‘Essais’: Michel de Montaigne’s Essays


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.University of Virginia

In a series of essays, Michel de Montaigne analyzed the ways in which people’s zealous, hyper sincere piety, their vehemently held beliefs can, at times, be destructive on their own or curdle into a kind of hatred that is even more evil than their direct expression would be. Let’s explore this theme.

An image of a praying man.
Michel de Montaigne thought that people’s beliefs could be destructive. (Image: ChristianChan/Shutterstock)

Montaigne’s Views about Humans

Humans are messy and jumbled; they are completely more or less ramshackle assemblages, desires, interests, thoughts, and are more or less coherent but fundamentally not very aligned properly in themselves. To deny this messiness, to try to fix it, Michel de Montaigne suggested, leads inevitably to mutilation and evil. 

But for Montaigne, the human mind far outreaches the body and is in a constant turmoil of invention and creativity. Much like Calvin, though from a very different angle, Montaigne worried about the turbulent creativity of the human imagination; for it can and does lead to profoundly anti-humane, anti-worldly evil beliefs and behaviors.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil ExistsWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Essay ‘Of Virtue’

In one essay, for example—an essay titled innocently ‘Of Virtue’—Montaigne told the story of the amazing things he knew people could do. He started with some interesting examples of strength and stuff, and then he seemed to veer off-topic and he talked about a series of increasingly outlandish behaviors he had heard of. 

A man who is nagged by his wife so much because she is jealous of his leaving their house and talking to other women that eventually he has had enough and takes a knife and cuts off his own penis and gives it to her; Montaigne is astonished by this. 

Montaigne goes from that to think: What about widows who throw themselves, in India, on the pyres of their husbands? What about those who have been willing to die for their beliefs in horrible ways in their own pyres of fire? He’s shifted from outlandish stories of what happened in the neighborhood. Now he’s talking about religious zealotry in his own area. 

The Thread of Extremity 

Montaigne said: “Oh, and then I’ve heard of this man, the first man to actually manage to kill William the Silent.” William the Silent is a Dutch leader. A Catholic managed to kill this guy, this Protestant leader, and instead of trying to run away he stood there and waited to be captured. Montaigne said: “There must be a kind of virtue in this, although I suspect that, in fact, we would all find it somewhat troubling.”

What had happened? Montaigne had now identified a person who, for the Roman Catholic world, was a remarkable martyr and a hero. This guy went and killed a political leader and then stood there and was willing to be tortured and killed for his beliefs. 

Montaigne also connected that with an angry peasant who cut off his own penis when he was nagged by his wife, and he suggested that these two people are connected by a common thread: the thread of extremity. Perhaps, he was suggesting in this essay, the extremities of people’s lives are less attractive when they are carefully thought about them than they seem to be in abstraction.

Learn more about the Enlightenment and its discontents.

The Essay ‘Of Moderation’

In a second essay called ‘Of Moderation’, building on this in some ways, he reflected on a saying he’d heard. The saying was, “The archer who shoots too far misses, just like one who shoots too close.” In other words, it is just as possible for someone to go extreme and miss their target as it is to not be ambitious enough and miss their target. 

Image of a man attempting suicide with a firearm.
People’s imagination could lead to self-annihilation as well as the destruction of others. (Image: ShutterOK/Shutterstock)

Nature, he said, including human nature, is moderate; but the human mind need not be moderate. This is people’s glory and people’s tragedy, he thought. and people’s imagination is so fertile that they are prone to bouts of thought that can lead to self-annihilation and other-annihilation as well. 

People need to be reminded again and again that even though their mind is in some sense limitless, their bodies and their world are not; and they need to keep things under control in moderate ranges, not go to the extreme, because when they go to the extreme they annihilate themselves and they annihilate others.

The Tendency for Zealous Destructiveness

This self- and other-annihilation, this tendency humans have to a vehement, zealous destructiveness, horrifies and intrigues Montaigne. Why are people like this, he wonders? Most basically, he thinks, they are like this because they hate messiness; they hate their messiness, their muddiness, and they love purity, they love extremity, they love simple answers and final solutions. 

Humans are messy in a messy world, but they hate it. They want tidiness; they want things to be neat and orderly; they want things to be black or white, simple and straightforward. Many of them, he thinks, would rather castrate themselves or kill themselves, many of them would definitely kill others rather than accept the messiness of their world. 

In all this, Montaigne was the pioneer of a certain kind of moderation and a certain kind of skepticism about zealotry of any sort and extremism of any sort—political, religious, athletic—any kind of monomaniacal focus on anything was the kind of thing that Montaigne worried about. 

Learn more about Kant and evil at the root of human agency.

A portrait of French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord.
French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord was among Montaigne’s many admirers. (Image: Pierre-Paul Prud’hon/Public domain)

Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord

Others came after him and others are still working today, worrying in some ways that religious extremism, for example, is the philosophical and psychological source of a lot of the evils in the world; there’s clearly something to that. Perhaps Montaigne’s most famous and remarkable intellectual follower in this way was the famous French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand-Périgord. 

Talleyrand’s famous house motto, “sûrtout, pas trop de zèle”—“above all, not too much zeal”—is in some ways a perfect epitome of Montaigne’s view; and Talleyrand’s efforts throughout his life to create a stable European order in the midst of a revolutionary era would be exactly the sort of thing that Montaigne would have approved of.

Common Questions about Michel de Montaigne’s Essays

Q: What was the essay ‘Of Virtue’ about?

‘Of Virtue’ was one essay in Michel de Montaigne’s Essais. The subject of the essay was the influence of religious zealotry on people’s lives.

Q: What was the essay ‘Of Moderation’ about?

‘Of Moderation’, another of Michel de Montaigne’s essays in Essais, talked about moderation. People need to be able to control everything so that they don’t annihilate themselves or others.

Q: What human behavior worried Michel de Montaigne the most?

In his series of essays in Essais, Michel de Montaigne expressed his concern about any religious or non-religious extremism.

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