The Genre and Themes in Montaigne’s ‘Essais’


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.University of Virginia

Michel de Montaigne and Blaise Pascal were profoundly private writers, both focused on anatomizing the weather of their own souls and apparently indifferent to the vast geopolitical scale that the resolutely public writers Hobbes and Machiavelli wrote at. Their apparent indifference to these larger themes was more of a mask than a reality, but nonetheless, at least on their surface, they’re quite different in that way.

An image of the castle where Montaigne lived and died.
Michel de Montaigne lived in near-isolation for 10 years before publishing the first edition of Essais. (Image: Louka79, CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Montaigne and Pascal: Similarities and Differences

Most centrally, Montaigne and Pascal debate the complicated and intricate connections between religious belief, the self, and the self’s performance of its beliefs in the world. For both Montaigne and Pascal, the main question is about the dangers of zealotry, serious religious belief (as it is for Montaigne), or the dangers of the lack of zealotry (as it is for Pascal).

The questions they both ask are of an interior, personal, and brooding nature, and there are some powerful resonances between them. They never met, of course, but Pascal was an enormous admirer of Montaigne’s writing; he disagreed with him profoundly, but nonetheless understood what he was about and took him on his own terms, in a very interesting way. 

For both of them lived in a world that was not so much politically turbulent but more religiously pluralistic. Their France was more religiously pluralistic than it would be until maybe today. France in the late 16th/early 17th century was one of the main areas where Protestants and Catholics tried to get along. And among the people who tried to help them get along, Michel de Montaigne is one of the greatest.

A Medieval illustration of some peasants working on a farm.
Montaigne was sent to live with a peasant family immediately after his birth. (Image: Simon Bening/Public domain)

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Montaigne: Early Years

Montaigne lived in an age of hyper-zealotry, though he did not himself share in that zealotry. He was born in 1533 to a very wealthy merchant family that had sort of bought into the French nobility. 

Immediately after his birth, he was sent by his father to live with a peasant family, where he lived until he was three years old. His father wanted to make him acclimated to peasant life, to make him appreciate peasant life.

Then he was brought back to his father’s house, where he was raised by his father entirely in Latin and Greek; his father never spoke French to him; in fact, even the servants were required to speak only Latin to him.

Consequences of the Death of Montaigne’s Friend 

When Montaigne was 30, suddenly, without any expectation, his closest friend, Etienne de la Boétie, died. It was devastating for Montaigne, who thought of Boétie as a second self. He never fully recovered his public presence. He married soon after his friend’s death. Then, in 1571 at the age of 38, after slowly over the course of several years extricating himself from public affairs, he retired fully from public life, literally locking himself in a tower on his estate, out of which he emerged, even for his family, only very rarely, and even then only with the greatest reluctance. 

After almost 10 years of near-total isolation, he published the first edition of his book Essais. Paradoxically, for so determined a recluse, the Essais by Montaigne is the first work of genuinely revelatory exploration of a private self written for public reading. This is a guy who basically spent 10 years locked in a tower on his own with books and paper, and what did he do in those 10 years? He produced a book that is all about his inner life. 

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The Themes in Essais

Montaigne’s work takes up remarkably contemporary topics like religious extremism and terrorism. Much like Machiavelli, he saw himself as a realist who sees what is. But he was much more of a self-focused realist, a miniaturist of the soul, than Machiavelli ever was. 

One theme that emerges throughout the Essais is the tension between the vehemence of one’s beliefs and the reality of the world’s apparent indifference to those beliefs and the way that those vehement beliefs can lead to horrific suffering on the part of others. In thinking about how he made this argument, people have to understand something of the genre in which he was writing. He wrote essays; in fact, he’s really the first person to use this phrase and to write in this genre. 

These are not treatises like Hobbes or a brief programmatic book like Machiavelli’s Prince. Essays are truly efforts whose profundity and whose ultimate punch is really actually masked, at first anyway, by an apparent casualness, an easiness of flitting from one topic to another. 

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How Essais Teaches People How to Live

People are led through some complicated and quite profound matters by feeling like they’re in the midst of a loose and wandering conversation. Montaigne, in fact, used the term ‘essays’—in French, it means ‘attempts’ or ‘efforts’—and effectively remains one of the greatest masters of the genre.

An illustration of a man with an eye band with the word 'Zealotry' written on it.
Montaigne lived in an era of ‘hyper-zealotry’. (Image: GoodIdeas/Shutterstock)

In fact, his style matters very much to the point he’s trying to make. Attention to the banalities of everyday life, the accretion of experience, attention to the details of how people dress every morning, what they wear, how they walk, and when they start walking, do they start with their right foot or their left foot? When they scratch their head, how hard do they scratch? These are the sorts of things that Montaigne talks about.

Attention to these banalities, Montaigne thinks, teaches people much; much more, in fact, than attention to abstract dogmas or doctrines of philosophical theories because through these banalities, people will discover how they actually behave, and that was crucial for him. Essays are focused on the ordinary aspects of people’s lives, and they can track this behavior very well.

Common Questions about the Genres and Themes in Montaigne’s Essais

Q: Who was Michel de Montaigne?

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 to a very wealthy merchant family. Montaigne’s book Essais, which he wrote as a recluse, is the first work of genuinely revelatory exploration of a private self written for public reading.

Q: What were the genre and themes of Essais?

Michel de Montaigne wrote essays; in fact, he was really the first person to write in this genre. One of the most important themes in this book was the tension between beliefs and the world’s indifference to those beliefs, which at times could lead to people suffering.

Q: What did Essais teach people?

In Essais, Michel de Montaigne examines people’s lives in a typical and ordinary way.  This book teaches people how to behave on a daily basis.

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