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Montaigne’s Perspective on Individualism

was one of the most influential authors of the French Renaissance and early modern periods in literature because of his beliefs in individualism.  The earliest period, “emphasized that early modern persons were subjects indelibly shaped by cultural forces” (Heller, 1986).   Montaigne, known as a Renaissance Pyrrhonists, believed that several forms of philosophy used by scholars were extreme.  He was a true believer in using one’s judgment and beliefs to handle life’s problems.  As a true humanist, he was also a firm believer of separation of church, state, and the individual.  Montaigne believed, “a mean between all or nothing and between the rash belief that one has the truth and despair that one can never attain it” (Heller, 1986).  He also was a firm believer in separating religious and philosophical beliefs.  He reflected his belief in a probability instead of a certainty.  Montaigne’s writing styles in Essays created one of the most important techniques in academic writing with his use of quotes from ancient and classical literature to provide his perspectives.  After publishing Essays, he would go on to revise it with further insight, thereby providing additional writing techniques still used in education today.  Analyzing Montaigne’s Essays helps readers understand the direct influence he had on society in changing from one reliant on society to one of individual self-discovery and personal growth.

Michal de Montaigne

Montaigne’s personal life experiences and philosophical beliefs were important elements of his work.  As a child born to wealthy French parents, he was given every opportunity for education and success.  At the age of 13, he began studying law and then began a long political career.  He would serve as mayor and in Parliament during his time in politics.  He also held a position as a courtier to King Charles IX until 1563.  It would be a request from his father to translate Theologia Naturalis by author Raymond Sebond that would set him on the path to becoming one of the most famous and influential authors of his time. 

Montaigne wrote from a philosophical point of view and helped to create a new genre by writing Essais (Essays).   It included,very personal and subjective reflections, and cover such different topics as religion, education, friendship, love, and freedom” (The European Graduate School, 2012).  His philosophical views were ever present in his writing as he explored the characteristics of human nature.  His work was a reflection of his individualism and self-knowledge.  Montaigne’s humanistic views helped to promote the ‘rebirth’ period of the early modern era.  He believed that a person could not control one’s thoughts or senses with certainty.  He also promoted respect for other cultures and beliefs.  Because of his beliefs, he was a realist that was ahead of his time.  Montaigne said,“I accept other people’s choice and stay in the position where God put me. Otherwise, I could not keep myself from rolling about incessantly. Thus I have, by the grace of God, kept myself intact, without agitation or disturbance of conscience, in the ancients beliefs of our religion, in the midst of so many sects and divisions that our century has produced” (as cited by The European Graduate School, 2012).

His words reflected his deep respect for his own religious beliefs as well as the religious beliefs of the past.  He also reminded those at war between the Catholics and Protestants that people should be more tolerant of each other’s beliefs to achieve a balanced life.  Certainly, his work was a collection of his thoughts and reflections during his lifetime.

Essays

Essays were a collection of thoughts about subjects that affected human nature.  As a philosopher, he wrote about many different and diverse subjects.  He also noted several times that he was the subject of his work.  His personal thoughts helped readers see him as a man instead of just an author.  His reflection on humanity’s shortcomings reflected a scholarly yet comical view on life.  He talked about his fears, weaknesses, and apprehensions.  He said of idleness, “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere” (as cited by Damrosch, Alliston, Brown, Dubois, Hafez, Heise, U. K., et al., 2008, p. 1520).  This quote showed his reflection on the importance of defining one’s destiny instead of society doing it.

He also wrote about the power of the imagination.  As an author, he probably had a great imagination as he was quite creative in his work.  He wrote, “A strong imagination creates the event, say the scholars” (as cited by Damrosch et al., 2008, p. 1520).  He liked to quote ancient and classical scholars as reflections of the past as he used his perspectives to represent the present.  Using both perspectives also helped him to speculate about the future.  Other personal reflections he made were about authors from the past as he provided his perspective on their views.  He talked of Virgil and his reference to the evil eye.  He said, “To me, magicians are poor authorities” (as cited by Damrosch et al., 2008, p. 1526).  He seemed to be making a statement about ancient and medieval religious beliefs on magic but with a modern perspective to Virgil’s words.   He also provided a personal reflection on other important authors like Ovid, showing the relation between the soul and body.  He believed that a mental illness could affect others just as a physical illness could.  Thereby showing the effects that mental illness could have on society.  Montaigne’s use of literary scholars like Ovid, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Virgil showed how views had evolved between the Ancient, Classical, Renaissance, and Early Modern eras.  He showed a deep respect for the cosmos within the chapter entitled Apologie de Raymond Sebond.  Montaigne disputed Sebond’s belief of separation of nature and god by using skepticism to argue his point.  He also compared pagan beliefs to modern religious beliefs.  His views allowed the individual to fully understand the relationship between God and man was possible without the church dictating the individual’s religious beliefs.

He was influenced by humanist writer and scholar Etienne de La Boëtie, Plutarch, and Sextus Empiricus, as well as other notable influences in his life and career.  Additionally, his references to authors like Plato and Virgil showed a deep respect for past teachings.  Montaigne would go on to be an inspiration to future authors like Pascal, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Flaubert.   His use of these scholars showed the relevance of citations used in academic essays today.  His roadmap for writing Essays has provided a venue for scholars throughout history to show their contributions to society.  More importantly, his desire to promote individualism through literature helps society today understand the value of an individual’s belief system.

Conclusion

Montaigne’s own words said it best.  He said, “Some urge me to write the events of my time, believing I see them less distorted by passion than another man’s…” (as cited by Damrosch et al., 2008, p. 1527).  His experiences shaped not only his generation but future generations, as well.  His writing style created an academic writing technique still in use today.  His genuine interest in human nature also helped to document the beginning of the individual movement that would give freedom to evolve through a process of self-discovery, knowledge, and personal growth without the interference from society.  Montaigne was instrumental in promoting that movement by showing the importance of self-reflection and relevance within one’s own life.

References
Damrosch, D., Alliston, A., Brown, M., Dubois, P., Hafez, S., Heise, U. K., et al. (2008). The Longman anthology of world literature: Compact edition. New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
Heller, T. C., & Brooke-Rose, C. (Eds.). (1986). Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, individuality, and the self in Western thought. Stanford University Press.
The European Graduate School.  (c. 2012).  Michel Eyquem de Montaigne – Biography.  Retrieved from website http://www.egs.edu/library/michel-de-montaigne/biography/.
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