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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Montaigne and the Renaissance

The 15th and the 16th century is the time of radical political, social and cultural transformations. The revival of antiquity heightens the contrast between the pagan and Christian worlds; the reform movement in the church divides the Christian world into competing denominations; overseas explorations reveal the existence of a strange New World; the advent of printing not only accelerates the effect of all these changes but also creates an information explosion. In 1543, Copernicus presents the universe as an ensemble of geometric relationships that can be approached and understood through mathematics; at about the same time, Peter Ramus quantifies method by placing equal value on numeric relationships among differing cognitive propositions. The discovery of other planets questions humans as the sole inhabitants of the cosmos and their privilege as the only creatures made in God’s image. The idea of a “world organism” is expanded in such a way that every element in the world may now with equal right be considered the central point of the universe. Taken together, these factors conspired to undermine the traditional ways of ordering the world; they increased the awareness of diversity and thus heightened the sense of relativism. Physics, metaphysics and ethics were areas where man was surprised by his newfound “ontological nudity,” (Desan). The man of the Renaissance “gets lost exploring a thousand paths that all lead nowhere”. The reaction to all these changes is varied.  Montaigne’s solution to the growing notion of relativism was, in spite of the seeming conformity and absence of radicalism in the Essais, disturbing and unexpected for many people.     

Peter Burke calls the late Renaissance the age of variety. The inspiration, or at least the “legitimation” of the trend to varietas was the Roman orator Quintilian who, in a commonly quoted passage, argued that there are multiple standards of excellence in oratory, not one correct pattern. These multiplying standards at first generated the notion of imitatio. “Imitation produced a vast effort to deal with the newly perceived problem of anachronisms,” (Greene). “It determined for two or three centuries the character of poetic intertextuality; it assigned the Renaissance creator a convenient and flexible stance toward a past that threatened to overwhelm him”. In the dialogue, there were the competing models of Plato, Cicero and Lucian. In literature there was a war between Ciceronians and anti-Ciceronians, the latter turning mostly to the models of Seneca and Tacitus. In verse, the supreme model remained Vergil. In philosophy, the Neoplatonic movement now had to compete with a revival of Epicureanism, Skepticism and, above all, Stoicism.  Montaigne explores all of these schools of philosophy in his “Apologie.”

The late Renaissance is also “the ground between university Latin and the European vernaculars, […] the world of academe and the world of diplomacy and commerce,” an interdisciplinary and interlinguistic cultural environment (Boutcher). In France, the secularization of society went hand-in-hand with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the permeation of the French language. “Whether a reaction against the freezing of Latin, or an expression of a new cultural self-confidence, the latter sixteenth century was a great age of […] heteroglossia, a diversity of languages and speech styles in interaction or dialogue with one another,” (Burke). Rabelais had artfully used the vernacular in his Gargantua and Pantagruel. In 1549, Joachim Du Bellay wrote the Défense et Illustration de la Langue française, proclaiming a linguistic freedom from Roman culture, which was increasingly perceived as Italian. Over 600 translations were published between 1525 and 1599 in France, mainly from four languages – Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish. The beauty of the language in Montaigne’s Essais represents one of the decisive victories against the Latin past. The discursive tension between the values of the noblesse d’épée (glory, virtue, courage) and those of the rising bourgeoisie in which literary images center on individual experience and the particular are evident in the Essais.  The purpose of the Essais was to create “a common European cultural language of ‘customs’ and ‘humors’ shared by Latin, French, Spanish, Gascon and Italian, by ancient and modern, and to invest that idiom with a moral authority borrowed neither from theology nor from the classical languages, but from nature itself – a new lingua franca” (Boutcher).

A word used by many scholars that best describes the process of creation in the Renaissance is bricolage, the making of something new out of fragments of earlier constructions. Knowledge assumed a more fragmented form over long, linear arguments. The writing is fragmented too. Perhaps the best way to present information on a variety of topics to non-scholars and non-students is through a miscellany or a collection of discourses. Montaigne’s Essais do not only address the confusion of the age through its rhetorical argument and contradictory conclusions, but also through the fragmented nature of their form. The form of humanism (rhetoric, topoi, syllogism, méthode) could not cover its increasingly problematic content (politics, ethics, religion, cosmology). After the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, a change in ethics is needed, he argues; Machiavelli becomes prominent. The traditional morality based on beauty was replaced by a utilitarian ethical system, and, due to the changing mentality, experience and experimentation prevail over rhetoric. In the “De l’utile et de l’honnête,” (“Of the Useful and the Honorable”), Montaigne demonstrates how the inner conflict reflects the dilemma of the society as a whole, where the “useful” is replacing the “honorable”.


