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Nature in Montaigne and Emerson

In his book Representative Men, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century American writer and philosopher, places Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century French essayist, alongside Plato, Shakespeare and Goethe. In the title of the essay about him, Emerson calls him “The Skeptic.” Why didn’t he name Montaigne the essayist, as would have been more in accordance with the labels of other representative men (Plato, the Philosopher; Shakespeare, the Poet; Goethe, the Writer…)? As Pamela Shirmeister suggests in the introduction to the collection, Emerson might have left this title and honour for himself (1995, xxiii). Montaigne’s Essais, which gave the name to the new (or revived) genre, are true “trials, experiments,” as another meaning of the French word points out. Emerson does not spell out the influence Montaigne’s writing had on him, but it is evident that his texts highly resemble Montaigne’s essays in shape, language, structure and content.         

Montaigne's influence on Emerson goes beyond the shared genre and common themes. It seems that the Frenchman's worldview was amply adopted by his American admirer. Emerson is known for professing individualism and self-reliance, values that defined the cultural acculturation of the European settlers in the New World, and Montaigne's writing is revolutionary in turning away from the common literary and philosophical themes, and turning toward a psychological analysis of oneself. The concept that perhaps describes best the cosmological understanding of both essayists, nevertheless, is the idea of Nature. This paper, after looking at some of the more general similarities between the two writers, concentrates on the concept of nature in the writing of both celebrated essayists, and attempts to underline its common philosophical nucleus. Its main argument is that they both contributed, in their own way, to the replacement of God with nature as the overarching concept of the life-giving and world-shaping force.

In philosophy, Naturalism represents the idea that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world. In literature, Naturalism is a branch of realism that emphasises observation over emotional and psychological analysis. The two concepts are related because they both favour fact, logic, and impersonality over the imaginative, symbolic, and supernatural. In this paper, perhaps an additional ideological nuance is attached to this notion, the penchant for modern-day thinkers to consider nature as the source and cause of our existence, a more rational and observable creator and life-giver that has gradually replaced God in an increasingly anthropocentric and individualistic world. Both Montaigne and Emerson can be considered "naturalists" in the sense of examining and interpreting the observable nature, including human nature, and detaching themselves from the teleological inclinations predominant in the Christian tradition.


In Representative Men, a collection of essays on the cultural greats he admired most, Emerson introduces Montaigne by relating his encounter with the translation of the Essays, which “so sincerely spoke to my thoughts and experience” (1995: 110). Although a man of pleasure, Montaigne had studious habits, Emerson notes. He was esteemed for his “sense of probity,” and he was fearless and liberal (111-12). Montaigne is the “Frankest and honestest of all writers,” Emerson declares (112). He has tasted the life at court, but he has no qualms about talking to the low class. “There have been men with deeper insight;” Emerson writes, “but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thoughts: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care of all that he cares for” (144). He admires Montaigne for his vernacular language. The Frenchman is always down-to-earth.

Emerson finds common ground with Montaigne in more than one matter. In his essays, Emerson refers to Montaignian moderation as the “mid-world,” “middle region,” or “temperate zone” (1950, 351). “He will talk with sailors and gypsies, use flash and street ballads” he says of Montaigne (1995, 112-13), and “I find my account in sots and bores also,“ Emerson says of himself in the essay “Experience” (1950, 351). “He has stayed in-doors till he is deadly sick; he will to the open air, though it rain bullets,” Emerson depicts Montaigne (1995113), and similarly describes his own character: “I am grown by sympathy a little eager and sentimental, but leave me alone and I should relish every hour and what it brought me, the potluck of the day, as heartily as the oldest gossip in the bar-room” (1950, 351). What seems to impress Emerson most about his French predecessor is his ability to “enjoy life,” but also to stay indoors for a week, to communicate with all sorts of people, but also to engage in philosophical ruminations. He proposes the same sort of mix between body and spirit, wisdom and pragmatism as the guiding values for the people of his own country.

One of the most striking legacies of Montaigne’s Essais in the writings of Emerson and his followers is found in the domain of style. Both styles are poetic, Emerson’s probably more so, because he reverts to metaphors more often than Montaigne. Montaigne might lose his reader for a sentence or two because of a peculiar association and brevity of expression, but he quickly gets back to the subject and to the previous tone. Emerson, whose essays have been called poems in prose, or prose poems, sometimes allows himself the liberty of an entirely lyrical paragraph and a topic only remotely connected to the gist of the essay. Both writers like finishing a paragraph with an aphorism, often a quote, not always a continuation of the previous thought, whose function is to establish the flow and harmony of the essay: “Tout ce qui est divisé jusqu’à être réduit en poussière n’est que confusion” (Montaigne 2002-3: 355) (“What is broken up into dust is nothing but confusion”); “Life is not worth the taking, to do tricks in” (Emerson 1950: 349). In order to convey a message and prove his point more convincingly, Emerson adopted Montaigne’s practice of alternating the discussion about the general and the personal, which sometimes goes as far as telling about every-day habits, gestures, personal preferences, even pet peeves.

