Montaigne’s Early Essays

  • Craig B. Brush
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire des Idees / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 14)


Since the beginning of the twentieth century Montaigne scholarship has been increasingly aware that many, though not all, of the difficulties and apparent contradictions raised by the rich variety of ideas in the Essais can be enlightened and sometimes resolved if we keep in mind that the essayist’s point of view evolved as he wrote, so that what we have is the record of a developing mind, not a static one. The Montaigne who wrote the earliest chapters of 1571 was to change, both as a man and as an artist, in the course of the years. In the last essay he composed before publishing his book in 1580, he tells us that he recognizes this development, but is unwilling to eliminate anything he had written (II: xxxvii, 736–7370).


Theologia Naturalis Ancient Philosophy Short Essay Early Essay Mere Nature 
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  1. 1.
    Hugo Friedrich’s very fine book Montaigne (Berne: Francke, 1949) succeeds about as far as is possible in treating Montaigne without adhering to a chronological scheme, but he exposes himself to questionable methods of analysis (as when he chooses to handle the 1580 and 1588 levels of “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” together, p. 33). Dr. Armaingaud stubbornly and unconvincingly preferred to consider the essays of every period Epicurean ; see his Introduction to the Œuvres complètes. In fairness to Villey it must be noted that he claims to analyze the development of the Essais, not of the essayist ; see his Preface to the second edition of Les Sources et revolution (Paris: Hachette, 1933). (He does not always manage to live up to this claim — e.g., I, 54–55.) I do not think that it is really possible or desirable to keep the two separate. As the book evolved, the author too changed.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    Villey, Sources et évolution, I, 215–216.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    For example, see Villey’s comments on I : i, I : xx, and I : xxxix in any of the following : Vol. IV of the Municipal Edition, either of his editions of the Essais, or the Sources et évolution, I 336–380, where each essay is considered separately.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Montaigne’s Discovery of Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), p. 8.Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    On Montaigne’s translation see Abbé Joseph Coppin’s Montaigne Traducteur de Raymond Sebond (Lille: Morel, 1925). The editions of Sebond’s work are treated on pp. 13–16. Further information and discussion is to be found in Maturin Dreano, La Pensée religieuse de Montaigne, pp. 90–111.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    Coppin, pp. 67–70, and Dreano, pp. 104–106, give parallel texts from the Latin and Montaigne’s translation. Frame lists a few further divergencies between the Latin and French texts of the Prologue in his “Did Montaigne Betray Sebond?” Romanic Review, XXXVIII (1947), 318, n. 68.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    The first edition of Sebond to appear without the Prologue was published in 1581 in Venice. The Prologue remained on the Index until 1892: Herman Janssen, Montaigne fidéiste (Nijmegen and Utrecht: Dekker and van de Vegt and van Leeuwen, 1930), p. 33mGoogle Scholar
  8. 2.
    One fact should be mentioned. Montaigne owned two books by Bernardino Ochino, the Disputa .. . alla presenza del corpo di Giesu Christo nel sacramenta della Cena (Basel, 1561) and 77 catechismo (Basel, 1561). All the works of this author had been put on the Trentine Index (1564). On the title page of the second is Montaigne’s signature, the words “Liber prohibitus,” and a dedication to Pierre Charron, to whom the essayist gave the book in July 1586. Ochino’s defection from the Catholic Church in 1542 (he had been Superior General of the Capuchins) was widely known. His works are violently anti-Catholic. It would require no imagination and little investigation to learn that his works were condemned. The case of Sebond’s Prologue is somewhat different.Google Scholar
  9. 2.
    For purposes of convenience, I will accept the standard date for the “Apologie,” 1576. I will later suggest, as do Grace Norton, Villey, Lanson, Plattard, Porteau, and Frame, that this date applies to only parts of the “Apologie,” other parts being composed both before and after 1576. Several considerations suggest that it is not unsound to stick to the accepted date in a general way. First, it is the most Pyrrhonist passages that belong to that year or close to it. Secondly, almost no essays have been assigned to the years 1575–77 except the “Apologie” and one or two others with skeptical content. The essays that are in contrast to the “Apologie” fall into two major groups, each securely dated, the one 1571–74, the other 1578–80. Redating sections of the “Apologie” will barely affect its central position between these two groups.Google Scholar
