Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, singlehandedly responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. This Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Essays is translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech.
In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure,Michel de Montaigne was one of the most influential figures of the Renaissance, singlehandedly responsible for popularising the essay as a literary form. This Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Essays is translated from the French and edited with an introduction and notes by M.A. Screech.
In 1572 Montaigne retired to his estates in order to devote himself to leisure, reading and reflection. There he wrote his constantly expanding 'assays', inspired by the ideas he found in books contained in his library and from his own experience. He discusses subjects as diverse as war-horses and cannibals, poetry and politics, sex and religion, love and friendship, ecstasy and experience. But, above all, Montaigne studied himself as a way of drawing out his own inner nature and that of men and women in general. The Essays are among the most idiosyncratic and personal works in all literature and provide an engaging insight into a wise Renaissance mind, continuing to give pleasure and enlightenment to modern readers.
With its extensive introduction and notes, M.A. Screech's edition of Montaigne is widely regarded as the most distinguished of recent times.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1586) studied law and spent a number of years working as a counsellor before devoting his life to reading, writing and reflection.
If you enjoyed The Complete Essays, you might like Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, also available in Penguin Classics.
'Screech's fine version ... must surely serve as the definitive English Montaigne'
A.C. Grayling, Financial Times
'A superb edition'
Nicholas Wollaston, Observer...more
Paperback, 1344 pages
Published February 25th 1993 by Penguin Classics (first published 1572)
This series is about Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a 16th-century philosopher who proposed no theories, put no trust in reason, and showed no desire to convince readers of anything. In his vast book Essays, he contradicted himself, preferred specifics to generalities, embraced uncertainty, and followed his thoughts wherever they led. Was he a philosopher at all?
In his own view, he was, but only of an "unpremeditated and accidental" kind. He wrote about so many things, he said, that his essays were bound to coincide with the wisdom of the ancients from time to time. Others have seen him not just as a philosopher but as the world's truly modern thinker, because of his intense awareness that he was complex and self-divided, always double in himself, as he put it. In my opinion, he was the first and greatest philosopher of life as it is actually lived, and perhaps the one who has the most to offer our troubled 21st century.
Montaigne liked to present himself as an ordinary man, distinguished from others only by his habit of writing things down. Essentially this is right. His life was unremarkable: born in 1533, the same year as Elizabeth I of England, he lived on his family estate amid the vineyards of south-western France until 1592, when he died of kidney-stone complications. For 13 years, he was a magistrate in the city of Bordeaux. For four more years, he was its mayor. In his 40s, he spent a fascinating year and a half travelling through Germany, Switzerland and Italy, indulging his curiosity about how other people lived. He also ran diplomatic missions for the king and local princes, notably the future Henri IV. He married, and had six children, of whom five died in infancy.
All this time, though, what he truly liked doing had nothing to do with either work or family. He would go walking or riding in the local forests, thinking inquisitive thoughts about himself and the world; at home, he would read, and write, and talk to people. He converted a chubby tower at one corner of his property to be his library. (You can still visit it today.) There, he started writing down the hundred or so lively, rambling pieces which he called his Essays – a word he coined from essayer: "to try". That is just what they were: trials, or attempts upon himself.
What is it to be a human being, he wondered? Why do other people behave as they do? Why do I behave as I do? He watched his neighbours, his colleagues, even his cat and dog, and looked deeply into himself as well. He tried to record what it felt like to be angry, or exhilarated, or vain, or bad-tempered, or embarrassed, or lustful. Or to drift in and out of consciousness, in a half-dream. Or to feel bored with your responsibilities. Or to love someone. Or to have a brilliant idea while out riding, but forget it before you can get back to write it down – and then feel the lost memory recede further and further the more you hunt for it, only to pop into your head as soon as you give up and think about something else. He was, in short, a brilliant psychologist, but also a moral philosopher in the fullest sense of the word. He did not tell us what we should do, but explored what we actually do.
He published the results for the first time in 1580, and saw his Essays become an instant Renaissance bestseller. Subsequent editions did even better, and grew larger, for he kept adding material to old chapters as well as writing new ones. (He could never seem to stop: perhaps he was the world's first blogger.) The appeal has continued unabated through the centuries, largely because his investigations are not merely random; they all centre on one great question which concerns us all: how does one live? That is, how does one make wise and honourable choices, understand oneself, behave as a fully human being, treat others well, and acquire peace of mind?
This blog will be a voyage through some of Montaigne's areas of exploration. We shall ask what we can learn from him about coping with fears (especially the fear of death), managing questions of belief and doubt, relating to other people, avoiding cruelty and bigotry, and paying proper attention to experience as it unfolds. The trip will take us to some strange corners of life. In the first excursion, next week, it will take us right to life's exit door – and back again from the brink.
• This series will continue over the next seven weeks, every Monday morning on Comment is free: belief