Michel de Montaigne

Staff PicksMartin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - Central Library

Michel de Montaigne

Books by and about the French Renaissance essayist

At the age of thirty-eight, after spending the first two-thirds of his life in intense political and civic activity, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) retired to his estate to think, read, and write -- to capture his thoughts. In so doing, he invented the essay (or, as he called it, the essai, meaning an attempt, test, or trial). Montaigne's essays were a departure from established, traditional approaches to composition: they were brief and personal, not comprehensive and institutional; idiosyncratic reflections, not discourses on religious, legal, or philosophical topics. In their day, the essays were significant for their promotion of humanist subjects and the influence that Montaigne's skepticism had on his contemporaries and near-contemporaries (e.g., Descartes). Ever since, the essays have appealed to readers through their insights, humor, and the uncanny sense that through them Montaigne is somehow, in spite of his death 430 years ago, still speaking to us as a wise friend.

Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald Frame
One of the great works of Renaissance literature and a masterwork that has stood the test of time. Montaigne muses upon more traditional philosophical topics such as virtue, experience, and inequality; concepts central to a good life such as friendship, aging, and family; and some of the most everyday items imaginable -- our obsessions, frivolities, and peccadillos. And he does so with grace and humility -- and understanding humor.
Other collections of Montaigne's essays also available from DC Public Library include: On Solitude, which gathers a dozen of Montaigne's essays on topics such as solitude, the imagination, and the emotions; and a 16th-century translation of 20 of the essays, Shakespeare's Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays by John Florio, a contemporary of Shakespeare. 

Montaigne: A Life by Philippe Desan, translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal
A massive effort of scholarship (nearly 800 pages worth), this biography delves deep into the life and mind of the many-faceted essayist. In addition to writing, Montaigne had a noteworthy life as a politician, occupying offices of both regional (as mayor of his native Bordeaux) and national importance -- and he witnessed both the wonders of the New World as they were brought to France and vicious religious strife. Desan explores all these topics, providing a rich background for the understanding of Montaigne's times and the context in which the essays were written. For Desan, Montaigne always remains at least a would-be politician; he is not some solitary dreamer removed from life, isolated in a tower of learning. Finally, Desan explores Montaigne's upbringing, education, and family life -- the elements that formed his mind and outlook.

How to Live, or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
Bakewell's book, which won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, offers a comprehensive reading of Montaigne's essays. Using the question "How to live?" as an organizing scheme, she draws out themes from the essays, providing in each chapter a partial (and sometimes contradictory) answer, for the answers vary due to the circumstances and vicissitudes of an individual life as well as the vagaries of history. How to live? Live temperately. See the world. Question everything. Be ordinary and imperfect. Don't worry about death. Bakewell is an excellent companion for the reader of Montaigne's essays: she explores his world, his life and his writings, and reactions to him by other thinkers to augment our own readings. 

Montaigne in Barn Boots: An Amateur Ambles through Philosophy by Michael Perry
Perry's reflections on Montaigne are very down-to-earth, and he reveals at the outset that his life is very different from Montaigne's: his daily milieu includes chicken pens and farm machinery, not a library full of Classical literature. And his reflections are humorous, too -- full of colloquialisms and experiences from the American heartland. Yet Perry makes it clear on every page that his imaginative encounter with Montaigne is deeply felt; he is drawn into the essays, immersed in them, and emerges with reflections on all sorts of ideas and incidents. More than any of the other books in this list, Montaigne in Barn Boots reveals the great accessibility of Montaigne's writings, achieved by their author's focus on the shared everyday, his modesty, and his refusal to ever talk down to his reader.

A Summer with Montaigne by Antoine Compagnon, translated from the French by Tina Kover
The briefest of the books in this list at a little over 130 pages, this volume owes its origin to a France Inter radio program: the author was asked to speak about Montaigne and his essays every day during the course of a summer. The result is this slim volume of 40 chapters, with each chapter distilling a single idea and presenting Montaigne's arguments for or against it -- a sort of mini-polemic -- or examining an issue that surrounded Montaigne and his work. It's a excellent book for occasional reading, for dipping into to explore the ideas in Montaigne's essays.

After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays, edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden
How do today's essayists compare with Montaigne? This book provides an answer of a sort... although it is much more a kind of collaboration between Montaigne and today's writers than it is any sort of competition. Each of the 28 contributors to this volume chose a theme, title, and quotation from an essay by Montaigne, then launched into the topic. Their styles vary considerably: some draw from Montaigne throughout, circling back to their 16th-century inspiration and emulating his measured pace, while other essays are story-like or fragmented and scattered. They all share a focus on the wondrous idiosyncrasies of the self -- that inexhaustible subject matter, the human life.