Michel de Montaigne: biography of this French philosopher and writer


The French Renaissance has in Michel de Montaigne one of its greatest exponents, as there are many contributions in different fields.

The influence of the work of Michel de Montaigne, still belonging to the 16th century, continues to this day. For this reason, it is necessary to take a journey through both his life and his main artistic and intellectual contributions, to understand the magnitude of his legacy. Let’s review your journey through this Michel de Montaigne biography.

Brief biography of Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, actually called Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, was born in the year 1533, in the castle of Montaigne, name it receives from the town in which it is located, Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne. It is a town near the French city of Bordeaux.

His family on his mother’s side came from the López de Villanueva family, a lineage of Jews from Aragon, specifically from the Jewish quarter of Calatayud, where they had become new Christians.

Through this branch he was related to other intellectual references of the time, such as Martín Antonio del Río, an important historian and humanist, who was also Michel de Montaigne’s second cousin. As for his father, Pierre Eyquem, he was none other than the mayor of Bordeaux. He belonged to a wealthy family with a good social reputation.

His childhood

The socioeconomic position of his family allowed Michel to receive a good education from a young age. However, at a very young age he received a lesson valid for a lifetime. His parents decided to send him to a small village that belonged to them, so that a peasant family would take care of him for a time so that Michel de Montaigne understood what it meant to live in a precarious economic situation and thus learned to value each of the resources available to him from birth. When three years had passed, he was allowed to return to the castle and the instruction of the young Michel de Montaigne began.

His father, a staunch defender of Renaissance humanism, arranged for Michel an unconventional education. In the first place he was assigned a foreign tutor who did not speak French. Furthermore, all members of the castle service were prohibited from using this language in the presence of the child.

What was the reason for it? That Latin became his reference language. At the age of eight he had mastered that language, and then he began his Greek teachings, in order to be able to handle the two languages ​​of classical culture. Only when he had overcome that challenge did his father consider that he could begin to listen and learn the French language. This was achieved using an innovative methodology that involved playful activities and moments of introspection.

His intellectual stimulation was not limited to language; He also approached the musical world from a very young age. For example, a castle musician was in charge of waking him up every day using different instruments. Even during the pedagogical sessions with Horstanus, his German tutor, they played the melody of a zither to liven up lessons.

Regarding his formal training, Michel de Montaigne attended the Collège de Guyenne, an academic institution located in Bordeaux that had great prestige. Here he was a student of another defender of humanism and also an eminence in Latin studies, the Scottish historian George Buchanan.

Although the teachings of this school were planned for a total of twelve courses, Michel only needed seven years to complete all the subjects taught. He was only 13 at the time.

Youth stage

After his show of precociousness, he proceeded to attend the University of Bordeaux, to continue his training, this time in the field of law. However, at this point in the life of Michel de Montaigne there is a void, since the records have not been able to specify what were the vital events that he experienced between 1546 and 1557.

But there is clear information about what has happened since then: He acceded to the judicial power of his region, as a magistrate. Belonging to a good family, such as the Eyquem, together with their demonstrated intellectual capacity, facilitated the achievement of this highly valued position. Working as a magistrate, he met the person who would be one of the great friends in the life of Michel de Montaigne, the writer and also magistrate Étienne de la Boétie.

De la Boétie developed a great relationship with Montaigne and his work profoundly influenced him, especially the volume of “Discourse on voluntary servitude”. Unfortunately, Étienne passed away in 1563, when he was only 32 years old. This dramatic event marked the life of Michel de Montaigne, who was saddened by the loss of what he considered a unique friend, as he was never going to find one like him.

During his time as a magistrate he achieved different successes. He collaborated in the Périgueux commune as a counselor, a position he also held in the superior court of the Bordeaux parliament. He was part of the court of the King of France, Charles IX, accompanying him in historical moments such as the siege of the city of Rouen, one of the most important events of the French wars of religion between Catholics and Huguenots.

Thanks to these services, Michel de Montaigne obtained the necklace of the Order of Saint Michael, which represents the highest decoration that a French nobleman of his time could receive. This fact was one of the achievements that Michel had set from a very young age as a goal to aspire to in life.

In the year 1565, Michel de Montaigne married Françoise de la Cassaigne, a woman who also came from a good family, which is why it is not ruled out that it was an arranged marriage. As a result of this relationship, Françoise gave birth to six girls. However, only one of them survived, Léonor. In his work there are hardly any mentions to his relationship as a couple, but he does provide details about the love he professed for his daughter.

Creating your essays

Pierre Eyquem, the father of Michel de Montaigne, died in 1568. This event caused Michel to inherit the properties of his father, including the castle of Montaigne, of which he became lord. In 1570 he decided to move to this residence and the following year he secluded himself in the castle tower; begins a stage in which he will isolate himself of all social relationships.

His intention was to retire from public life, tired of serving the court and working as a magistrate, and dedicate the rest of his life to reflection and the elaboration of works. In fact, in the tower he had a formidable library composed of a thousand and a half volumes, which would be his only company (apart from the castle staff) during this period of isolation. This stage began on the same day he turned 38.

In his loneliness Michel de Montaigne began to write, and he did so under a humanistic framework in which he reflected on his own humanity and the existence of himself. This is how he invented a new literary genre, that of the essay, which in fact receives the name of “The Essays”, the very work that Michel began to write during his isolation and that would not finish until practically the end of his life.

The first two volumes were published in the year 1580, when almost a decade of confinement in the castle tower ended. But the work was not yet finished and Michel de Montaigne continued to expand it to launch a more complete edition in 1588. There would still be two revisions to be published posthumously, as early as 1595.

The essays were an innovation, as they represented a new way of writing literature. The format was that of articles without a clear order in which one rambled, as if thinking aloud, on a certain topic. In fact, one of the keys for the end result to be this way is that Michel de Montaigne himself dictated his thoughts to a secretary who was the one who wrote. The result was a work with an apparently fragmented scheme that nevertheless captivated due to its format.

Regarding content, Montaigne dealt with countless topics, including some related to religion, ethics, various professions and social customs, among others. In fact, the treatment of certain religious subjects served to enter the list of books prohibited by the Vatican for almost a century.

Last years and death

After almost a decade of isolation, Michel de Montaigne began to experience renal colic., an ailment that his father also suffered. This caused him to begin a journey through various parts of Europe in search of doctors and remedies to appease his pain. This pilgrimage took him to Bagni di Lucca, in Tuscany, to be treated in its thermal waters.

He had to return to Bordeaux, since he was elected as mayor of the city, an honor that his father had also received in his day. It maintained a cordial relation with the king, Enrique IV, but it resigned to the re-election of the mayoralty. Exhausted, he decided to spend his last years improving his Essays, under his motto, which he had carved on the roof of the castle, “What do I know?” Michel de Montaigne died in 1592.

Bibliographic references:

  • Foglia, M. (2014). Early Modern Philosophy of Religion: The History of Western Philosophy of Religion. Routledge.
  • Hartle, A. (2003). Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher. Cambridge.
  • Montaigne, M. de (1724). Les essais by Michel seigneur de Montaigne. J. Tonson & J. Watts.

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