Historical Context for Essays by Michel de Montaigne
The whole of the text presented in modern editions of the Essays was actually published in several different editions, a fact that has led to controversy within Montaigne scholarship. Within his lifetime, Montaigne published two editions of his work, in 1580 (at which point only the first two books were written) and 1588 (which included a third book and significant additions to the first two). A third edition, published in 1595 under the supervision of Montaigne’s adoptive daughter Marie de Gournay, remained the authoritative model for publishing the Essays until the early 20th century, when a copy of the 1588 edition, containing hundreds of annotations and additions in Montaigne’s handwriting and known as the “Bordeaux copy”, became the basis for modern critical editions of his work. This trend, started by a desire to adhere to a version of the text with an unequivocal link to its author, has seen some reversal during the first decade of the 21st century, as several French editions of the Essays have reverted to the 1595 model (some going as far as removing paragraphs from the text, which did not exist in Montaigne’s time). This change can partly be attributed to efforts made in rehabilitating Marie de Gournay, long accused of tampering with the Essays but now often acknowledged for her own writing career, including many proto-feminist treatises such as The Equality of Men and Women, first published in 1622.
Writing the Self in Troubled Times
Montaigne’s writings make it clear that they will take their author as their subject by demonstrating the strength (and weaknesses) of his judgment and opinions through repeated “attempts” (“Essay”, in the French of the time, signified a try or attempt, and the modern English use of the term to mean a form of non-fiction writing was coined by Montaigne). Despite their introspective focus, the loosely structured reflections that make up the Essays often deal with the social and political events of Montaigne’s time, if only to illustrate a point or provide an example. In particular, Montaigne uses contemporary history as a counterpoint to analogous situations or phenomena drawn from antiquity.
The historical period that encompassed the majority of Montaigne’s adult life was one of the most tumultuous in France’s history, as decades of civil war ravaged the country. The wars of religion (1562-1598) unleashed brutal fighting and destruction as they pitted Catholics, for the most part supported by the king, and Huguenots, an often tenuous confederation of French noblemen and followers of the Reformation, against one another. The conflict between these two camps, which quickly fractured into several different groups, often forced Montaigne to act as an intermediary, and he eventually became associated with a group of moderate Catholics known as the Politiques, who favored peace with the Protestants over unconditional victory.
Montaigne was quite active in this capacity in the years after 1570, which he often describes as the time of his retreat from the world’s affairs. Apart from his tenure as mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne was also asked to act as official mediator between a group of extremist Catholics known as the Holy League and his Protestant friend Henri de Navarre (later Henry IV of France) during the 1570s, and was instrumental in keeping the citizens of Bordeaux loyal after Henry’s accession to the throne in 1589. He was also active in the courts of Henry’s predecessors Charles IX and Henry III (to whom Montaigne was even sent as a secret envoy from the future king in 1588). Just as the turbulent historical period surrounding the Essays contrasts with the leisurely life that represents Montaigne’s personal ideal, so, too, have scholars often noted the disparity between the image he gives of himself as idle and isolated and the heightened political activity of his later years.
The importance of these circumstances for Montaigne’s writing is obvious: apart from taking political and religious questions of his time as premises for his reflections, Montaigne partly constructed his portrayal of the human condition from the events unfolding around him. Living in uncertain times, he presented a portrait of himself and humanity which focused on the inability of the mind to arrive at absolute truths beyond those divinely revealed. This uncertainty applied to the political and social as well as the personal, and led him to advocate a skepticism that remains one of the Essays’ most significant contributions. In the face of truth’s inaccessibility, Montaigne offers the suspension of judgment as a means of achieving stability and peace of mind. The Essays’ mistrust of human reason and avoidance of dogmatism when observing the self and its capacities proved to be greatly influential on the philosophers that would follow Montaigne, thinkers such as Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon.
Written by Paul Wimmer, Ph.D. candidate in French, Columbia University
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