Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), one of the most consequential writers of all time, was born into the French aristocracy and educated in the Latin and Greek classics at home by his father. Later, he studied law, became a distinguished public servant, and even advised several French kings. After the death of his father in 1571, Montaigne retired from public service to devote himself to reading and writing.
The fruits of this study were a series of essays. He was the first to adapt the French word essai ( see English “assay”), meaning a "try" or "attempt” to this new form. Montaigne published the first two volumes in 1580 and a third in 1588. He was called back into public life to become mayor of Bordeaux from 1581 to 1585, during a time of civil unrest.
Soon his book was translated into English and Montaigne’s influence on English literature began. A few years later, Sir Francis Bacon brought out his collection, Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral, which proved to be his most popular work. Renaissance historian Stephen Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare read Montaigne and he finds the Frenchman’s influence in King Lear and The Tempest, among other plays.
In the Essays, Montaigne invents a new literary form that allows an author the freedom and flexibility to reflect on almost any aspect of the human condition. The essay form has been widely imitated since Montaigne’s time and has influenced some of the greatest English and American writers as this article from NEH’s Humanities magazine documents.
Montaigne wrote during a time of ongoing strife between Catholics and Protestants that would eventually erupt into wholesale massacre and civil war. As Stephen Greenblatt observes “there were strong incentives for people of goodwill to dedicate their energies to an attempt to avert the looming disaster … thoughtful men and women were asking the most basic questions about the social order, the oppressive force of custom, the nature of obedience, and the ineradicable longing for liberty.” The secret of Montaigne’s enduring appeal is that he writes as if in intimate conversation with his close friends, the “thoughtful men and women” of his time.
Renaissance writers supported their arguments—and paraded their learning—by quoting from ancient philosophers such as Plutarch, Cicero, and Seneca. These authors were viewed as authorities. In his essays, Montaigne does not quote only from philosophers but from a wide variety of sources, including poets; and (like his contemporaries) does so most of the time without attribution.
While Montaigne would have expected his readers to be familiar with many of his sources, he would not have expected them to look up every reference. However, if we follow the trail of his quotations we see that rather than showing off his learning, he is using his extracts to question the customs and manners of his time and place. Though Montaigne is sometimes said to be a skeptic in his views, it is clear from the essay “On Cruelty” that he was attempting to shape the moral taste and ethical values of his readers in a more humane direction.
When he says in this LaunchPad excerpt that “amongst other vices, I [cruelly] hate cruelty, both by nature and judgment, as the very extreme of all vices,” the sentence is striking and is meant to be so. In the Christian tradition, cruelty is not one of the seven deadly sins. Before Montaigne, moral philosophers had condemned cruelty as a vice but certainly not as the “most extreme” one.
And in the following sentence we hear a personal note—both frank and vulnerable—that is altogether new in philosophy: “[I possess] so much tenderness that I cannot see a chicken’s neck pulled off without trouble, and cannot without impatience endure the cry of a hare in my dog’s teeth, though the chase be a violent pleasure…” Montaigne does not give us abstract definitions and rules about avoiding cruelty. Instead he tells us what he does and what he feels like when he does it. This is new in the history of Western thought.
The following version is taken from the freely available translation by Charles Cotton on the Liberty Fund website. The passage has been excerpted from the complete essay, which appears in The Essays, Volume 2, Chapter 9, and has been lightly edited for ease of reading. Source references for the quotations have been added by the editor and translated into English, where appropriate. They do not appear in Montaigne’s original French text. Difficult or unusual words and phrases have been bolded and students should look them up in a reliable dictionary.
Download and read the excerpt first, then consider the questions at the end. Reread the passages looking for answers to these questions.