Мартин Гал
Author: Martin Gale
Ukrainian writer
Liberal Arts
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GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Michel de Montaigne — the progenitor of the essay

GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Michel de Montaigne — the progenitor of the essay
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Art design: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop


The concept of «French moralists» entered the cultural mainstream thanks to the writer Emile Zola (1840–1902), who by chance came across the book «The French Moralists» by the journalist Lucien Prévost-Paradol (1829–1870) and wrote a review of it.

Zola’s critical article, published by him on January 23, 1865, and later included in the collection What I Hate (1866), gave an accurate analysis of the list of moralist authors of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries that Prevost-Paradol mentioned in his work.

The review opens with a description of Emile Zola’s attitude toward the first French moralist on the list, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592):

ement; thanks to the calm tone of the author, his complete equanimity and calmness, the peace in your soul remains undisturbed, although the very judgments of the moralist could by their boldness frighten it. This is the source of Montaigne’s irresistible charm; you gradually get closer to him, you feel the need for frequent meetings with him, knowing that a conversation with this thinker will not bring grief, that he will say extremely risky things, without raising his voice, however, and, apparently, not suffering himself from the troubles that he will interestingly describe to you; thanks to his excellent moral health, he becomes your good friend, easy and pleasant in communication.

Today we will get acquainted with this extraordinary man and his unique «Experiments» in prose, which gave a name to the most popular philosophical and literary genre of the beginning of the XXI century — the genre of essays, the progenitor of which is rightly considered our today’s hero — the French writer Michel de Montaigne.


The word belongs half to the one who speaks and half to the one who listens


Michel de Montaigne




Montaigne is a hereditary aristocrat, he was born on February 28, 1533 in the family chateau of the mayor of Bordeaux’s family — Pierre Echem and Antoinette de Lopez, a Jewess of Spanish descent. Military merits of the father added their name noble title de Montaigne, hence the full name of the future writer — Michel Ekem de Montaigne.

The boy was brought up according to the pedagogical methods of his father, who emphasized classical education at home: the teacher was a German, who did not speak French at all, and all the training was in Latin. Having received an excellent home education, Michel continued his studies at the University of Toulouse, where he studied law and found a profession of a lawyer.

After graduation, Montaigne became interested in politics and for a while even thought of devoting his life to it. He was appointed Councillor of the Parliament of Bordeaux and took part in several military campaigns, for participation in one of them was even awarded the Order of St. Michael.

In 1565 Montaigne married, received a large dowry and was supposed to drown in aristocratic idleness and family welfare. But fate ordered otherwise: after the death of his father in 1568, Michel inherits the family estate, and in 1570 he retired from the judiciary and devoted his time to literary work.

The last twenty years of his life, except for the time when he had to be mayor of Bordeaux (1582–1586) all his energies Montaigne will give to work on the main book — Essais («Experiments»), which in French means: experiments, trials, sketches, tests, essays.


Etienne Martellange. Portrait of Michel de Montaigne, 1587
Etienne Martellange. Portrait of Michel de Montaigne, 1587 / wikipedia.org




I have no other connecting link in the presentation of my thoughts but chance. I set forth my thoughts as I have them; sometimes they crowd together, sometimes they arise one by one, one after another. I want the natural and ordinary course of them to be seen, in all their zigzags


Michel de Montaigne


«Experiments» of Montaigne — a book unique and trivial, understandable and complex, boring and insanely fascinating, haphazard and organized, universal and narrowly focused, subjective and all-encompassing, fantastic and realistic, absurd and following logic, a book about everything and nothing.

The phenomenality of Montaigne’s «Experiments» descends to the original sin of writing, when once having tasted the potion for authors and intoxicated by the poison of literary vocation, one is no longer able to suppress his desire: to write, write and write.  But to write not about the world of things, but exclusively about yourself: about your impressions of everything around you and the thoughts that arose on all occasions at the same time — after reading, hearing or extracted from the well of memories.

Montaigne is the creator of a new literature where subjectivity is elevated to the rank of absolute truth that needs no proof. «Experiments» is a book of unsubstantiated assertions and dizzying and often erroneous inferences, a fantasy of fantasies with the only purpose — to write about everything without putting views into any system, to write not only from boredom, but also by pure chance, to make the entropy of writing the energy of inspiration and the driving force of literary creativity.


Страница из знаменитого Бордоского экземпляра, копии второго издания «Эссе» с исправлениями, примечаниями и дополнениями Монтеня для третьего (окончательного) издания. Это страница из сочинения №28 первой книги, озаглавленного De l'amitié («О дружбе»)
The page is from the famous Bordeaux edition, a copy of the second version of the Essays with Montaigne’s corrections, notes, and additions for the third (final) edition. It is a page from essay n. 28 of the first book, entitled De l’amitié («On Friendship») / wikipedia.org


These experiments are only a trial of my natural abilities and by no means a test of my knowledge. What I set forth here are merely my fantasies, and by means of them I seek to give an idea, not of things, but of myself; these things I may someday recognize or have known them before, if by chance I happen to find an explanation of them, but I no longer remember it


Michel de Montaigne


There are two ways to read (but never truly read!) Montaigne’s work, one, unsuccessful, attempt was made by French writer Paul Valéry, a 12-time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature, who confessed, «I once opened Montaigne, but not a few minutes passed before I put him aside. He bored me to death. Anyone can write such things».