The two men’s views on Christianity are very different, though, at least seemingly. For Emerson, Christian faith lies on the extreme end of the abstractionist-materialist line, and should be avoided as every other fanaticism: “We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come,” he writes. Nature’s darlings, “the great, the strong the beautiful, are not children of our law, do not come out of the Sunday School, nor weigh their food, nor punctually keep their commandments,” he declares (1950: 352). The pious are too weak to be great, he is saying in a thought foreshadowing Nietzsche (a great admirer of Emerson). “If we will be strong with [Nature’s] strength, we must not harbor such disconsolate consciences, borrowed too from the consciences of other nations,” he writes (352). Christian dogma with all the tradition it entails came from the old world, Europe. Emerson is expressing a desire for a new spirit worthy of the great new world.

The fact that a non-conformist Romantic transcendentalist who preaches self-reliance, such as Emerson, could identify himself with someone who openly accepts Christianity and writes, “[L’homme] s’élèvera si Dieu lui prête extraordinairement la main; il s’élèvera, abandonnant et renonçant à ses propres moyens, et se laissant hausser et soulever par les moyens purement célestes” (2002-2: 351) (“[Man] will rise, if God by exception lends him a hand; he will rise by abandoning and renouncing his own means, and letting himself be raised and uplifted by purely celestial means”) can only mean that either Emerson completely misinterpreted the fellow Humanist, which is highly unlikely, or that the germ of Emerson’s ideal of a new-spirited individualism is really found in Montaigne’s writing. The striking similarities between Montaigne’s essay “De l’expérience” and Emerson’s essay “Experience” prove the point. Doubtlessly, the human traits they both admire most are valor, fearlessness, and intellectual integrity.

While Emerson was able to be more open about his unconventional religious views in the 19th-century New England, Montaigne, squeezed between the anvil of Reformation and the hammer of Counter-reformation, had to be more careful. Still, as many critics argue, Montaigne's religious outlook was not only sympathetic to the Reformation movement, but also dangerously atheist (see Hoffman 2002, Courbet and Royer 1872-1900: v-vi). If they both -- Emerson as a former Unitarian minister, and Montaigne as an ostensibly respectable Catholic -- moved away from the Christian doctrine, what are their underlying religious and philosophical convictions? This paper focuses on the view of Nature and the derivative belief in Naturalism as the principal epistemological guide in the beliefs of both eminent essayists.


In his Essais, Montaigne glorifies nature and everything natural, devoid of human artifice, every step of the way. Montaigne talks about the beauty and truth found in nature in an almost pantheistic manner. In the “Apologie” he spends thirty pages on trying to prove that humans are not wiser than animals, only less “natural.” In “De l’expérience,” he sometimes spells the word “nature” with the capital “N” (and Donald Frame, in his translation, always) and adorns it with divine attributes: “Nature les donne toujours plus heureuses que ne sont celles que nous nous donnons” (2002-3: 355) (“Nature always gives us happier [laws] than those we give ourselves”); “Les plus simplement se commettre à Nature, c’est s’y commettre le plus sagement” (364) (“The more simply we trust to Nature, the more wisely we trust to her”); “Laissons faire un peu à nature: elle entend mieux ses affaires que nous” (384) (“Let us give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do”); “Tout ce qui vient au revers du cours de nature peut être fâcheux, mais ce qui vient selon elle doit être toujours plaisant” (398-9) (“Whatever happens contrary to the course of Nature may be disagreeable, but what happens according to her should always be pleasant”). 

