Home  »  Literary and Philosophical Essays  »  Introductory Note

Literary and Philosophical Essays.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Introductory Note

MICHEL EYQUEM DE MONTAIGNE, the founder of the modern Essay, was born February 28, 1533, at the chateau of Montaigne in Perigord. He came of a family of wealthy merchants of Bordeaux, and was educated at the College de Guyenne, where he had among his teachers the great Scottish Latinist, George Buchanan. Later he studied law, and held various public offices; but at the age of thirty-eight he retired to his estates, where he lived apart from the civil wars of the time, and devoted himself to study and thought. While he was travelling in Germany and Italy, in 1580–81, he was elected mayor of Bordeaux, and this office he filled for four years. He married in 1565, and had six daughters, only one of whom grew up. The first two books of his “Essays” appeared in 1580; the third in 1588; and four years later he died.

These are the main external facts of Montaigne’s life; of the man himself the portrait is to be found in his book. “It is myself I portray,” he declares; and there is nowhere in literature a volume of self-revelation surpassing his in charm and candor. He is frankly egotistical, yet modest and unpretentious; profoundly wise, yet constantly protesting his ignorance; learned, yet careless, forgetful, and inconsistent. His themes are as wide and varied as his observation of human life, and he has written the finest eulogy of friendship the world has known. Bacon, who knew his book and borrowed from it, wrote on the same subject; and the contrast of the essays is the true reflection of the contrast between the personalities of their authors.

Shortly after Montaigne’s death the “Essays” were translated into English by John Florio, with less than exact accuracy, but in a style so full of the flavor of the age that we still read Montaigne in the version which Shakespeare knew. The group of examples here printed exhibits the author in a variety of moods, easy, serious, and in the essay on “Friendship,” as nearly impassioned as his philosophy ever allowed him to become.