The genre and themes of Montaigne’s “Essays”


Through Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal were deeply private writers, both focused on analyzing the climate of their own souls and seemingly indifferent to the vast geopolitical scale on which the decidedly public writers Hobbes and Machiavelli wrote. Their apparent indifference to these larger themes was more of a mask than a reality, but nonetheless, at least on the surface, they are quite different in this way.

Michel de Montaigne lived in virtual isolation for 10 years before publishing the first edition of Testing. (Image: Louka79, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Public domain)

Montaigne and Pascal: similarities and differences

More specifically, Montaigne and Pascal discuss the intricate and complex links between religious belief, the self, and the self-performance of one’s beliefs in the world. For Montaigne as for Pascal, the main question concerns the dangers of fanaticism, serious religious belief (as is the case for Montaigne), or the dangers of lack of fanaticism (as is the case for Pascal).

The questions they both ask are inner, personal, and dark in nature, and there are powerful resonances between them. They never met, of course, but Pascal was a great admirer of Montaigne’s writing; he strongly disagreed with him, but nonetheless understood what he was doing and took it on his own terms, in a very interesting way.

For both lived in a world that was not so much politically turbulent but more religiously pluralistic. Their France was more religiously pluralist than it might be until today. France at the end of the 16the/ start 17e century was one of the main areas where Protestants and Catholics tried to come to an agreement. And among the people who have tried to help them get along, Michel de Montaigne is one of the greatest.

A medieval illustration of some peasants working on a farm.
Montaigne was sent to live with a peasant family immediately after his birth. (Image: Simon Bening / Public domain)

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Montaigne: Early childhood

Montaigne lived in an era of hyper-zealoty, although he himself did not participate in this fanaticism. He was born in 1533 into a very wealthy merchant family who had somehow bought into the French nobility.

Immediately after his birth, his father sent him to live in a peasant family, where he lived until the age of three. His father wanted to acclimate him to peasant life, to make him appreciate peasant life.

Then he was brought back to his father’s house, where he was brought up by his father entirely in Latin and Greek; his father never spoke French to him; in fact, even the servants were required to speak only Latin to him.

Consequences of the death of Montaigne’s friend

When Montaigne was 30, suddenly, without any expectations, his closest friend, Etienne de la Boétie, passed away. It was devastating for Montaigne, who saw Boétie as a second self. He never fully recovered his public presence. He married soon after his friend’s death. Then, in 1571, at the age of 38, after having slowly for several years withdrawn from public affairs, he retired completely from public life, literally shutting himself up in a tower of his domain, from where he went out, even for his family, very rarely, and even then with the greatest reluctance.

After nearly 10 years of almost total isolation, he publishes the first edition of his book Testing. Paradoxically, for such a determined recluse, the Testing de Montaigne is the first truly revealing work of exploration of a private self written for public reading. This is a guy who basically spent 10 years locked in a tower all by himself with books and paper, and what did he do during those 10 years? He has produced a book that talks about his inner life.

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Themes in Testing

Montaigne’s work touches on remarkably contemporary topics such as religious extremism and terrorism. Like Machiavelli, he considered himself a realist who sees what is. But he was much more of an egocentric realist, a miniaturist of the soul, than Machiavelli ever was.

A theme that emerges throughout the Testing is the tension between the vehemence of one’s beliefs and the reality of the world’s apparent indifference to those beliefs and how such vehement beliefs can lead to horrific suffering on the part of others. Thinking about how he presented this argument, people must understand something of the kind he was writing about. He wrote essays; in fact, he really is the first person to use this phrase and write in this genre.

These are not treatises like Hobbes or a short programmatic book like Machiavelli’s Prince. The essays are truly efforts whose depth and ultimate punch are in reality masked, at the beginning anyway, by an apparent casualness, an ease of moving from one subject to another.

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How? ‘Or’ What Testing Teach people how to live

People are guided through complicated and fairly deep questions feeling in the middle of a loose and wandering conversation. Montaigne, in fact, used the term “essays” – in French, it means “attempts” or “efforts” – and indeed remains one of the greatest masters of the genre.

An illustration of a man with a blindfold with the word 'Zealotry' written on it.
Montaigne lived in an era of “hyper fanaticism”. (Image: Good ideas / Shutterstock)

In fact, his style matters a lot to the point that he tries to show off. Pay attention to the banalities of everyday life, to the accumulation of experience, pay attention to the details of how people dress each morning, what they wear, how they walk, and when they start to walk, start- they with their right foot or their left foot? When they scratch their heads, how hard do they scratch? These are the kinds of things Montaigne talks about.

Attention to these banalities, Montaigne thinks, teaches a lot; much more, in fact, than paying attention to abstract dogmas or doctrines of philosophical theories because through these banalities people will discover how they really behave, and that was crucial for him. The trials focus on ordinary aspects of people’s lives and they can track this behavior very well.

Common questions about genres and themes at Montaigne Testing

Q: Who was Michel de Montaigne?

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 into a family of very wealthy merchants. Montaigne’s book Testing, which he wrote on his own, is the first truly revealing work of exploration of a private self written for public reading.

Q: What were the genre and themes of Testing?

Michel de Montaigne writing essays; in fact, he was truly the first person to write in this genre. One of the most important themes of this book was the tension between beliefs and the world’s indifference to those beliefs, which could sometimes lead to people’s suffering.

Q: What is Testing teach people?

In Testing, Michel de Montaigne examines people’s lives in a typical and ordinary way. This book teaches people how to behave on a daily basis.

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