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Montaigne also had the unteachable, the really quite unexplainable gift of being absolutely a man of his time who, four centuries later, reads pertinently as a man of ours. Among these are the high valuation he placed on what is individual, private, original, and different.
He is himself the most digressive of writers, always ready to tell a story, often from the chronicles of ancient history which he loved—usually to illustrate a point but sometimes, too, just because he thinks it a good story.
In his essays he found the form that best fit the shape of his own mind.
Montaigne not only believed in the importance of knowing himself but thought there was scarcely anything better, or even else, worth knowing.
“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero,” he writes in his essay “On Experience,” and in “On Physiognomy” he writes, “I am wandering off the point when I write about anything else, cheating my subject of me.” But the more important point is that he made of the study of himself an epistemology: from knowledge of himself, he believed, all other knowledge flowed.
The American critic Van Wyck Brooks once defined literature as “a great man writing.” The definition fits Montaigne exquisitely.
But then Montaigne was himself exquisitely well fitted—by birth, by temperament, by talent—for the kind of writing he did.Little is known about Montaigne’s adolescence and early manhood. He married in 1565, and he and his wife subsequently lost all but one of their children, a daughter Léonor.After the death of his father in 1568, Michel became head of his family and lord over its estates.In his excellent biography of Montaigne, the late Donald Frame remarks that most attempts to explain Montaigne’s mind and temper by the 25 percent of Jewish blood that ran in his veins have been properly cautious, as is Frame’s own: Probably attributable to it in some measure are his deep tolerance in an age when that was not in fashion; a rather detached attitude, typical of the Marranos and natural in them, toward the religion he consistently and very conscientiously practiced [Roman Catholicism]; his tireless curiosity, mainly but not solely intellectual; the cosmopolitanism natural to the member of a far-flung family., Montaigne makes only one, insignificant, mention of his mother, while he often refers to Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne, more than once as “the best of all fathers.” Montaigne was indeed fortunate in his father, who though not learned himself had great regard for learning, who had served as mayor of Bordeaux, and who took great care with his eldest son Michel’s education (Montaigne had four brothers and three sisters). Montaigne’s first tutor was a German who spoke Latin but no French, and so the boy was brought up speaking Latin exclusively until the age of six (his parents and household servants acquired enough Latin to converse with him).Complying with a wish of his father’s, he translated Raymond Sebond’s lengthy He would later, between 15, serve as mayor of Bordeaux, as his father had done before him, and his mature years were spent with his country riven by civil war over the Reformation.It is almost as if Montaigne had acquired just enough experience out of which to write, yet not so much as to despise the role of somewhat distanced observer that is central to the act of writing.“I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing else but myself.” That is not quite true; he talks about a great deal else in the Yet there was something to what he said when he added: “I study myself more than any other subject.That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” Inscribed on the tympanum of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the legend, “Know Thyself.” This was the project Montaigne set to work on when in 1570, at the age of thirty-seven, he retired from public life to the tower on his estate in Gascony in which he kept his library of a thousand or so books._____________ Born in 1533 at his family’s chateau between Bordeaux and Périgord, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was, on his father’s side, the son of a long line of successful merchants who only four generations earlier had purchased their title of nobility and with it the name Montaigne.His mother’s was a family of Spanish Jews (named Louppes or Lopez), with connections in Antwerp, who had outwardly accepted Christianity without ever fully dispelling the suspicions of their neighbors.