ordinary person who’d accomplished nothing noteworthy in life. In fact, he described himself as being completely mediocre – a man with a lazy disposition, slow intellect, limited imagination, poor memory, unfocused reading habits, and a shocking lack of knowledge and understanding of most practical subjects.
He was probably exaggerating his shortcomings, but still, even if there was only an element of truth to them, what business did such a person have devoting his life to writing about himself? That seems like the sort of thing that should be reserved for great people who’ve done great things in the world. But for everyone else, it just seems kind of arrogant, narcissistic, and self-indulgent.
That was the common belief at the time – but Montaigne rejected it. For him, it was his very ordinariness and mediocrity that made him a subject worth writing about. After all, what makes someone ordinary and mediocre? The fact that he shares most of the same qualities, imperfections, and limitations as other people. And that means that by writing about himself, he would also be writing about them – about the humanity he shared with them, flaws and all. By putting that humanity into words, he would create a mirror in which other people could see reflections of themselves
Besides, Montaigne thought, there’s nothing wrong with being ordinary or mediocre in the first place. Actually, it’s a nice thing, if you think about it. It means you have a lot in common with other people and can therefore share it with them, as Montaigne tried to do with his writing.
That’s a much healthier and happier way of viewing ourselves than thinking we’re better than everyone else. That conventional notion of greatness separates us from our fellow human beings, makes us look down on them, and can easily lead us to act like monsters toward them – the opposite of greatness, morally speaking.
Paradoxical as it might seem, letting go of such pretensions and embracing mediocrity was the true secret to greatness, Montaigne believed. It meant accepting ourselves as the limited, imperfect human beings we are.
But that’s not an excuse for complacency. To the contrary – if we’re limited, imperfect beings, that means our knowledge is limited and imperfect as well. No matter how smart or well-educated we are, we can only know a fraction of everything there is to know, and we can’t know anything at all with absolute certainty.
Given that fact, we have no right to feel smugly self-confident and self-satisfied about our ideas and beliefs. We should openly acknowledge the possibility that we could be wrong about them, and we should stay open to alternative perspectives and ways of thinking.
How to Write an Essay (If You’re Montaigne).
As a writer, Montaigne practiced what he preached. He stayed open minded; he considered alternative perspectives. In fact, he often did that right in front of his readers in the middle of an essay.
He’d look at a subject from one angle and follow a line of reasoning until he reached a new question, objection, or realization that put that line of reasoning into doubt. Then he’d look at the subject from another angle and start a new line of reasoning that often directly contradicted what he’d just said. But he wouldn’t go back and erase the first line and replace it with the second. Instead, he’d just keep moving forward and leave them both there on the page for the reader to follow.
When you stop to consider this approach to writing about yourself and how you experience the world, it makes sense. Think about it: what do you experience? Well, all sorts of things: incidents you witness, actions you take, people you meet, conversations you have, stories you hear, books you read, ideas you consider, sensations you feel, and so on.
And it isn’t just a collection of these things, thrown together like a bunch of separate items in a grab bag. It’s the way they all fluidly blend together inside of you, flowing through your mind as a continuous stream of consciousness. To really write about yourself and convey the essence of what it means to be the thinking, feeling, experiencing human being you are, you’d have to somehow convey that stream of consciousness, with all its flux and dynamism.
So, how do you do that? By letting your stream of consciousness flow out of your mind and onto your paper, tracing its course with your pen. That’s what Montaigne did. He’d take a subject and let his mind wander wherever it wanted to go, follow its winding course, and see where it led, recording its path as it went.
And it didn’t lead anywhere in particular. There was no overarching lesson he wanted to impart, point he wanted to make, or thesis he wanted to defend. Instead, there was just a flow of thought – meandering here and there, lingering on one thing and then rushing by another, letting itself get diverted into side channels, returning to a main theme, and then completely changing directions whenever it saw fit. So, ultimately, Montaigne is everywhere; he’s the one directing the flow, even when he’s talking about other subjects like sneezing or carriages. He eventually comes back to himself in a more direct way as well. For example, in writing about death, he ended up recalling his experience of almost dying from his horse-riding accident. He described that experience in as precise detail as he could – reconstructing the flow of thoughts, sensations, and events as they unfolded at the time, relying on a mixture of memory, reflection, and eyewitness accounts.
The result? An essay in which readers aren’t just told some things about death, but are invited to join Montaigne in reliving the actual experience of nearly dying.
In today’s world, where it seems like everyone is constantly spewing their thoughts and feelings all over the internet, the idea of writing in the way Montaigne wrote might not seem that innovative. But someone had to be the first one to do it, and that person was Montaigne.
It was revolutionary at the time, and it made him a literary sensation almost immediately upon the publication of the first edition of his Essays on March 1, 1580, the day after his forty-seventh birthday. The book was highly popular among the members of French high society, even winning praise from Henri III, the king of France himself. It turned Montaigne into the Renaissance version of a celebrity.
His newfound stature brought him out of retirement and back into politics. First he was appointed mayor of Bordeaux and served four years in office. Then he got swept up into even higher levels of politics, as King Henri III, his powerful mother Catherine de’ Medici, and then his successor King Henri IV recruited him to work as an adviser, diplomat, and negotiator.
His task was a seemingly impossible one: brokering peace between warring factions of Catholics, Protestants, and the increasingly unpopular monarchy caught between them. It was a difficult and dangerous job. At one point, Montaigne got ambushed and robbed by armed men he suspected belonged to the Catholic faction. Another time, that same faction imprisoned him in the Bastille for a little bit, until Catherine de’ Medici intervened and negotiated his release.
And yet, somehow, even in the midst of this tense and tumultuous redux of his political career, Montaigne still found time to continue writing. Instead of starting a new work, he mostly just kept adding to his Essays – inserting about a thousand passages that doubled the book’s original size. He published a second edition in 1588, but even that didn’t stop him. His mind kept whirling with new lines of thought, and he kept on writing until the end of his life in 1592.
Among the personal effects he left behind, his editor found some notes for further revisions he wanted to make. Evidently, he died without feeling like his Essays were complete. In any case, a third edition was posthumously published in 1595.
But that was hardly the end of the story. Over the past four centuries, the Essays went on to influence many of the greatest writers and thinkers who ever lived: Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, and even William Shakespeare himself, to name just a few of the people who were inspired or enraged by his free-wheeling, skeptical mind and the groundbreaking way he set it down in words.
Ordinary as he might have been, Montaigne did something extraordinary in the end.
The most important thing to remember from all this is that we can follow Montaigne’s lead and add a sense of lightness and buoyancy into our day-to-day existence. We should allow ourselves to embrace and engage in the dynamism of how we experience life. And finally, based on Montaigne’s writings, we can reframe how we think of death – it might very well help in alleviating the “melancholy” about life that some of us might share with Montaigne at the time he decided to start writing his Essays.