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Michel Eyquem De Montaigne

The Essays Or, Morall, Politike, and Militarie Discourses of Lord Michael De Montaigne (1580; first English translation 1603)

Montaigne’s Essays (Essais) are unique and even revolutionary in so many ways. In a single book, the author practically established a new literary genre. On more than a thousand pages, his sharp, analytical mind offered concise but profound considerations of all the important public issues 16th-century France was occupied with. And not just that; having in sight one of the ultimate philosophical goals – that of finding the truth about human nature – Montaigne also declared his own self a subject of intense scrutiny, which led him to report everything about his persona from its most brilliant ideas to most prosaic whims and habits. This unprecedented approach was hailed by some of his successors, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it also drew sharp criticism from others such as Blaise Pascal, who famously proclaimed that “the self is contemptible.” The fact that many modern literary works have been inspired by Montaigne’s considerations supports the claim that he was one of those visionaries who are far ahead of their time.

Montaigne’s life and creative work took place against a backdrop of political strife and religious repression culminating in the infamous Wars of Religion between Roman Catholics and Huguenots over the period of 36 years. Although he declared an intention to withdraw from public life in order to write his Essayes, Montaigne, a magistrate and a prominent statesman of the time, often acted as a mediator between the warring sides. This role could have affected his view of war and its accompanying tribulations, but not in the way one might expect. As advanced a thinker as he was, Montaigne remained a product of his time in this regard, never questioning the right of rulers to wage wars or proposing political means for achieving lasting peace. (It could be that highly volatile times he lived in led him to think that something like that is close to being impossible.) Montaigne does not openly praise war, but he neither condemns it; rather than discussing all the negative consequences of prolonged warfare, he resorts to making general statements about the need to accept military discipline in order to defend a country, about pleasantries of military life (a paragraph in an essay titled “Of Experience” begins with a sentence: “There is no occupation so pleasant as the military one…”), war camaraderie, etc. In one place he even says that war “may be a noble thing,” and in another, that he definitely prefers death as a cause of war, which is always quick, to death caused by a disease, which can be prolonged and painful. According to Montaigne, an individual soldier must obey the orders from his superiors and put victory in the first place, but his conduct in battle must be devoid of cruelty toward the defeated enemy. Looking at the entirety of Essayes, it can be said that Montaigne’s early military involvement affected his general style of writing, although chapters that are specifically dedicated to the matters of war do not take up a large part of the volume.

Essayes appeared in print in 1580. The first English translation was provided in 1603 by John Florio, a Londoner of Italian origin and an erudite with the mind almost as great and liberal as that of Montaigne. Florio was a close friend of Giordano Bruno and a tutor of Prince Henry of Wales. His remarkable translation was a source from which many English-speaking artists, philosophers and intellectuals drew their inspiration; for example, the texts of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Hamlet show evident traces of Montaigne’s influence. Shakespeare’s copy of Florio’s translation of Essayes is kept today in the British Library.