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Michel Eyquem Montaigne, seigneur de

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem, seigneur de (mŏntānˈ, Fr. mēshĕlˈ ākĕmˈ sānyörˈ də môNtĕnˈyə) [key], 1533–92, French essayist. Montaigne was one of the greatest masters of the essay as a literary form. Born at the Château of Montaigne in Périgord, he was the son of a rich Catholic landowner and a mother of Spanish Jewish descent. Montaigne's father, ambitious for his son's education, permitted him to hear and speak only Latin until he was six. After seven years at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, he studied for the law, held a magistracy until 1570, and was (1581–85) mayor of Bordeaux. From 1571 to 1580, in retirement and ostensibly aloof from the political and religious quarrels of France, he wrote the first two books of his Essais (1st ed. 1580). The third book of Essais and extensive revisions and additions to the first two was published in 1588 and again, with more revisions, in 1595. The essays, which were trials or tests of his own judgment on a diversity of subjects, show the change in Montaigne's thinking as his examination of himself developed into a study of humankind and nature. The early essays reflect Montaigne's concern with pain and death. To this group belongs the essay "On Friendship," which commemorates Montaigne's association with Étienne de La Boétie. A middle period, characterized by Montaigne's motto "Que sais-je?" [what do I know?], which sums up his skeptical attitude toward all knowledge, is represented by the "Apologie de Raimond Sebond." This essay purportedly defends a Catalan theologian whose work Montaigne had translated (1569), but it is actually an exposition on human fallibility. Montaigne's last essays reflect his acceptance of life as good and his conviction that humankind must discover their own nature in order to live with others in peace and dignity. The style of his essays is usually familiar, full of concrete images and lively or humorous digressions. Montaigne's works have been widely read abroad and have greatly influenced English literature. The old standard translation of his Essais was that of John Florio (1603); other translations include those of Jacob Zeitlin (1934–36) and Donald Frame (1957).

See his Autobiography (tr. by M. Lowenthal, 1956); biography by D. M. Frame (1965, repr. 1984); studies by A. Gide (tr. 1933, repr. 1939), P. P. Hallie (1967), D. Frame (1940, 1955, and 1969), M. A. Screech (1984), and S. Bakewell (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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