Zachary Schiffman shows how one result of the problem of diversity in sixteenth-century France was an attempt to classify human knowledge through “compulsive list-making”.  Lancelot de la Popelinière’s outline of “perfect history” encompasses a whole range of human activity, but it takes the strange form of an exhaustive list. Nicholas Vignier publishes a gigantic, three-volume chronological list of all the events since Creation. Estienne Pasquier tries to classify the distinguishing features of modern French culture according to its historical origins. Rabelais loved lists: the alphabetic list of reptiles in book 4 that begins with “asps” and, after dozens of obscure and fanciful names, ends with “vipers” is an example. Lists had a purpose of ridiculing learned copiousness, but they also reflect the “encyclopedic exuberance of an oral culture going into print.” At the beginning of “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” Montaigne describes how we communicate with a list of 67 verbs, and at the heart of the essay lies a long, narrative list of competing and contradictory philosophical systems. Both la Popelinière’s and Pasquier’s classificatory solutions described the complexities of historical reality without affording an understanding of it. Montaigne’s Essais, on the other hand, provide the most eloquent expression of a problem that was first experienced acutely in sixteenth-century France. Montaigne accepts diversity and proposes using his self as a point of orientation, thus giving a new direction to the French and Western thought.

When Montaigne began writing his Essais in 1572, he attempted to imitate the Renaissance genre of commonplace literature, which gathered similar examples around a central theme or moral, but the diversity of examples consistently prevented him from illustrating commonplace norms. In frustration he then began to assert the validity of the ideal of the sage in his so-called Stoical essays, but the diversity of examples soon began to undermine even this venerable norm. By the time he composed the Pyrrhonistic core of the “Apologie” around 1576, he had given up any hope of finding what he sarcastically termed “la fève au gâteau” (bean in the cake) (II.12.238). Montaigne found his new intellectual orientation in the process of essaying his mind, of testing, weighing, and measuring his judgment against the diversity and variety of the world. Around the time of the publication of the first two books of essays in 1580, he conceived the work as a dynamic record of constant fluctuations of his mind, as it engaged with the complexity of a world that was itself in perpetual motion. “The mind served no longer to transcend the flux of reality but to engage with it,” (Schiffman).

The activity of essaying himself satisfied Montaigne’s sense of relativity without creating a skeptical denial of truth; it accorded with his awareness of limitations of his perception while, at the same time, serving as a link to the reality he sought to understand. On the one hand, the approach “presented all knowledge as relative to the observer; on the other, it presented the observer as an entity that could be known ‘objectively’” (Schiffman). That entity, existing in and of the world, represented the portion of reality accessible to human understanding. Individuality thus served as the point of orientation in a world of relativity. This “ingenious” solution to the problem of relativism made some of Montaigne’s contemporaries very nervous. They were bothered by his delight in a diversity that appeared to them chaotic, disturbed by his denial that one could transcend or classify that diversity, and distressed by his reliance on the self as the only anchor in a sea of relativity. Indeed, Montaigne had such a rare degree of existential stability that his solution to the problem of relativism was destined to remain idiosyncratic.

Philosophy in the Essais

Montaigne’s shift toward oneself also helped to create the sense of historical development, still dominant today. We are usually not aware that the very idea of a movement to revive the culture of the distant past contradicts ideas of progress or modernity now widely taken for granted. The “Grand Narrative” of the rise of Western civilization is still the premise of most intellectual currents. In the Renaissance, this “triumphalist” account of Western achievement from the Greeks onwards in which the Renaissance is a link in the chain that includes the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and so on, is still ages away. The humanist scholars with a historical sense (Villa, Budé) perceived the inability of reconciliation between antiquity and Christianity, while those less historically minded (Lefèvre, Ficino) thought Plato and Aristotle posed no threat to Christianity. French humanists were trapped until the idea of historical development released them from the problem of relativism.  “Montaigne’s inward turn represented a potential advance toward historical knowing by emphasizing the uniqueness of the individual, which then might have been explained in terms of its development in relationship to its circumstances" (Schiffman).

