Today in Literary History – September 13, 1592 – Michel de Montaigne, the creator of the personal essay, dies

Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher who established the personal essay as a literary form, died on September 13, 1592 at Château de Montaigne, the family estate where he had been born 59 years earlier.

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Ironically, Montaigne died of quinsy, a throat infection that led to a paralysis of his tongue and his inability to speak.

Montaigne had once said that “the most fruitful and natural play of the mind is conversation. I find it sweeter than any other action in life; and if I were forced to choose, I think I would rather lose my sight than my hearing and voice.”

Montaigne had asked for a Mass to be said for him, and died during the service.

IMG_20190913_092858.jpgChâteau de Montaigne

Montaigne was descended in part from Spanish Marranos, Jews who had converted to Christianity, often forcibly, during the Spanish Inquisition.

His family was extremely wealthy and politically influential in the area around their estate, which was near Bordeaux. Montaigne’s father, a baron, was the mayor of Bordeaux as was Montaigne himself later in life, although reluctantly and only on King Henri III’s insistance.

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Montaigne’s father had unusual ideas about his son’s upbringing. Shortly after his birth, Montaigne was given to a poor family, who raised him for the first three years of his life. This was intended to teach him compassion for the less fortunate.

His life in the Château after that was a stark contrast. Montaigne was awakened each morning by musicians playing gently. (The 16th century version of the radio alarm clock, perhaps?)

While he was taught by his tutor a group of musicians also played to keep boredom at bay.

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His father wanted Montaigne to grow up speaking fluent Latin, and embarked on a strenuous course of Latin-emersion. The family and the servants were strictly forbidden from speaking to Montaigne in anything but Latin.

This entailed the costly practice of hiring only Latin speaking servants or teaching the servants to speak Latin. His father hired a German tutor who didn’t speak French to ensure that he only taught Montaigne in Latin.

As a teenager, Montaigne moved to Paris to study law. He became a judge and a pragmatic royal courtier. When his father died in 1571, Montaigne inherited the estate. He moved his private library of 1500 books into the Château’s tower and began an intense period of philosophical study. It was a bleak period in French history but a fruitful time for Montaigne.

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He began writing his Essais at this time. Most literature then was in Latin and highly stylized. Montaigne on the other hand wrote in French and in a conversational style that often brought in his own personal reflections and opinions and aphoristic asides.

He made himself the central character in his writings and examined his thoughts and beliefs with scrupulous precision and unstinting skepticism. The motto on his coat of arms was “Quo scais je?” (What do I know?).

Here are some of Montaigne’s well-known aphorisms:

A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.

Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.

The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.

Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.

Even on the most exalted throne in the world we are only sitting on our own bottoms.

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Montaigne by David Levine

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