In "Des cannibales” Montaigne mocks the word “savages” used to describe the pristine tribe of Tupinamba. “Ils sont sauvages,” he writes, “de même que nous appelons sauvages les fruits que nature, de soi et de son progrès ordinaire, a produits : là, où, à la vérité, ce sont ceux que nous avons altérés par notre artifice et détournés de l’ordre commun, que nous devrions appeler plutôt sauvages” (2002-3: 303-4) (“Those people are wild, just as we call wild the fruits that Nature has produced by herself and in her normal course ; whereas really it is those that we have changed artificially and led astray from the common order, that we should rather call wild”). Montaigne's main purpose in praising the cannibals is probably to compare their virtues to the bestiality of his compatriots in the Wars of Religion. Nonetheless, this argument became very influential. In his "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," Jean-Jacques Rousseau, congruously, contends that man is good by nature when in the state of nature, uncorrupted by the society.  “With such a laudable portrait of the cannibal, Montaigne has contributed to, if not created, the myth of the Noble Savage – an image of the natural self that later finds great resonance in the works of Rousseau and the Romantics,” Zahi Zalloua contends (2003: 180). Emerson was one of the Romantics who full-heartedly embraced the idea.

In the “Apologie de Raimond Sebond,” the longest essay and the only one entirely dedicated to religion, Montaigne, first of all, sets up the superiority of animals over humans because they are more natural: “nature, par une douceur maternelle, les accompagne et guide, comme par la main, à toutes les actions et commodités de leur vie; et qu’à nous elle nous abondonne au hazard et à la fortune, et à quêter par art les choses nécessaires à notre conservation” (“Nature, with maternal tenderness, accompan[ies] [the animals] and guide[s] them as by the hand in all the actions and comforts of their life; while us she abandons to chance and to fortune, and to seek by art the things necessary for our preservation”) (2002-3: 159-60). The fact that natural laws exist is evident in other creatures, “mais en nous elles sont perdues” (“but in us they are lost”), Montaigne declares (322). As for the pronounced guidance by instincts in animals, “il est plus honorable d’être acheminé et obligé à réglément agir par naturelles et inevitables conditions, et plus approchant de la divinité, que d’agir réglément par libérté téméraire et fortuite; et plus sûr de laisser à nature qu’à nous les rênes de notre conduite” (“it is more honorable, and closer to divinity, to be guided and obliged to act lawfully by a natural and inevitable condition, than to act lawfully by accidental and fortuitous liberty; and safer to leave the reins of our conduct to nature than to ourselves”) (165). Humans are born with this asset, but their surrounding makes them gradually lose it. The fact that his own judgment cannot make his friend accept it is for Montaigne a sign that he has grasped it by some other means than by “une naturelle puissance qui soit en moi et en tous les homes” (“a natural power that is in me and in all men”) (299). With this disturbing awareness of the loss of natural condition, Montaigne is creating a void which has to be filled with something, if it is not to result in a nauseating existentialist apprehension.

Even though to Montaigne “nature,” not God, represents the highest authority, sometimes he presents them as synonyms: “Il n’est pas en notre puissance d’acquérir une plus belle recommandation que d’être favorisé de Dieu et de Nature” (“It is not in our power to acquire a fairer recommendation than to be favored by God and nature”) (2002-3: 166). “C’est merveille combien peu il faut à nature pour se contenter” (“It is marvelous how little Nature needs to be content”), he writes (180). This natural simplicity and absence of lofty desires is best exemplified in the lifestyle of the newly-discovered natives of Brazil (205), but also in French peasants, who are happier than us, and orderly without any erudition (202). By long study, we have confirmed the ignorance that was naturally in us, Montaigne asserts, and men who have recognized vanity in all the knowledge “ont renoncé à leur présomption et reconnu leur condition naturelle” (“have renounced their presumption and recognized their natural condition” (219). He regrets, therefore, that ancient philosophers had not left us “en notre état naturel, recevant les apparences étrangères selon qu’elles se presentent à nous par nos sens [et] laissé aller après nos appetits simples et réglés par la condition de notre naissance” (“in our natural state, receiving external impressions as they present themselves to us through our senses, and had let us follow our simple appetites, regulated by the condition of our birth”) (271). Pyrrhonism, the school of philosophy Montaigne endorses in the “Apologie,” is the only one that presents man naked and empty, acknowledging his natural weaknesses (256). It is a philosophy, nevertheless, and the one that makes the self-awareness of the thinking subject even more pronounced – a far cry from the unprejudiced relation of a simple peasant with his surroundings. Montaigne is thus moving away from interpersonal relations towards a belief in natural, not divine laws. 