The last words express the essence of the trap in which fell even such a sophisticated reader as Valéry, he did not believe in Montaigne, his eyes slipped on the surface of the letter, too simple and understandable. Valéry did not go deep into the text and did not master the breadth of the «Experiments,» a book that must either be read in its entirety or not at all.

Montaigne’s secret is simple: if we have the courage to read his entire book (which is nothing more or less, but more than one thousand pages!) and learn everything about a French nobleman who lived almost 500 years ago, we will suddenly discover that we have learned something new not about him, but first of all about ourselves.

«Experiments» is a book of «O», for the vast majority of its sections (about 80% of all chapter titles) begin with the letter «O» and are called: «On Conscience», «On the Fickleness of Our Acts», «On Drunkenness», «On Books», «On Parental Love», «On Grief», «On Pedantry», «On Predictions», «On Idleness», «On Liars», «On Fear», «On Sleep», «On the fact that you can’t judge whether someone is happy until he’s dead», «On the Vanity of Words», and so on and so forth.

«On» in the «Experiments» is a kind of formula of the genre, according to it, the author’s view goes as if from the side, and then circles around the described subject, which, like a bird, becomes ringed, compressed to the volume of the chapter, and everything said remains in the cage forever, solidifying like lava after the eruption, and the author meanwhile has already sailed to other parts, has chosen a new topic and is busy with something completely different.


Гравюра из ежемесячного издания Mosaïque du Midi 1839 года. Отрывок из заметки о Монтене
Engraving from the Mosaïque du Midi monthly of 1839. Excerpt from a note on Montaigne / wikipedia.org


It is for this reason that Montaigne is an author doomed to inattentive reading, for the book he wrote, at first glance (frivolous enough!), gives the false impression that it could indeed be written by anyone with minimal literary ability. But this is far from being the case.

What then is the secret of the charm of this «primitive» book, composed haphazardly, full of other people’s thoughts, anecdotes, stories from the past and hidden quotations?

The answer is simple: «Experiments» Montaigne not only reflects the experience of thinking and lifestyle of one of the European aristocrats of the Renaissance, but reveals the universal interests and excitement, answers the questions of ordinary everyday life, revealing its depth from the position of pure, unclouded subjectivity.

Reading Montaigne’s «Experiments» we create within ourselves the experience of our own thought.

The first publication of «Experiments» in 1580 was not limited, the book was reprinted with the author’s edits in 1582 and in 1587 and was invariably popular with readers. During this period of his life, Montaigne not only prepared and wrote the third volume of the book, but made about 600 additions to the existing text.

In 1588, the «Experiments» were published again, but already in three books, and with this edition Montaigne continued to work until his death, which caught up with him on September 13, 1592. It is this copy with the last author’s edits, found by chance at the beginning of the XX century in the Bordeaux Municipal Library, is considered «canonical», and all further editions of the «Experiments» come from it.




After the publication of Montaigne’s «Experiments» — and almost four and a half centuries have passed — different generations of readers continue to talk about Montaigne, he is still relevant and modern, his book excites thought, encourages creative inspiration and gives a good mood. More than three thousand articles and books have been written about Montaigne, and his influence on the development of world literature and philosophy is quite significant.

Georgy Kosikov in his work «The Last Humanist, or the moving life of truth» rightly notes:

«Shakespeare is full of reminiscences from Montaigne, Pascal and Descartes argued with him, Voltaire defended him; Bacon, Gassendi, Malebranche, Bossuet, Baille, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, La Mettrie, Pushkin, Herzen, Tolstoy wrote about him, referred to him, polemically or approvingly. Even philosophers and artists, in general far from Montaigne, from the rebellious Nietzsche, who found in himself «something of Montaigne’s gustiness», to the eccentric Salvador Dalí, in his fifth decade, who heard in himself Montaigne’s notes and illustrated «Experiments» (in 1947), were sensitive to his thought and talent».

But what was truly groundbreaking was the style of presentation employed by Montaigne: completely free, unbound by plot and literary obstacles, which gave birth to a wonderful genre — the essay.


Портрет Монтеня работы Томаса де Леу, украшающий издание «Эссе» 1608 года
Portrait of Montaigne by Thomas de Leeuw adorning the 1608 edition of the Essays / wikipedia.org




The essay is a genre that is spontaneous, unexpected, and therefore original


Ludmila Kaida


In 1697, Francis Bacon first labeled his works as essays, and soon the genre successfully migrated to English newspapers, where writers Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding began publishing their essays. The essay genre shamelessly penetrated Western European literature, and soon crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were vivid essayists. 

The 20th century is the century of the essay’s heyday, when the genre is used by many authors, among the famous names are Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, Anatole France, Andre Maurois, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Lev Shestov.

The essay has proved to be so «tenacious» for several reasons: this genre is haphazard and subordinate to the author’s intonation, it penetrates any other genre with ease and replaces it if necessary, it has an aphoristic and memorable style, which in a small literary space is capable of inflicting the strongest metaphysical injury on the reader.

The essay is an apologist for chance and originality, unsubstantiated in its essence.

Notable philosophical essayists include Friedrich Nietzsche and Emil Michel Cioran, as well as the classic philosophical book written in the essay genre — «The Aristos» by John Fowles.

Montaigne had no idea that his Essais would be so popular, and that the genre he invented would continue to influence the way philosophizing and writing of generations of authors, from Blaise Pascal’s «Thoughts» to the texts of today’s lords of the mind — popular bloggers with millions of followers.

In the battle with oblivion and death, Montaigne won, and this time for eternity.


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