  10. 2.
    See C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford Press, 1954), pp. 4–14.Google Scholar
  11. 1.
    Once Montaigne used this word to refer to Etienne de La Boétie’s death almost twenty-five years after it occurred: III: iv, 8136.Google Scholar
  12. 2.
    Pascal may be referring to I: xxvii in his Pensée 813: “Miracles, Que je hais ceux qui font les douteurs de miracles! Montaigne en parle comme il faut dans les deux endroits. On voit, en l’un, combien il est prudent; et néanmoins il croit, en l’autre, et se moque des incrédules.” For further treatment of the question of miracles, see infra, pp. 140–141, 143–146.Google Scholar
  13. 1.
    In my opinion, Zeitlin misunderstands this essay. According to him, it “resists the inroads of skepticism in the name of reason and gives comfort to credulity by a critical statement of the limitations of human intelligence” Essays, I, 1v. As he uses the word “skepticism,” it means disbelief, not the suspension of judgment. The whole case for Pyrrhonism seems to have escaped him here, and consequently his understanding of this essay and several others suffers. At the root of this misconception lies Zeitlin’s conviction that “Montaigne himself was by constitution a rationalist,” ibid. He is not the only critic to make Montaigne into a rationalist, but he is the soundest. Less sound is Armaingaud (see his long introduction to the Œuvres complètes, I). At the bottom of the list comes François Tavera, whose book L’Idée d’humanité dans Montaigne (Paris: Champion, 1932) I would nominate for the title of the silliest work on Montaigne.Google Scholar
  14. 1.
    Somewhat the same idea is in the “Apologie,” p. 506a.Google Scholar
  15. 2.
    See infra, pp. 128–130.Google Scholar
  16. 3.
    Here and in many other instances the text quoted will differ slightly from the words of the Pléiade edition referred to, because the words cited follow the 1580 text (though not its punctuation or spelling). Readers wishing to check the variations, usually minor, between different editions of the Essais will find Armaingaud’s Œuvres complètes, 12 vols. (Paris: Conrad, 1924–41) most helpful, though it neglects the 1595 posthumous text. The Municipal Edition contains all the variants, but often in an inconvenient form which requires constant reference from one page to another and some caution if one is to avoid errors. Paul Porteau’s edition of the “Apologie” gives clearly all variants. Almost all the truly significant changes are mentioned in the Pléiade text.Google Scholar
  17. 1.
    In “Qu’il faut sobrement se mesler de juger des ordonnances divines,” already quoted from above, Montaigne censures a kind of argument used on more than one occasion by Raymond Sebond (Armaingaud, X, 9 and 19, in chaps. CCVI and CCVIII) : “Mais je trouve mauvais ce que je voy en usage, de chercher à fermir et appuyer nostre religion par le bonheur et prosperité de nos entreprises” (p. 214a).Google Scholar
  18. 2.
    Pourtant means “for this reason,” not “nonetheless.”Google Scholar
  19. 1.
    The one possible exception is his treatment of suicide in II : iii. But here it is his humanist creed, not his Pyrrhonist doctrines, that clashes with Christianity. See infra, pp. 58–59.Google Scholar
  20. 2.
    Villey suggests the change is due to the influence of Cicero whom Montaigne had just cited in a passage added to I: xxvii: Essais (1930–31), I, 346, n. 2.Google Scholar
  21. 3.
    Friedrich, Montaigne, p. 173, writes, “Sein Weltbild ist, gross gesagt, heraklitisch.”Google Scholar
  22. 1.
    It is impossible to resist the temptation to mention here an addition Montaigne made after 1588 to “C’est folie de rapporter le vray et le faux à nostre suffisance,” for it gives the moral conclusion Montaigne felt at that time was most consonant to a Pyrrhonist-Heraclitean philosophy. “Si l’on entendait bien la difference qu’il y a entre l’impossible et l’inusité, et entre ce qui est contre l’ordre du cours de nature, et contre la commune opinion des hommes, en ne croyant pas temerairement, ny aussi ne descroyant pas facilement, on observeroit la regle de: Rien trop, commandée par Chilon” (p. 179c). No word in the primitive text of I : xxvii related the ethics of moderation to skepticism, but it is by no means inconsistent with the conservatism and the denunciations of presumption expressed everywhere in the essay.Google Scholar
  23. 1.
