Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
— Lire les Essais dans une édition du seizième siècle (Tips for reading an original edition of the Essais)
Que sçay-je?: Montaigne and the essai
Que sçay-je? (“What do I know?”) was Montaigne’s motto, and he chose the image of the balance (scale) to represent his effort to weigh knowledge against his personal experience. The scale is in constant motion, and movement therefore characterizes his ongoing attempt to express the self, ondoyant et divers, in writing.
Montaigne was the first to use the term “essay” to refer to a short discussion of a topic in prose. In Renaissance France, an essai indicated a “trial” or an “attempt”; the verb essayer meant apprendre, connaître par expérience, éprouver (to learn, to learn from experience, to try out or undergo). Montaigne intended to use this short prose form to try out, or weigh, his own views on life and to attempt to learn more about himself, while sharing his experiences with others in the process.
from p. 203, Livre Troisiesme, “De l’Experience"
Montaigne covers a wide range of topics, each of which is illustrated with anecdotes, proverbs, sayings and quotations from classical authors in his library. His essays interweave the philosophical and the personal, and each in some way conveys Montaigne’s own experience, often reflecting his desire to know and express the constantly changing self. Montaigne’s essays exhibit a rambling rather than a fixed formal style, choosing to follow the workings of the human mind rather than the traditional rules of rhetoric.
In the search for answers to his central question, Que sçay-je?, Montaigne discovers that reason alone cannot bring him to the truth. Despite the limits of man’s reason, however, Montaigne ultimately expresses faith in the human condition and underscores the need to seek to know oneself, however difficult the journey. For Montaigne, happiness is only possible through personal experience and self-knowledge, by finding the balance between knowledge and living.
from p. 193, Livre Troisiesme, "De l'Experience"
Montaigne believed his search for self-knowledge was representative of the universal human condition. He chose to publish his Essais to serve as a reflection of the human condition, rather than to paint an ideal or exemplary figure.
Montaigne’s Essais knew immediate success in France, following the publication of the first edition (2 volumes) in 1580. Click on the link below to read the text of contemporary accounts of Montaigne and his work in the Bibliothèques of Antoine du Verdier and La Croix du Maine, published after the first edition of the Essais, and before the second.
"Des Cannibales" (livre premier, chapitre XXX)
In chapter 30 of the first book, Montaigne questions what he and his fellow Frenchmen know in the light of contemporary accounts of cannibalism in the New World. The Gordon Collection includes the published travel narratives of Jean de Léry and André Thevet that both include firsthand accounts of the New World cannibalism that inspired Montaigne’s essay.
Société des Amis de Montaigne: Includes information on Montaigne’s life, the “sentences” in his library, the Bordeaux Copy of the Essais, a bibliography of recent scholarly publications about the Essais, as well as a comprehensive list of links to websites pertaining to Montaigne.
Ebauche de Bibliographie sur le Livre III des Essais, par André Tournon: Extensive bibliography of studies pertaining to the Essais, and to Book III in particular.
Montaigne Studies (U. of Chicago): Includes a portrait gallery, an article on the reproduction of the Bordeaux copy, a complete transcription of the Villey-Saulnier edition of the Essais, with a selection of corresponding high-quality image files from the Bordeaux Copy.
Trismegiste: Complete html transcription of the 1595 edition of the Essais.
Gallica: 20 different editions of the Essais and related works, available to download in pdf files from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Portail Multimédia de Renaissance-France.org: Listen to sound recordings of excerpts from a selection of essays. http://www.renaissance-france.org/multimedia/pages/presmontaigne.html
—Karen James, University of Virginia (2004)