In his article “The investigation of nature,” George Hoffmann calls Montaigne, according to the essayist’s own admission in the “Apologie,” a “naturalist.” Montaigne’s critique of the knowledge of causes verges on Lucretius’ notion of random chance, and he sees both knowledge and action not as contingent, but simply as circumstantial (affected by context). His thinking about randomness follows Epicurean instead of the skeptical arguments one might have expected, Hoffman argues (2006: 171-72). Montaigne prescribes Epicurus’ universal disorder and its dual rejection of divine intervention and natural determinism. Philosophers from antiquity had tried to eliminate fear and bring tranquility to the spirits of their adherents by elaborating their vision of the cosmos for therapeutic ends; Montaigne suggests that blind chance should not trouble anyone anymore. He seeks explanation for natural phenomena without recourse to the teleological appeals predominant in the practice of natural theology of his day. This attitude shifted the grounds on natural inquiry from an analysis of means and ends to one of cause and effects, Hoffman asserts. Montaigne’s initiation of the first recognizably psychological study of human nature allowed Descartes’ extension of the natural program to an empirical investigation of discernment and the process of judgment (Hoffmann 2006: 173-77).

By abandoning the worship of the creator, people in the Renaissance have increasingly turned towards the analysis of his creation. Although original in his approach and method, Montaigne is no exception. Increasingly throughout the Essais, he glorifies everything “natural,” devoid of human artifice, and often adorns “nature” with divine attributes. This concept makes an interesting connection between Montaigne’s lexical proclivity and his worldview. In it we see how the change in only one word (since he uses it in a seemingly Christian context) can express the transformed conviction of an individual, and, judging by the subsequent popularity and high evaluation of the Essais, of an entire culture.


  In his lectures and essays, Emerson adorns nature with divine attributes. In his first famous essay written in 1836, simply entitled "Nature", he laid the foundation of transcendentalism, an intellectual movement he developed with a few other American thinkers and scholars. According to the transcendentalist worldview, the divine, or God, permeates nature in a pantheistic manner. "Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul", Emerson explains. "I beccome a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing, I see all; the currencts of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of particle of God. Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result," he exclaims in a characteristic poetic manner (Emerson: 2016).

Similarly to Montaigne and Rousseau, Emerson attempts to distance himself from the society, which creates artificial constructs, and become more "natural". According to the merits an individual deserves, he places the natural man beside the courageous man: "Every natural action is graceful. Every heroic act is also decent, and causes the place and the bystanders to shine. Ever does natural beauty steal in like air, and envelope great actions." By suffusing themselves in nature, people open themselves to the universal soul. This process is supposed to lead the way to a spirituality of the new age: "The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation." The spirit and the nature are, therefore, inseparable. "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Nature is the symbol of spirit. The whole of nature is the metaphor of the human mind," he writes (Emerson: 2016).

One of the intellectual bases for the transcendental movement was Kant's idealism and his famous category called transcendental argument. In "Nature," Emerson explains his newly found liberty in the world of subjective perception: "Idealism is a hypothesis to account for nature by other principles than those of carpentry and chemistry. Yet, if it only denies the existence of matter, it does not satisfiy the demands of the spirit. It leaves God out of me. It leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perception, to wander without end" (Emerson: 2016). Kantian idealism, born in the Age of Enlightenment, the time when humanity was trying to finalise the disenchantment of the divine providence and replace it with the realism of the rational being, contributes to the increasing shift toward anthropocentricism by giving the power to create reality to every human being. As Charles Taylor puts it, "The power to reach fullness is within. [...] The Kantian variant is the most upfront form of this. We have the power as rational agency to make the laws by which we live. [...] the more we realise this power, the more we become aware that it is within, that morality must be autonomous and not heteronomous" (Taylor 2005: 8). Thus, we have to create our moral codes, based on ratio. By subscribing to transcendentalism and naturalism, Emerson is paving the way to the general trends of secularisation and individualism representative of the new spirit of the New World.

So, Emerson believes in reshaping the divine as something large and visible, which he refers to as nature. This worldview, in which one perceives a new God suffused in nature, and becomes one with one's own surroundings, is the basis of his transcendentalism. In calling nature "the Universal Being," Emerson is deifying it in the manner of modern scientific-minded thinkers, who relativise truth by leaving its assessment to personal judgment and by placing it within the individual perception. If we are to become nature’s darlings, “the great, the strong the beautiful", though, “if we will be strong with [Nature’s] strength" (1950: 352), we must not believe in hocus-pocus, obsolete dogmas that constrain the body and the soul, but instead rely on our rational souls that have the power to create wonderful things worthy of the new age and the opportunities that the freedom in the new country offers.