    Three chapters of Agrippa are reproduced in toto in Vol. IV of the Municipal Edition, pp. 466–468. They also appear in Villey’s very fine article, “Une source inconnue d’un essai de Montaigne,” Revue de l’Histoire Littéraire de France, XIX (1912), 802–817.Google Scholar
  24. 1.
    Montaigne suggests one interesting moral conclusion to be drawn from the omnipotence of fortune. “Voylà pourquoy, en cette incertitude et perplexité que nous aporte l’impuissance de voir et choisir ce qui est le plus commode, pour les difficultez que les divers accidens et circonstances de chaque chose tirent quant et elle, le plus seur, quand autre consideration ne nous y conduiroit, est à mon advis, de se rejetter au parti ou il y a plus d’honnesteté et de justice; ...” (I: xxiv, 127a).Google Scholar
  25. 1.
    Two other essays from this period may be mentioned. “De l’usage de se vestir” (I: xxxvi, 221 a) finds Montaigne chaffing at the omnipresent restrictions placed on him by customs, and “Des coustumes anciennes” (I: xlix, 285a) comments on “cette continuelle variation des choses humaines.”Google Scholar
  26. 1.
    As Friedrich says, speaking of the essayist’s fideist obedience to authority, “Montaignes Konservatismus ... bewegt sich in verwirrenden Widersprüchen und ist doch vollkommen aufrichtig. Er gibt sich gar keine Mühe, diesen Widersprüchen auszuweichen. Er will sie. Denn sie sind er selbst” (p. 142).Google Scholar
  27. 1.
    Frame, in his Montaigne’s Discovery of Man, p. 37, has judiciously preferred to call Montaigne’s humanism in this period “apprehensive,” pointing out that to call it stoical humanism may be misleading (it is eclectic) or redundant (humanism at the time meant stoicism of a sort). Nonetheless, he and all Montaigne scholars find themselves at a loss for a convenient term to replace “stoic.” I somewhat favor the word “Senecan” because of the frequent translations and paraphrases of the Latin author in the early essays.Google Scholar
  28. 2.
    I am aware that one passage of “De la solitude” (the paragraph on pp. 240–2410 ending “Il faut retenir à tout nos dents et nos griffes l’usage des plaisirs de la vie, que nos ans nous arrachent des poingts, les uns apres les autres et les alonger de toute nostre puissance.”) belies some of what I have been saying. Zeitlin in his commentary of this essay (I, 389–391) suspects,and I agree with him, that several sections were added to the earliest form of I : xxxix. Both the opening and the closing pages are notably full of borrowings from Seneca, whose absence from some of the middle passages makes them conceivably interpolations. The paragraph in question differs radically from the dominant tone of the essay, and interrupts somewhat awkwardly the train of thought. The opening of the sentence following it is “Or, quant à la fin que Pline et Cicero nous proposent, ...” a reference to a topic begun two and three pages before. It is exactly the sort of phrase Montaigne is forced to add in later years in order to bridge the gap made by an insertion.Google Scholar
  29. 1.
    (If they are not true, then all reason is false.) Diversity of opinion, the superiority of man’s reason over the animals, and now the validity of the senses — all three are major topics in the “Apologie.” On only one will Montaigne really change his position, namely the superiority that reason endows man with, and he will use the story of Pyrrho’s pig more logically in the “Apologie” to give it the conclusion it warrants. (Both it and the Posidonius incident appear side by side on pp. 469–4700.) The other two — that the diversity of opinion demonstrates the power of the soul to control its beliefs and that feelings such as pain are real — will be maintained in the “Apologie.”Google Scholar
  30. 1.
    The same attitude prevails in the famous “Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir” (I:xx). Self-discipline and meditation on death are recommended as the best regimen for preparing to die. Like “Que le goust des biens et des maux ...” I : xx rejects the insouciance of the vulgar souls and ends with an exhortation to cultivate stoical fortitude.Google Scholar
  31. 1.
    He says that it was “pendant nos troisiesmes troubles ou deuxiesmes,” i.e., between 1567 and 1571. He seems to incline toward the later date. A remark deleted after the 1582 edition of the Essais places the occurrence four years before the composition of II: vi. The date of the essay, then, lies between 1571 and 1575, presumably in the vicinity of 1573–74, the date of the surrounding essays.Google Scholar
  32. 1.
    II: vi, 354a. This is confirmed by Montaigne’s account of La Boétie’s death (p. 1349).Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1966

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  • Craig B. Brush

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