Michel Montaigne, seigneur de, a French author, born at the chateau of Montaigne, in Perigord, Feb. 28, 1533, died there, Sept. 13, 1592. His father was an eccentric feudal baron. The young Montaigne was in his infancy placed under a German tutor, who could not speak French and was directed to confer with his pupil only in the classical tongues. The entire household and even the artisans and peasants of the village learned Latin phrases in order to address the youthful lord. At the age of six he was able to converse in Latin with ease, and his study of Greek had been transformed into a game, which however he never mastered. He was sent to the college of Guienne at Bordeaux, and at 13 completed the academical course. Love of liberty and laziness were, he says, his predominating qualities through life. He never looked over his accounts nor revised his manuscripts; wrote so badly that often he could not read his own hand; never touched a book except when he was weary of doing nothing; had an amazing ignorance of common things, which seemed the greater in consequence of his defective memory; could not remember the names of his servants nor of the current coins; would read a book as new which he had scribbled over with notes a year before; would forget his idea while on the way to the library to record it; knew nothing about the agricultural implements, processes, and products amid which he grew up; and could not swim, fence, carve, guess a riddle, saddle a horse, nor make a pen.
He confesses that the only books of solid learning he could ever seriously devote himself to were Plutarch and Seneca. After quitting the college of Guienne he began the study of law, and at the age of 21 became a counsellor in the parliament of Bordeaux, an office from which he retired in 1570. There began his friendship with Etienne de la Boetie, whom he had loved before meeting him, whose early death he laments in one of the finest of his essays, and whose works he edited. He was inclined to an easy neutrality amid the religious and political conflicts of the time; made frequent visits to court, where he was intimate under successive monarchs; married at the age of 33; and at the age of 38 retired to his chateau. He soon after began the composition of his Essais; the first edition appeared in 1580, and the work was several times enlarged during his life. At his death he left two copies of the edition of 1588 full of corrections and additions, which were incorporated in the work by Mile, de Gournay and subsequent editors.
Suffering from the stone and nephritic colic, he sought relief by travel, and in 1580-'81 visited Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. The journal of his tour was discovered and published at Paris in 1774, after being entombed for nearly two centuries in the family chest in the chateau of Montaigne. The humors of a valetudinarian seem to have chiefly engrossed his attention. He gauges civilization by the resources and the art of the kitchen. He passes through the scenes of classical antiquity with scarcely a reference to any Roman author. His vanity appears in his detailed accounts of attentions received from the great, and in his delusion of the burgomaster of Augsburg into the belief that he and his suite were a company of knights and barons. Some of his descriptions, especially of what he saw in Rome, are made with curious felicity. On his return he was elected mayor of Bordeaux, which office he held for four years, maintaining peace in a time of disorder; and after retiring to his domain in the very focus of civil war, he refused to fortify his house, leaving it "to the stars to guard," and afterward boasted that his bold frankness had conjured away all dangers from it.
In 1588, while in Paris superintending the publication of his Essais, he was employed to mediate between Henry of Navarre, afterward Henry IV.. and the duke of Guise. He left no sons, and by his will authorized Charron to assume his family arms. His Essais, to which alone he owes his reputation, profess to have been purely a work of amusement. Informal and irregular, they offer the first modern examples of essays or attempts in distinction from finished works. In an age of pedants, Montaigne appeared as the antagonist of literary conventionalism, and defied the pretensions of erudition. His sagacious treatment of every-day life, rich and vigorous language, easy and indulgent gayety, genial egotism, and minute confessions, are among the charms of his work. He employed the language of Christianity, and both Catholics and Protestants have claimed his sympathies; yet a practical heathenism pervades his philosophy. He was a kind of imperfect Socrates, the cross-examiner of his generation, taking nothing on trust, and hating pretence, yet too careless and selfish, and not pure and thorough enough, to give his ideas effect.
A monument to him was inaugurated in Bordeaux, Sept. 6, 1858. - The latest editions of the Essais are one containing notes of all the commentators, collected by J. V. Le Clerc, with a preface by Prevost-Paradol (2 vols. 8vo, Paris, 1865); one by Courbet and Royer in Lemerre's new collection of great writers (1872 et seq.); and one reprinted from the edition of 1588 with annotations by H. Motheau and D. Jouaust (4 vols., 1874-15). See also Documents inedits sur Montaigne, by Pay en (4 vols., 1847-56), and Etudes sur les Essais de Montaigne, by Alphonse Leveaux (1873). They were several times translated into English, and very frequently reprinted, in the 17th and 18th centuries. A copy of Florio's translation (1603), the only book known to have been owned by Shakespeare, is in the British museum with his autograph. One of the best biographies of Montaigne is by Bayle St. John (London, 1857).