In his essay "The Beginnings of American Naturalism in our own Backyard," Michael Popejoy argues that Emerson is the founding father of American naturalism and one of the founding fathers of global naturalism, according to which nature is a source of the three primary objects of ancient philosophy, Truth, Goodness and Beauty. He also connects Emerson to the roots of today's environmentalism and conservation of nature (Popejoy: 2014). When one imbues the entire nature with spirit, this should purport a bit more than mere restraint from polluting the environment. Since Emerson is "the student of Eastern Philosophy" (Cavell 2003: 24), and Buddhism and Hinduism aspire to achieve ultimate harmony with nature, this might be seen as a legitimate argument, however. Buddhists in the West, in fact, see their religion as a valuable voice in the present ecological crisis, they have founded a movement called ecoDharma (sans. dharma - the eternal law of the cosmos, inherent in the very nature of things), an ecological expression of Buddha's teachings. Whether we take this idea relevant for the argument or not, the fact remains that by moving away from the European religious tradition with his view of nature as a living organism perpetuating eternal presence and of humans as individual, rational beings, Emerson creates a peculiar mixture of American self-reliant pragmatism and New Age spirituality.


The skeptic occupies the middle ground between the abstractionist and the materialist, Emerson explains. He tries to keep his tranquility and balance. If the skeptic sees a controversy in an idea, he is not afraid of expressing it. He establishes what he knows, and wants to learn more by traveling and dealing with other people. With his description of intellectual curiosity, the joy of traveling and physical pleasure, Montaigne escapes from the theological disputes that lead to the horror of the Night of Saint Bartholomew, and sets Humanism on a prosperous journey. Sixty years later, Descartes proclaims human independence from God and victory of human reason. By the nineteenth century, the epoch in which Nietzsche declares the death of God, the world of ideas is terminally separated from religious practice, now confined to groups of displaced devotees. By paying homage to Montaigne, Emerson goes back to the roots of Humanism and takes a fresh look at it through a lens of Romantic non-conformity, New-Age transcendentalism and pioneer adventurism.  

Far from being surprised or offended, both Montaigne and Emerson would probably be proud of being called naturalists. Naturalism in this case does not mean so much the love of, concern for or interest in nature, nor does it describe the literary approach primarily based on emotionless observation, but it carries more metaphorical connotations. In the past five hundred years, the concept of nature has gradually replaced the hitherto unprecedented authority of God the Creator. In the Renaissance, people gradually stopped looking to heaven for answers, but engaged in the curious investigation of God's creation and its laws. Until the nineteenth century, this tendency to assign the wonders of existence to an impersonal, nondescript, ambiguous force called nature has only picked up vehemence. By placing man in the centre of nature, the Universal Being, as both Montaigne and Emerson have done, we obtain an autonomous being who is left as the only responsible individual for judging things as right or wrong, which is, in turn, relative, and unlocking the world of endless possibilities for creation and enjoyment.

Svetozar Postic


CAVELL, S., 2003.  Emerson's Transcendental Etudes. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

COURBET, E. AND C. R. EDS., 1872-1900.  Les Essais.  By Michel de Montaigne. Vol. 5.  Paris: A. Lemerre.

EMERSON, R. W., 1950. “Experience.”  Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Ed. Brooks Atkinson.  New York: Random House: 342-65. 

EMERSON, R. W., 1995.  “Montaigne, or, the Skeptic.”  Representative Men.  New York: Marsilio Publishers:  101-27.

EMERSON, R. W. 2016. "Nature." American Transcendentalism Web. Available from URL [accessed on December 27, 2016.]

HOFFMANN, G, 2002.  “Anatomy of the Mass: Montaigne’s Cannibals’.”  PMLA 117.2: 207-21.

HOFFMANN, G., 2005.  “The investigation of nature” The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne.  Ed. Ullrich Langer.  Cambidge, UK: Cambridge UK:  163-82.

MONTAIGNE, M., 2002-3.  Essais.  3 Vols.  Paris: Gallimard.

POPEJOY, M., 2014. Harvard University. Available from URL [accessed on January 16, 2017].

SHIRMEISTER, P., 1995.  Introduction.  Representative Men.  By Ralph Waldo Emerson.  New York: Marsilio Publishers:  ix-xxxviii.

TAYLOR, C., 2005.  A Secular Age.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

ZALLOUA, Z., 2003. “Sameness and Difference: Portraying the Other in Montaigne’s ‘De l’amitié’ and ‘Des cannibales’.”  Montaigne Studies 15: 177-90.

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Nature in Montaigne and Emerson
In his book Representative Men, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century American writer and philosopher, places Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century French essayist, alongside Plato, Shakespeare and Goethe. In the title of the essay about him, Emerson calls him “The Skeptic.” Why didn’t he name Montaigne...
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