Montaigne began writing his Essais in 1572, published the first edition, consisting of two books, in 1580, expanded the first two books and added book 3 in the fifth edition of 1588, and further expanded all three books until his death in 1592. During this twenty-year period of composition, his thought evolved through several stages, but he made no attempt at distinguishing between them. The evolution of his ideas became the object of study in the nineteenth century, and scholars generally agree upon the division of Montaigne’s underlying philosophy by Strowski and Villey into three stages roughly corresponding to the three books of the Essais: “Stoic,” “Skeptic,” and “Epicurean,” although subsequent studies made a strong case for calling his thought in Book 3 “Socratic.”

Montaigne’s thought reflects the state of Renaissance philosophy, which was based on Aristotelianism, Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism. The central idea of the Renaissance version of Stoicism is that of “apathy, constancy or tranquility of mind,” most commonly epitomized by a tree or a rock in the storm. Montaigne’s friend, the Dutch humanist Justus Lipsius, discovered that Stoic recommendation of a rational, emotion-free response to external events was the ideal solution for those caught in the turbulence of the sixteenth-century religious wars. In his works “Moral Philosophy of the Stoics” (1585) and “On Constancy and Consolation during Public Calamities” (1594), which enjoyed great success around the turn of the century, the Ciceronian humanist Guillaume du Vair combined the reliance on reason, the control of the passions, and the reflection on death with Christian spirituality. Montaigne greatly admires those who die bravely. Pierre Villey, who argued that Montaigne’s readings provided the impetus for his thought, maintains that the essayist’s main influence in this period is Seneca.

 The “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” whose 250 pages occupy roughly the second and third fifths of Book 2, is the turning point in Montaigne’s thought where he abandons the Stoicism of his early essays and turns to Pyrrhonic Skepticism. Skepticism had a considerable tradition in the Renaissance. Gianfrancesco della Mirandola, Pico’s nephew, had employed skeptical arguments to demonstrate unreliability of human knowledge. The skeptical attitude toward human reason came as a result of humanists’ doubt they could arrive at a true understanding of Christian truth by continuing to study the ancient past. Nicolas of Cusa rejected the claims of human reason in dealing with divine matters and emphasized the limits of human reason and learning; he enjoyed contrasting the simplicity of faith to the uncertainty and tentativeness of reason and knowledge. Desiderius Erasmus asserted: “So great is my dislike of assertions that I prefer the views of skeptics wherever the authority of Scripture and the decision of the Church permit”. Sextus Empiricus—a second-century Greek philosopher whose work Outlines of Pyrrhonism represented the most exhaustive source of ancient skeptical thought—was translated into French in 1562. This work, which troubled some because it undermined other epistemological foundations, was openly taken up by Montaigne to attack both the religious and philosophic dogmatism of his time.

Epicureanism has been declared as Montaigne’s governing thought in Book 3 chiefly because of his liberal statements concerning extramarital sex in “Sur des vers de Virgile” (“On some verses of Vergil”), and the indulgence in physical comfort in “De l’expérience” (“Of experience”) and a few other essays. While Montaigne’s general attitude toward life is correctly characterized, Epicureanism is not, since this philosophy does not have carnal pleasure as its highest ideal. The last book of the Essais is much more compelling for Montaigne’s dialogue with Socrates, however. “No thing can be found in European writing of the sixteenth century and before which compares with the rebirth of Socrates in the Essais,” (Friedrich).  “According to one’s power’, that was the refrain and favorite saying of Socrates, a saying of great substance”, Montaigne writes in “De trois commerces.” He derives from it the advice to “direct and fix our desires on the easiest and nearest things” (III.3.62). The Socratic self-knowledge is for Montaigne the awareness of one’s own limitations. These, nevertheless, are not simply the universal limitations of human wisdom from the “Apologie.” They are the moral and psychological limitations of each particular individual. Montaigne’s main influence here is Plutarch, a Platonist.

When we look at Montaigne’s Essais in the context of the French Renaissance Humanism, we see that the essayist inherits the love of ancients and the search for wisdom in the works of antiquity from his predecessors, and that a humanist education provides him with his style of writing, the striving for eloquence and the mode of skeptical reasoning in utramque partem. The crisis of Renaissance humanism and the weakening of traditional norms contribute to Montaigne’s sense of diversity and his notion of relativism, and the specificity of living in a war-torn country influences his political and religious conservatism. The uniqueness of Montaigne’s Essais and its important place in the history of human thought lie in the complete turn towards the self in an attempt to understand the world around us. The new analysis of one’s own conduct supplies a new meaning to the notions of history, individualism and freedom. Finally, Montaigne’s description of the reaction of the intellect to the abundance of information and the reaction of the body to external stimuli opens the door to the inspiring world of endless possibilities and imaginative anthropological explorations.

Svetozar Postic

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