Montaigne is a great French Renaissance thinker who took himself as the great object of study in his Essays. In studying himself Montaigne is studying mankind. He attempted to weigh or 'assay' his nature, habits, his own opinions and those of others. He is searching for truth by reflecting on his readings, his travels as well as his experiences both public and private. Montaigne's writing style is light and untechnical. He was also a striking representative of Renaissance skepticism and fideism. Essentially fideism is a strategy which uses skepticism in order to clear the ground for the entrance of Catholicism. Montaigne's skepticism is largely confined to An Apology for Raymond Sebond which was originally the (very long) twelth chapter of Book II of the Essays but is often published separately. (Unfortunately our electronic text of the Essays does not contain the Apology).
Montaigne seeks to humble man's pride: "...there is a plague on Man, the opinion that he knows something." This skepticism is connected with the doctrine of Christian "folly" which says that God's wisdom is to be found in the lowly and the meek, and that the belief that one has knowledge prevents one from accepting the truths of religion. (One can find this tradition in Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus and others as well). Montaigne is famous for arguing that man is not in any way superior to the beasts, in fact, quite the contrary.
The Renaissance was a period of expanding horizons, and one in which there was a vast increase in knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. At the same time Europeans were recovering Latin culture and a much more complete grasp of Greek literature. Science was developing. New horizons made previous truths seem wrong or parochial. These discoveries provided Montaigne and other skeptics with a treasure chest of new facts which they used to increase our sense of relativity of all man's beliefs about himself and the world in which he lives.
The Oxford Modern Political Theorists page has a Biography of Montaigne
|1533||Born near Bordeaux on the family estate named Montaigne to wealthy merchant and a mother from a wealthy Spanish-Portugese Jewish family from Toulouse.|
|1539||After six years of being raised by servants who only spoke Latin to him, Montaingne is sent to the college de Guienne in Bordeaux, a highly reputable school at the time.|
|1546|| Sent to the University of Toulouse to study
||Made counceller in the Bordeaux parliament.
Travels to Paris frequently and lives a life of excess.
||Marries Francoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter
of another Bordeaux parliament member.
||His father dies.
||Publishes his translation of Raymond Seybond's
Theologia naturalis which he had worked on at his father's request.
||Retires to Montaigne to a life of study and
contemplation. Receives the order of Saint-Michel.
||Writes "The Defense of Raymond Seybond."|
|1580||Publication of the first two volumes of his Essays. He travles to Paris to present a copy to the king and then sets out for Germany and Italy. These travels are described in his Travel Journal.|
|1581||While in Rome, receives word that he is elected mayor of Bordeaux and returns to France.|
|1588||Complete edition of the Essays published with the addition of the third volume.|
|1595||Mlle. de Gournay and Pierre de Brach publishes the authorized edition of the Essays.|