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Michel De Montaigne

Birthdate: 28. February 1533
Date of death: 13. September 1592

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, known for popularizing the essay as a literary genre. His work is noted for its merging of casual anecdotes and autobiography with serious intellectual insight; his massive volume Essais contains some of the most influential essays ever written.

Montaigne had a direct influence on Western writers, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Albert Hirschman, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig, Eric Hoffer, Isaac Asimov, and possibly on the later works of William Shakespeare.

In his own lifetime, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, "I am myself the matter of my book", was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would come to be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, "Que sçay-je?" .

Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne and writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal storytelling.

Works

Essays
Michel De Montaigne

„On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.“

—  Michel De Montaigne

Book III, Ch. 13
Essais (1595), Book III
Source: The Complete Essays
Context: No matter that we may mount on stilts, we still must walk on our own legs. And on the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.

„The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.“

—  Michel De Montaigne

La plus grande chose du monde, c'est de savoir être à soi.
Book I, Ch. 39
Essais (1595), Book I
Source: The Complete Essays

„God's justice and His power are inseparable; 'tis in vain we invoke His power in an unjust cause.“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Book I, Ch. 56. Of Prayers
Essais (1595), Book I
Context: God's justice and His power are inseparable; 'tis in vain we invoke His power in an unjust cause. We are to have our souls pure and clean, at that moment at least wherein we pray to Him, and purified from all vicious passions; otherwise we ourselves present Him the rods wherewith to chastise us; instead of repairing anything we have done amiss, we double the wickedness and the offence when we offer to Him, to whom we are to sue for pardon, an affection full of irreverence and hatred. Which makes me not very apt to applaud those whom I observe to be so frequent on their knees, if the actions nearest to the prayer do not give me some evidence of amendment and reformation

„A little of all things, but nothing of everything“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

On the education of children; Book I, Chapter 26
Essais (1595), Book I
Context: A little of all things, but nothing of everything, after the French manner.

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„Great abuses in the world are begotten, or, to speak more boldly, all the abuses of the world are begotten, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance, and that we are bound to accept all things we are not able to refute“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Book II, Ch. 12: Apology for Raimond Sebond
Essais (1595), Book II
Context: Great abuses in the world are begotten, or, to speak more boldly, all the abuses of the world are begotten, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance, and that we are bound to accept all things we are not able to refute: we speak of all things by precepts and decisions. The style at Rome was that even that which a witness deposed to having seen with his own eyes, and what a judge determined with his most certain knowledge, was couched in this form of speaking: “it seems to me.” They make me hate things that are likely, when they would impose them upon me as infallible.

„They make me hate things that are likely, when they would impose them upon me as infallible.“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Book II, Ch. 12: Apology for Raimond Sebond
Essais (1595), Book II
Context: Great abuses in the world are begotten, or, to speak more boldly, all the abuses of the world are begotten, by our being taught to be afraid of professing our ignorance, and that we are bound to accept all things we are not able to refute: we speak of all things by precepts and decisions. The style at Rome was that even that which a witness deposed to having seen with his own eyes, and what a judge determined with his most certain knowledge, was couched in this form of speaking: “it seems to me.” They make me hate things that are likely, when they would impose them upon me as infallible.

„I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray…I am myself the matter of my book.“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Je veux qu'on me voit en ma façon simple, naturelle, et ordinaire, sans étude et artifice; car c'est moi que je peins...Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre.
Book I (1580), To the Reader
Essais (1595), Book I

„To call out for the hand of the enemy is a rather extreme measure, yet a better one, I think, than to remain in continual fever over an accident that has no remedy.“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Book I, Ch. 25
Essais (1595), Book I
Context: To call out for the hand of the enemy is a rather extreme measure, yet a better one, I think, than to remain in continual fever over an accident that has no remedy. But since all the precautions that a man can take are full of uneasiness and uncertainty, it is better to prepare with fine assurance for the worst that can happen, and derive some consolation from the fact that we are not sure that it will happen.

„Atheism being a proposition as unnatural as monstrous, difficult also and hard to establish in the human understanding, how arrogant soever, there are men enough seen, out of vanity and pride,“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Book II, Ch. 12
Essais (1595), Book II
Context: We are brought to a belief of God either by reason or by force. Atheism being a proposition as unnatural as monstrous, difficult also and hard to establish in the human understanding, how arrogant soever, there are men enough seen, out of vanity and pride, to be the authors of extraordinary and reforming opinions, and outwardly to affect the profession of them; who, if they are such fools, have, nevertheless, not the power to plant them in their own conscience. Yet will they not fail to lift up their hands towards heaven if you give them a good thrust with a sword in the breast, and when fear or sickness has abated and dulled the licentious fury of this giddy humour they will easily re-unite, and very discreetly suffer themselves to be reconciled to the public faith and examples.

„Those who have compared our life to a dream were right…“

—  Michel De Montaigne, book Essays

Book II, Ch. 12
Variant translation: They who have compared our lives to a dream were, perhaps, more in the right than they were aware of. When we dream, the soul lives, works, and exercises all its faculties, neither more nor less than when awake; but more largely and obscurely, yet not so much, neither, that the difference should be as great as betwixt night and the meridian brightness of the sun, but as betwixt night and shade; there she sleeps, here she slumbers; but, whether more or less, ‘tis still dark, and Cimmerian darkness. We wake sleeping, and sleep waking.
Essais (1595), Book II
Context: Those who have compared our life to a dream were right... We are sleeping awake, and waking asleep.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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