Michel de Montaigne was a man of wit and talent. With his invention of the essay, de Montaigne opened a door of opportunity to express freedom in writing an individual’s personal thoughts in a variety of topics. He even inspired other famous philosophers and writers like William Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friedrich Nietzsche. (Hartle).
Unlike many famous writers, de Montaigne was born into a wealthy family in Southwest France. Much of his humanist ideals were influenced by his father and a peasant family, who he have spent his toddler years with. After his father’s death in 1568, he returned to his family and served in the legal courts. He didn’t stay there for too long, so he devoted much of his life into writing (Starobinsk).
“Essays”, which was published into three volumes, was probably one of literature’s most celebrated and most influential masterpieces ever written throughout history. In these three compilations, he discussed a wide range of issues like difference in cultures (in “Of Cannibals”), skepticism about religion (in “An Apology for Raymond Sebond”) and ideologies on politics (in “Friendship”, his first essay). Joseph Epstein praised de Montaigne for he had put “put the capital I, the first person, into literature, and while he was at it also invented the essay.” Another critic, Hope H. Glidden also expressed his thoughts on de Montaigne’s strategy “that the man and his words are not one … the face of Montaigne is laid bare but its very openness cannot be taken at face value.” (Starobinsk)
A great number of critics have unanimously agreed that de Montaigne’s development of the personal essay is “one of the landmarks of the progress of humanism and renaissance ideals”. Through his intellectual frankness, de Montaigne’s goal was to describe man (Hartle).
Michel de Montaigne’s development of the “personal essay” is considered as a major contribution to humanism because he was able to transcend the bounds of culture and touch base on the basics of being human. At a time where European ethnocentrism and conquests was at its height, Montaigne was actually a voice in the wilderness that often criticizes European cultural superiority and the tendency for discrimination (Starobinsk).
At a time when religion was persecuting those who were contrary to its beliefs, Montaigne went beyond religion and was able to see humanity beyond his creed or color. During the Dark Ages where religious toleration was impossible and non Christians were considered pagans and heathens, Montaigne argued for the humanity of the non-Christians (Starobinsk).
If only the Europeans took to heart the message of Montaigne’s essay on “Cannibals” then it would have saved the hundreds of thousands of American Indians killed in an ethnocidal war by Custer and the “cowboys”. No one ever listened to him because he was far ahead of his time when he stressed that the people with different cultures and beliefs are human too and they deserve to be treated with respect. Thus he advocated for a deep respect for humanity and understood the concept of cultural relativism when European ethnocentrism was at its height. In inventing the essay and putting the first person “I” into literature, he was actually laying bare his own humanity. If only people were to listen to others on a first person basis and really see the other as he or she really is, then people would realize that beyond differences of color, or creed, or culture, or religions, or ideology, all of us are human beings who have the same needs and hurts and longings. All of us have the capacity to discern, to think, and to love. We all have the same dreams for a better life and for good relationships. We all have and love our families. This is actually the basis for evolving a new planetary consciousness based on humanistic principles.
When Montaigne says that “each man calls barbarian whatever is not of his practice”, he is actually exposing the tendency of culture to discriminate others who are not part of their culture. It is ironic that in the age which we call renaissance and humanism, it was also the age of conquering other cultures. This can be illustrated in the story of Pocahontas where John Smith considered Pocahontas as uncivilized when it was actually the greed of the Virginia company that made them more barbaric than the group of Pocahontas. In our commercialized culture we look at trees as commodities that need to be cut down and converted into cash while Pocahontas’ culture was looking at trees with wonder and spiritual delight while asking, “How high does the sycamore grow?” When Europeans were scouring the earth for gold, the gold of the Indians was the corn kernel which provides life and bounty for the whole community.
I am reminded of the fictional and anecdotal conversation between the US General and the Cannibal. The General said that the cannibal is barbaric and disgusting for eating humans. The cannibal said that the general is more disgusting and even wasteful. This is because he is killing thousands and yet does not eat any of them.
In our age and time, who is actually more barbaric? We produce nuclear armaments enough to destroy ten planets the size of the earth and spent trillions on war while millions starve to death. We can build artificial shelters in the moon and yet leave our neighbour in a state of hunger. Montaigne was able to show actually show us the limitations of our own biases to the point of being inhuman ourselves. It is high time the world now listens to him before it is too late.
Hartle, Ann. Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Kritzman, Lawrence D. The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne’s Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown Charlottesville: . University of Virginia Press, 2005.
Starobinsk, Jean. Montaigne in Motion. University of Chicago Press, 2009.